Last week, I discussed the 1940s as a stellar decade for novels. This week, I’ll jump back a century to perhaps an even more stellar literary period: the 1840s. The Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Alexandre Dumas, Honore de Balzac, Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Nikolai Gogol, early Fyodor Dostoevsky…
The novel as a medium truly came into its own in the 1840s — no previous decade had such a large and varied array of what would become fiction classics.
Let’s start with the astonishing two-year run by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. Charlotte’s 1847 Jane Eyre — my favorite novel — is of course the gripping story of an independent-minded orphan who becomes a governess and falls mutually in love with her employer Edward Rochester. Published later that same year was Emily’s Wuthering Heights — a highly original and tempestuous tale of romance, obsession, and cruelty. Following in 1848 was Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the compelling early feminist novel chronicling a woman’s escape from a bad marriage. Anne (Agnes Grey/1847) and Charlotte (Shirley/1849) also wrote other, not-as-memorable novels in that decade.
(Pictured above are Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 Wuthering Heights movie.)
For Charles Dickens, the 1840s was his most productive decade — churning out one absorbing novel after another — even as several of his most-admired books (including A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) would come later. My Dickens favorites from the ’40s include The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), A Christmas Carol (1843), Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), and Dombey and Son (1848).
Another English author, Willam Thackeray, wrote 1848’s Vanity Fair — starring the smart, witty, manipulative, unforgettable Becky Sharp.
Over in France, Alexandre Dumas blazed through the 1840s with novels such as his highly entertaining The Three Musketeers and the riveting revenge saga The Count of Monte Cristo. Both books were finished in 1844 — how’s that for an authorial year? There was also his less-known-but-great Georges (1843), the one Dumas novel that reflected the author’s part-African heritage; and Twenty Years After (1845), the satisfying first sequel to The Three Musketeers.
Another French author, Balzac, penned most of his best novels in the 1830s, but the excellent Cousin Bette and The Black Sheep came out in 1846 and 1842, respectively.
Over in the U.S., Herman Melville wrote several very good semi-autobiographical sea novels in the 1840s before authoring 1851’s extremely good Moby-Dick. They included Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Redburn (1849).
Two of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” quintet came out early in that decade: The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841). Cooper did not write the five novels chronologically; for instance, The Deerslayer — which I think is the best of the series — is set from 1740 to 1755 while the previously written The Last of the Mohicans (1826) takes place later (in 1757).
In Russia, Nikolai Gogol’s eye-opening Dead Souls came out in 1842. Fyodor Dostoevsky started his novel-writing career with 1846’s Poor Folk; the masterpieces Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) would arrive quite a few years later. I haven’t yet read Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1840).
Don’t worry, next week’s post won’t focus on the 1740s — though Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Joseph Andrews (1742) were pretty darn good. 🙂
Your favorite novels of the 1840s?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about the election and more — is here.