I don’t read as many old novels — pre-1900 ones — as I used to. Not that I still don’t love lots of long-ago books. A number of my very favorite novels are 19th-century ones: Jane Eyre, Crime and Punishment, Daniel Deronda, Moby-Dick, Germinal, Persuasion, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Woman in White, The Portrait of a Lady, The Last Man, etc., etc. But I’ve already read many old novels (though far from all) I’ve wanted to read, and no more old novels can be produced because it’s…um…no longer pre-1900. Whereas, from what I hear, new books are continually being published.
That said, I still like to read pre-1900 novels once in a while. It can be such a pleasure, partly because those books chronicle a significantly different time in terms of culture, societal norms, and so on — though human emotions were of course pretty similar. Plus the writing itself back then tended to be different than modern fiction writing: novels were often longer, often took their time letting the plot unfold, often had richer prose, and often were more descriptive. Heck, they had to be — it made sense to minutely describe places and vistas most readers of that time never visited and obviously couldn’t google in pre-airplane, pre-digital days. On the negative side, sometimes the prose got TOO wordy and convoluted, and pre-1900 was sadly a more patriarchal, more racist time — though things today are hardly hunky-dory.
Anyway, this is a long way of arriving at the fact that I’m currently reading and enjoying a 1869 novel: Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore. The sprawling tale by an author with a sprawling name is by no means my favorite 19th-century work of fiction, but it’s pretty darn good as it tells the story of young John Ridd’s love for Lorna — an exemplary person living amid the Doone clan of mostly criminal types who had killed John’s father. Plenty of political machinations and other stuff also go on in the book, which is set in the latter 1600s but is recounted many years later by an elderly Ridd. (He and Lorna are pictured atop this blog post in one of the screen adaptations of Blackmore’s novel, which of course also inspired the name of a cookie introduced in 1912.)
John is a bit unusual as a narrator. Not especially smart, which he often humbly admits as he recounts his life in the novel, but possessing plenty of common sense and courage and decency. Plus his descriptions of nature — John works on and oversees his family’s farm in England — are exquisite and partly explain the book’s typical-of-the-19th-century length: 646 pages of small type. I have a couple-hundred pages to go.
Blackmore died exactly in 1900 — my arbitrary dividing line between older and newer novels.
Are you someone who likes to occasionally read pre-1900 novels? Why or why not?
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 — which includes more on my school district’s unfortunate lawsuit against the local teachers union — is here.