In Praise of Pre-19th-Century Literature

This is an edited and updated version of a post I wrote in 2013:

The novel “came of age” in the 1800s, but that of course doesn’t mean there weren’t excellent literary works before then.

Among fictionโ€™s memorable quite-old titles is The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe’s 1774 novel — about a sensitive, self-involved guy pining after an unattainable woman — is surprising in certain ways. Some of the best 18th-century novels are long and kind of clunky, but Werther is short, smoothly written, and seemingly simple while packing a lot of wisdom per square inch.

And Goethe wrote Werther at the quite-young age of 24!

Other quite readable 18th-century novels include Voltaire’s incandescent Candide (1759) and Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Both are satirical works and adventure stories, meaning a reader can of course enjoy them on one or both levels.

Also quite readable is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Not surprising given how compelling the tale of a shipwrecked character can be.

Defoe, with Moll Flanders (1722), also proved that 18th-century novels can be satisfying despite prose that might be rather long-winded, plots that might be a bit creaky, and/or narrative that might be kind of awkward. I also put in this category Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (which, like much of Werther, is in the form of letters) and Henry Fielding’s somewhat choppy but very entertaining Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. Those three books are from 1740, 1742, and 1749, respectively.

Also humorous is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), but, for whatever reason, I found parts of it rather tedious.

Another book I liked a lot was Fanny Burney’s excellent 1778 novel Evelina about a memorable young woman. (The memorable Burney’s portrait is on top of this post.)

And I shouldn’t forget to mention Miguel de Cervantes’ earlier Don Quixote (1605-1615), which many consider the first modern novel. It’s deep, engaging, and often comic.

Then there’s Murasaki Shikibuโ€™s 1,000-year-old novel The Tale of Genji, which ranges from interesting to somewhat boring.

Some pre-19th-century writers of course excelled at plays and/or poetry. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Moliere, to name a few.

Great pre-1800s literature is interesting for reasons besides the quality of the work itself. We see the roots of — and influences on — later fiction. We also get a fascinating sense of long-ago life. And we feel gratitude that more recent fiction is no longer mostly written by a bunch of white guys. ๐Ÿ™‚

What are your favorite literary works from before the 19th century?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about July 4th and more — is here.

121 thoughts on “In Praise of Pre-19th-Century Literature

  1. I’m with you on the “fascinating sense of long-ago life.” In fact, in general, if consciously and comparatively undertaken, for the purposes of a poet (myself), well researched historical and cultural fiction has it over nonfiction by miles.

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    • Thank you, Ana! I totally agree — when it comes to the depicting of long-ago life, fictional works doing that make things more vivid and visceral than nonfiction books doing that. More of the human element, I guess, for one thing.

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  2. Some great novels mentioned here, and I have read 2.
    Dave, remember me telling you about my mom’s closet, where she hid books I was NOT supposed to read?
    One of those books was “Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”. Originally titled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland.

    Sssizzzle, whew, that can happen… how does that go again?
    Her what?

    Well, I was all of 15. It was my coming of age book. I read it several times, and loaned it to all my girl friends.
    Mom found it and called me to the closet. The book looked like rats had been chewing it.
    “Have you been reading the books in this closet?”
    “No! ” I lied.

    On a more wholesome note, does “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” by Poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge count?
    It’s as long as a short book. I think it should count.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Resa! I enjoyed your vivid comment very much!

      “Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” must have been quite a revelation to 18th-century readers, and quite something for teens such as you and your friends to read more than 200 years later. Great mention of your mom’s closet, the book getting chewed up, etc. I laughed out loud. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s late 1790s work counts!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fanny Hill, as I recall would be racy today.
        Yes, it must have been outrageous 200 years ago! Still, it survived to be a classic, of sorts.
        I find it piquing that it was written by a man. Or was it?
        I guess we will never know.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I noticed the (supposed) male authorship, too. Unfortunate if true, but them’s were the times, I suppose. If a woman wrote it, that scenario would be repeated in a way in 1900 when Colette’s husband’s name initially appeared on her hilarious debut novel “Claudine at School” before that was eventually remedied.

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          • Women have come a long way, and it’s taken all of man’s time to get here.
            Crazy to think we’ve only been able to vote for 100 years.
            Still, it feels like shaky ground.
            As for Fanny, it seemed like a woman’s voice, but I’m going from memory. After 200 years, we’ll never know.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, it’s sobering how recent some women’s rights are, and of course there’s been more than a little backsliding going on in 2022. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

              “Claudine at School” is an extremely entertaining read, and there are some LGBTQ elements — unusual for a novel of that era.

              Speaking of women’s voices, when Charles Dickens read George Eliot’s first novel “Adam Bede” he thought a woman had written it despite the author’s male pen name. He was of course right.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Yes, backsliding. It’s quite scary.
                How far does backwards go?

                I like Dickens’ novels. He was a great social exposer of his times.
                I think the books of an author of Dickens’ talent and intent in today’s times would be banned!
                “A Tale of Two Cities” is one of the greatest love stories ever. Also, what a fab way to learn history. Same goes for “Romeo and Juliette”.

                Liked by 1 person

                • “How far does backwards go?” — a frightening question. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

                  Yes, Dickens was an amazing writer with a social conscience, albeit a rather flawed person in certain ways. Today’s far right would indeed like to ban some of his work because it just doesn’t like economic inequity depicted.

                  And I totally agree that literary works can be a great and enjoyable way of learning history!

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  3. Dave Jane Austen passed 1817 at age 41 , 18th July !
    In that short time period She wrote six major Novels, that was some achievement.. Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816).and more.
    She wrote and published anonymously , with very little fame, I find that unbelievable.

    Now so many of us read almost all her Novels., later made into movies .
    Maily Pride and Prejudice, a major motion picture and before that PBS several parts mini series, after which Colin Firth became a major movie star and household name.
    Still almost every year PBS shows that mini series.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Bebe! Jane Austen’s life and career are quite a story, and I’ve read that she started a couple of her great novels in the 1790s — meaning she’s a pre-19th-century author in a way. I really enjoyed all of her six novels, but I must confess I’ve never seen even one screen adaptation of Austen’s work!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve read several ancient Greek tragedies, one thing that I noticed about them was that some of their strongest characters were female. In a society where women had a rather low social status, it seems unusual that the Greek tragedians could create such strong, complex, if not always sympathetic female protagonists such as Sophocles’ Antigone or Euripides’ Medea.

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  5. In Herculaneum, early on after rediscovery, antiquarians came upon a buried villa they named the House of the Papyrii, and over the next centuries, several attempts were made to read the many scrolls they found shelved inside. These would be, if decipherable, the only extant Roman scrolls that survived into the modern era. and scholars hoped there would be, among them lost works by historians, essayists, playwrights and poets of Rome, and some hoped, even ancient Greece. With great difficulty, a few scrolls, carbonized and brittle were prized open– and mostly, fell apart.

    A few snatches of text were eventually deciphered, but mostly, the scrolls were divided among various collections, awaiting the happy day in which modern methods might successfully reveal what lay hidden within. Some years ago, modern methods did succeed in revealing text, without physically attempting to pull the rolls in their care apart, and revealed at last what were mostly writings of an obscure, and not particularly insightful follower of Epicurus. There are plenty of other scrolls remaining to be analyzed, so perhaps there’s yet a bit or more of precious Classical literature among them.

    But, of all the authors of the ancient world, one has never lacked for readers nor for faithful copies of his text: Ovid of Nasso, author of “The Metamorphoses”. Monks throughout the Dark Ages read him and copied him, laboriously by hand a letter at a time, passing the tales of the gods’ caprices among men among themselves throughout Christianity. There are dozens of transcriptions of Ovid from this period and beyond.

    An early, if not the first complete translation into poetic English meter was made by “Arthur Golding, Gentleman”, who published his work in 1567, thereby earning its modern subtitle. ‘Shakespeare’s Ovid’, an accurate appellation, as The Bard had no Latin. The copy I’ve read is largely unmodernized, an edition put out by HD Rouse in 1904, containing some few corrections and all Golding’s notes, but otherwise a challenge to a modern reader, given ancient and changing spellings, obscure words, antiquated phrasings, etc, but no so rough a read as I anticipated when I began, once I determined to sound out everything as I read aloud.

    Having previously acquainted myself with Ovid via Rolf Humphries’ translation, I was not on entirely unfamiliar ground, but I augmented Golding with the newer Melville translation put out by Oxford. Between the two, I was able to get through each book. The Golding is a sort of rough-hewn revelation, more earthy, more sensual, more colorful than its modern counterparts– very much a product of the Elizabethan period. I would recommend Ovid in modern translation to all interested readers, but more so, Mr. Golding’s, for all its exuberant and clumsy beauty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! So interesting what you describe. If only those ancient scrolls were more readable, but age is what it is. A shame what was readable so far was not an A-list writer; bad luck. As for Ovid — a rock star of sorts, I guess. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  6. HI Dave, I have read some, but not all, of the books you mentioned in your post. Others I have read that were published pre-1800 (and are not on your list) are A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe in 1722; Canterbury Tales by Chaucer (written during 1374 to 1386); Shakespeare (I have read some, not all) between 1590 and 1613, and Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri in 1320. These are all great books although I need a translation for many of them.

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  7. Johnny Burnette drove a truck at Crown Electric Company in Memphis TN, and when he saw the success of his fellow worker Elvis Presley in what was to become rockabilly music, he too resolved to find fame by similar means. The Johnny Burnette Trio, thanks most of all to Paul Burlison’s distorted guitar riff, made Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept A-Rolling” into an early classic, later covered by the Yardbirds and Aerosmith.

    Similarly, Lady Murasaki’s “Tale of Genji” inspired a rival: Sei Shonegon, a contemporary in court. Her “Pillow Book” is episodic, and not a novel at all, but rather, a series of impressions and scenes of court life around 1000 AD– but they occasionally have an arresting verisimilitude which has made them prized in the annals of Japanese literature.

    The high esteem these prose works enjoy historically pale beside the popularity and endurance in Japanese popular culture of the epic “The Tale of the Heike”, a later work by three centuries, steeped in Buddhist perspective, and in its earliest form, sung by blind basho players,much as Homer might have sung The Iliad. The Minamoto clan drives the Taira clan from power in a series of battles from 1180-1185, the last a sea battle in which the infant Taira emperor is drowned. Episodes from this epic tale became the source for the storylines for later kabuki theater. The tale was transcribed in the 1330’s, from the recitation of a basho-playing singer, and has been read by every generation of Japanese since.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Great historical information and historical comparisons! Envy can certainly be an excellent motivator. And I didn’t realize “The Tale of the Heike” was such an important part of Japanese culture. I appreciate you mentioning it.

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      • The Tale is a major touchpoint in Japanese history and traditional culture, one battle in the surf seemingly commemorated by little crabs that appear near the site– they look like little samurai warrior heads, complete with helmet and grimacing facemasks! Not quite a miracle– it has been speculated that over generations, locals have selected for the most samurai-like crabs, returning them to the waters, but eating their less samurai-like companions.

        I became acquainted with the Tale by way of Lafcadio Hearn, who wrote a ghost story about a blind basho player summoned overnight to perform his epic song for a group of nobles incognito who, as it turned out, were grieving spirits of the Taira clan– being blind, he did recognize they no longer lived. Its title: “Hoichi The Earless”, published in Hearn’s collection of Japanese ghost tales, “Kwaidan.” How did Hoichi lose his ears? Therein hangs a tale.

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        • Fascinating, jhNY! And kind of weird. ๐Ÿ™‚ (The crab stuff.) It can be nice when another writer does something that calls attention to/increases interest in a previous work.

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    • Thank you, Rosaliene! Jane Austen is certainly close enough to that time, as I also mentioned to M.B. Henry below. Like you, I’m a fan of both Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson — who shared relatively short life spans ( ๐Ÿ˜ฆ ), if nothing else.

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    • Thank you, M.B.! Well, Jane Austen was of course born in the 1700s and her novels didn’t appear that long after. Also, if I’m remembering right, she started writing at least a couple of those novels in the 1790s.

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  8. Hi Dave, I am less well read than most people who comment on your blog, but one example of pre-19th Century literature that I have read besides some of Shakespeare’s plays and several 5th Century B.C. Greek tragedies (in translation) is John Bunyan’s great Christian classic “The Pilgrims Progress” first published in 1678. I was surprised to find that the protagonist Christian, even though he was written as a allegorical character, is quite three dimensional and changes in the course of the story.

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    • Thank you, Tony! You seem very well read to me. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Great that you found “The Pilgrim’s Progress” to have greater depth than you expected! I’ve shied away from reading that book, but maybe I should reconsider…

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    • I actually have trouble understanding Shakespeare’s English. I usually refer to the website No Fear Shakespeare in Spark Notes to read Shakespeare’s plays in both their original language and the modern English paraphrase to understand them, It takes me about twice as long as a more learned reader.

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  9. More conscientious, meaning less idle, I would have read Oroonoko by now and be able to review. Tom Jones, but after a ruthless edit . Jane Austen’s juvenilia, of course – love her history, Maybe more historians should admit to being partial, prejudiced and ignorant ? , No chance of reading the original First Impressions ?

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    • Thank you, Esther! Yes, as Shehanne also mentioned, some long-ago books could use some editing. ๐Ÿ™‚ I guess it was a style of writing for the time, at least in some cases. I’ve never read Jane Austen’s pre-famous-six-novels writing; I imagine it must have some interesting moments!

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  10. I must say I agree with you on old Tristam. I read it after we visited Shandy Hall in Coxwold –which is a lovely wee village— years ago. (Just thought I’d throw that in because the place is a real sleepy step back in time village, all the buildings dating from the 1600s) I thought the book was so funny and amazing for its time but again of its time it needed a red pen. Wonderful post,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shehanne! ๐Ÿ™‚ Yes, that needed red pen — a pen that can also come in handy in the 21st century. ๐Ÿ™‚ Coxwold sounds like an incredible time capsule of a village; great that you had a memorable visit there! And it’s so interesting seeing places with author associations.

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      • We used to go to Yorkshire every year. Done it since the girls were wee, just not been for a few years lately. And we always stay outside York so we can have the best of some of the many worlds there, including the walking. It’s not that far from where we usually stay so we generally stop for a wee bit every time we go, as there’s ways onto the Chilterns nearby. The church he was in charge of is on the other side of the road from Shandy Hall and there’s a fabulous old pub near the hall. It is interesting to visit places with author associations. You are right there. You get the feel for the lives they lived.

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          • he didn’t ahve far to travel so i guess it gave him time for writing!!! We first went down to yorkshire in 1983 and we went for many years and then the couple who ran… it was an old georgian Vicarage guest house, lovely place, they sold up to a private buyer and we discovered other places. Then when our younger girl was in 6th year the English dept were going to do a trip down to the bronte Parsonage and like that I was curious about some of the places we used to visit so I googled the Old Vicarage and here, that sale had fallen though and another couple had taken it on as a guest house. So needless to say being more footless by then we decided to go back and then go back again.. and then.. some! But the last time they’d gone too however one of the pubs had gone into biz letting rooms, so we went. We porb will go back. It is just everything was closed here for a few years.

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  11. Interesting post, Dave! I read The Sorrows of Young Werther not so long ago, and it does make an interesting read indeed. As for a Russian example, the most famous 18th century novel(la) is Poor Liza by Karamzin, a sentimental tale of a peasant girl who is seduced by a rich and handsome man, a short, but pleasant enough read. Perhaps you already wrote one, but how about an epistolary novel post?

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    • Thank you, Elisabeth! “Poor Liza” sounds memorable, and it’s interesting to hear about a pre-1800 Russian work when the ensuing 19th century was such an incredible time for literature from that country. As you of course know more than most people. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I’ve never done a post specifically on novels that feature letters, though I think I wrote a more general one about novels that have “unusual” elements (letters, emails, texts, newspaper clippings, charts, etc.) in addition to the usual prose. I’ll see if I can find it. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  12. These were times of great novels? Who could forget Gulliverโ€™s Houyhnhmns, the race of talking horses and the humans called Yahoos? How fitting that after this journey, Gulliver spent hours a day speaking with horses in his stables. I remember my mother, Frances, reading John Bunyanโ€™s The Pilgrimโ€™s Progress (published 1678) and The Holy War Made by King Shaddai Upon Diabolus (1682) to us as children. We eagerly waited for the next installment. And then there was Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, which gave me this quote to remember: โ€œIt is much easier to make good men wise, than to make bad men good.โ€

    Another wonderful post, Dave. Iโ€™ll be back to read the follow-up discussion!

    Liked by 8 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca! Definitely some pre-1800s classics — and “Gulliver’s Travels” indeed features all kinds of amazing creations. And wonderful that your mom read those books to you; memories like that are precious, and of course the admirable Frances remains an avid reader and stellar person. Last but not least, you found yet another fantastic quote!

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      • While I may not have understood the full extent of Pilgrimโ€™s Progress and the Holy
        War as a child, the themes came back as I became an adult. For example, Christian overcame the Giant Despair and his wife Diffidence. He escaped Doubting Castle. The quote by JRR Tolkien in LOTR โ€œMay it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go outโ€ reinforces the theme of hope even during the most difficult of days.

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        • Nice, Rebecca, when a book we read when young reverberates and is more understood as we get older. Even with the “obvious” language/terms it sounds like “The Pilgrim’s Progress” has some complexity. And those are very wise and comforting words you cited from Tolkien. Thank you!

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  13. A good question, Daveโ€ฆ
    I like Swift plenty, but Iโ€™m going with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
    I also love the poems of John Donne. Even though Iโ€™m not very religious, some of his work captures universal inquiries in such simple ways. A Hymn to God the Father is like that, capturing the many wrongs we do, and wondering what can be forgiven. It seems like there are fewer secular offerings in earlier literature.

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    • Thank you, Donna! “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” clocks in as being published just before 1800 (1798), and it is indeed worth the time. (I read it in college.) And well said about John Donne’s work! I can also get absorbed in some literature with a religious element despite not being religious. Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop” is one example, though of course published way after 1800.

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  14. I freely admit that I haven’t read many! I enjoyed The Epic of Gilgamesh with the guide of an instructor in a mythology course I took years ago. I liked Romeo and Juliet, which was also for a class. So…there’s a pattern here:)

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  15. I’ve read both Don Quixote and The Sorrows of Young Werther, but I admit my memories of both are dim. I actually enjoyed Massenet’s opera, Werther, more than the book, which seemed dull by comparison.
    I do recall Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos quite well, even though I read it decades ago. The evil of Merteuil and Valmont, and the sad downfalls of their victims, definitely made an impression! That was also an epistolary novel, as I recall.

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    • Thank you, Audrey! I know what you mean about how one forgets details of a book as time goes on. But I guess we often remember our general reaction to a novel. ๐Ÿ™‚ I appreciate you mentioning the three that you did. And, yes, epistolary novels were a big thing back then. It certainly made for telling a story in a rather clunky way.

      Liked by 3 people

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