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 fiction’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 Shikibu’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. 🙂
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.