Poe, Dostoyevsky, Collins. These and other names changed the face of how we look at literature today. When it comes to how the development of the English language came into the modern age, there are certain authors who are often attributed with taking that first step. Introducing a new genre or type of writing. Or making the readers see that which we do not often see. They were also those who imprinted forever on paper a world full of balls, decadence, poverty, and murder.
Today I am going to be counting down the top authors of the Victorian Era. There is no criteria for where the writer came from (they do not need to come merely from Victorian England). The only rule is that they must have published mostly between 1837-1901. Honestly, it was very hard to narrow it down into merely nine entries, but I managed to do it somehow. So, onward into the darkness.
9. Nathaniel Hawthorne
Odds are you have probably read some of his books in school. If not, I highly recommend this author. Born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts (yes, the same as the witch trials), Hawthorne’s career as a writer spanned nearly forty years. His best known works are The Scarlet Letter (1850), and The House of the Seven Gables (1851).
His books are certainly dark and some of his short stories are down-right macabre, but Hawthorne is on this list more because of his incredible descriptions and knowledge into the hearts of humanity. His books and short stories are meaningful. They explore topics that were rarely addressed in fiction of the day. He was willing to delve into evil in the world. In a sense, his tales are often ones of caution. There are morals to them that are often lost in modern literature: that of accepting responsibility for one’s wrongdoing and how guilt consumes a person’s soul.
If you have not read The Scarlet Letter, I suggest you start there in reading his writings. He is an exceptional author, and one who contributed greatly to American literature during the Victorian Era.
8. Wilkie Collins
At first look, this author looks very much like the British equivalent of Hawthorne. Born in 1824 in London, his fiction also explored the evil in the world and consequences of one’s actions. However, there are several reasons I have placed him on this list.
First, his novel The Woman in White (1860) is one of my favorites of all time. And second, for the reason that he is sometimes considered the father of modern mystery novels. I know what you are going to say. Is not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the father of mystery novels (we will be getting to him soon, though, I promise)? Well, two decades before ingenious detective Sherlock Holmes filled the pages of London newspapers, Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone (1868). This book is considered the first full length detective novel.
If there is anyone to blame for the populace’s obsession with murder and death near the end of the Victorian era, this author and my next entry would be it.
7. Edger Allan Poe
Speaking of my next entry, this man needs no introduction. Born in 1809, this author’s career spanned less than twenty years and yet his short stories and poetry are better known today than they were during his time. While Collins may have written the first full detective novel, Poe is considered the inventor the detective fiction genre due to short stories such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841).
While he only penned one full-length book, his short stories and poetry filled with murder and macabre horror has made him one of the most beloved faces in horror literature even to this day. He was writing horror before Dracula, before H. P. Lovecraft.
If you are fond of horror stories but cannot bear to read an entire book, this author is for you. His stories are short and poignant, inducing more fear than any horror movie I have ever seen. I remember when I first read “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) when I was a child, I could not sleep that entire night. You have been warned!
6. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
You all knew this author had to be on this list. Born in 1859, Doyle is of course most famous for his creation of infamous sleuth Sherlock Holmes and his bumbling but adorable companion Doctor John Watson. This is the only author on this list who did not exclusively write during the Victorian era, writing up until his death in 1930. However, since most of his notable characters and works were written during the Victorian era, I will let it go.
Most know him due to his creation of Sherlock Holmes in many short stories, starting with “A Study in Scarlet” in 1887. However, what most do not know is that he wrote many famous characters/stories outside of this single detective. Other famous characters he created were Brigadier Gerard and Professor Challenger (most known for his appearance in 1912’s novel The Lost World).
When you hear this author’s name, you think of mysteries, but his repertoire actually included horror, fantasy, science fiction, and history. He is one of the most prolific writers on this list and I highly recommend his other genres outside of Sherlock Holmes: both his short stories and science fiction are well worth reading.
5. The Brontë Sisters
I am well aware this entry is of three authors (not one), and yet because of their similar style, themes, and genres I feel comfortable combining these three sisters into one entry. Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne (1820-1849) were born in Yorkshire, England. Despite their short lives, each of these women penned at least one exceptional work during their lifetime, most of them dealing with life, love, and death.
Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre (one of my favorite books of all time), Emily wrote Wuthering Heights (a book I simply cannot stand but is brilliantly written), and Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (a book I have not read yet). While they wrote other books (Charlotte’s Shirley and The Professor and Anne’s Agnes Grey), these are their most famous.
Filled with loss, love, betrayal, sadness, and death, these books explore topics that seem very real. They portray characters who are both good and bad, and whose characters must live with their actions (and mistakes). It is a pity that none of these sisters wrote more, because I cannot imagine what other amazing books they would have given us had they lived longer.
4. Jules Verne
If Edgar Allen Poe is the father of detective mystery, than Jules Verne is the father of science fiction. Born in France in 1828, Jules Verne grew up in a time when scientific discoveries were beginning to sky rocket. Theories of the origin of the earth and how far man could really go (above and below the ground) was beginning to be debated in intellectual circles. Verne was fascinated by this and many of his books feature ideas of how science can be explored in a surreal way and where human capability truly ends.
Some of his most famous works include Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), Around the World in Eighty Days (1872), The Mysterious Island (1875), and The Castaways of the Flag (1900) (which is a sequel to Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson, published in 1812). I highly recommend you read more of his books, as his books explore much of the world and even the moon.
While all of his original books were written in French, English translations are easy to come by and if you enjoy books about travel, adventure, and science, these books are for you.
3. Charles Dickens
While Verne may have examined the height of science, Dickens examined the poverty in England. Born in 1812, Dickens was certainly a literary genius. Dickens’ books may now classics, but he wrote them in order for the wealthy to realize how most people lived in such depravity and poverty. His books are a social commentary thinly disguised as fiction.
His most well-known books include The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1839), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1850), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1861). My personal favorite of his is Little Dorrit (1857), though its length is a bit daunting for any reader.
What makes him one of the best writers during the Victorian era is both his topics and his themes. I have mentioned his topics usually stayed close to poverty, but his themes examined how human greed and hatred can destroy lives. How only goodness and kindness can truly bring about happiness. And I could not agree with him more. His books show a picture of the Victorian era which few authors could truly capture.
2. Elizabeth Gaskell
Gaskell is by far my favorite female author of the Victorian era. Similar to Dickens, many of her books deal with ordinary people living in poverty and how selfishness destroys happiness. Born in 1810 in London, Elizabeth Gaskell was the daughter of a minister. In her books, she examines people of all areas of life, from the elite to the poor.
My personal favorite book by this author is North and South (1855) (which is a bit similar to Pride and Prejudice, for all those Jane Austen fans out there), which examines the vast difference of opinions between the industrialized north and the rural south. Others of her better known works include Wives and Daughters (1866), Cranford (1853), and Mary Barton (1848).
For me, it is Gaskell’s characters that truly shine. Every single character comes alive off the page, from the prostitute Esther in Mary Barton to the mill owner John Thornton in North and South.
1. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Leo Tolstoy)
Again, I will combine these two authors into one group (forgive me), both because of their similar writings and setting. Both Russian authors, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born in 1821. His most famous novels are Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamozov (1880) (which is nearly 800 pages, might I add). Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828, penning novels such as War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877).
There are several reasons these authors get the same entry. First, they both give commentary on humanity during the disturbing political, moral, and social upheaval in Russia during the Victorian Era. Both of them include themes of war, loss, friendship, romance, religion, and philosophy. Unlike most of my previous entries these books are very deep and heavy reads. Let’s just say if you are looking for some light reading, these novels are probably not the ones for you.
However, if you are a writer like me who is trying to examine development of characters, these two authors by far develop the best characters of any in literature during this era.
There are a lot of authors I did not mention on this list which certainly would have been featured if I had more than nine choices. These include Alfred Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and many more. Let me know who your favorite Victorian writer is. Why do you enjoy their books? And, as always,
Best wishes on your life full of adventure,