Further reading - Depicting real life • 1855–1900

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Further reading
Depicting real life • 1855–1900



One of only two historical novels written by the prolific English writer Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris before and during the 1789 French Revolution. Notable for its lack of humour, it tells the story of Dr Manette; his granddaughter Lucie; her husband, émigré Charles Darnay; and Darnay’s lookalike, Sydney Carton. Describing the plight of the peasantry, the storming of the Bastille, and the horrors of the guillotine, Dickens creates suspense when a long-buried secret is revealed, putting Darnay’s life at risk.


(1860—1861), CHARLES DICKENS

One of Dickens’ greatest critical and popular successes, Great Expectations opens on the misty Kent marshes where Pip, an orphan raised by a harsh sister and her kindly husband, blacksmith Joe Gargery, encounters an escaped convict. Time passes and Pip’s life changes dramatically with news of “great expectations” from an anonymous benefactor, who enables him to become a gentleman. Written with perhaps the finest examples of Dickens’ much-loved humour, the plot features many unforgettable characters: faded and embittered Miss Havisham; cold and haughty Estella, her adopted daughter; and convict Abel Magwitch. Ultimately the discovery of his benefactor’s identity turns Pip’s life upside down.

"We need never be ashamed of shedding tears … they are rain on the blinding dust of earth …"

Great Expectations

Charles Dickens


(1867), ÉMILE ZOLA

Initially serialized, Thérèse Raquin by French writer Zola tells the tragic story of the heroine, Thérèse. Unhappily married to her sickly cousin Camille, she embarks on a torrid love affair with Laurent, a friend of her husband’s. The two lovers murder Camille, an act that haunts them for the rest of their lives, turning their passion to hatred. Remarkable for Zola’s scientific study of “temperament”, the novel, which was criticized by some for being “putrid”, helped to establish him as a great writer.



Described by T S Eliot as “the first, the longest and the best of the modern English detective novel”, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins concerns the mysterious theft of a priceless Indian diamond from an English country house. It utilizes the same method of multiple narrators that Collins had deployed to great effect in his earlier work The Woman in White. First published in serial form, the book established what would later become the classic detective novel elements: suspense, misleading clues and happenings, a bungling local policeman, a brilliant but idiosyncratic detective (Sergeant Cuff), false suspects, a locked room, and a dramatic denouement.

Wilkie Collins

Born in London in 1824, the son of the landscape painter William Collins, Wilkie Collins discovered a gift for devising tales as a teenager while at boarding school, thanks to a bully who demanded a story before allowing him to sleep each night. He was introduced to Dickens in 1851 and became protégé to the literary colossus, with whom he collaborated and formed a close friendship that grew over the next two decades. In the 1860s Collins wrote his most celebrated and enduring works, becoming established as the pioneer of mystery stories and suspense fiction, a genre that later gave rise to the detective novel. He died in 1889 of a stroke.

Key works

1859—60 The Woman in White

1868 The Moonstone


(1868—1869), LOUISA MAY ALCOTT

Originally published in two volumes, Little Women by US author Alcott (1832—88) is set in New England during the US Civil War of 1861—65. It traces the various activities and aspirations of four sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy — as they develop into young women. The book was an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic, establishing a genre that approached young womanhood in a new and modern way, rejecting traditional feminine roles. Alcott’s characters, although sometimes seen as sentimental, are strong-minded women, particularly Jo, a tomboy who challenges conformity.



Writing The Idiot — considered to be one of the most brilliant works of Russia’s literary “Golden Age” — writer and philosopher Dostoyevsky intended “to depict a completely beautiful human being”. The result was Prince Myshkin, the protagonist and “idiot” of the novel, a nobleman with almost Christ-like compassion, but who is ultimately naive. Returning from a Swiss sanatorium, Myshkin finds himself torn between romantic love for Aglaya Yapanchin and compassionate love for Nastassya Filippovna, a kept and oppressed woman. His goodness is tested but ultimately there is no place for Myshkin’s compassion and integrity in an increasingly corrupt society.



Set during the period of the 1848 Revolution and the ensuing Second French Empire of Napoleon III, A Sentimental Education by French novelist and playwright Flaubert recounts the activities of a young and somewhat rootless lawyer, Frédérick Moreau, and his infatuation with an older married woman, Madame Arnoux. Calling on events from his own life, Flaubert writes in a sparse, objective, and occasionally ironic style to create a realistic picture of bourgeois society that existed in France at the time, which he criticizes for its posturing and lack of refinement.

"They had both failed in their objects — the one who dreamed only of love, and the other of power."

A Sentimental Education

Gustave Flaubert



Ten years in the writing, Seven Brothers by Finnish writer Kivi (1834—72) describes the boisterous and often disastrous adventures of seven brothers who, rejecting social conventions, escape into the forest to live as hunters. Combining Romanticism, realism, and a great deal of humour, the novel was harshly received by critics, which may have contributed to Kivi’s early death. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece and the first significant novel to be written in the Finnish language, breaking the dominance of Swedish literature in Finland.



Largely social protest, The Gaucho Martín Fierro by Argentinian poet Hernandez (1834—86) is an epic poem that describes the way of life of the gauchos, cattle ranchers whose traditional life on the grassy plains of the pampas is threatened by industrialization and political manipulation. Through the poem, Martín Fierro, a payador (gaucho minstrel), sings of his oppressed life and the starkness of the pampas. Hernandez championed the cause of the gauchos and his poem, with its nostalgic view of a vanished life, was a literary and popular success.



Written by French prodigy Rimbaud (1854—91) at the age of just 19, A Season in Hell is a complex work of prose and verse that reflects the poet’s tumultuous life. Arranged in nine sections, the poem consists of scenes in which the narrator examines the hells through which he has travelled, mirroring Rimbaud’s moral crisis and reflective state of mind following the breakdown of his relationship with his lover, the artist Paul Verlaine. The book was to prove an inspiration to the Symbolist movement, and to future generations of poets and writers.



The English author’s first popular success, and the first to be set in Wessex, Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy centres on Bathsheba Everdene, an independent and bold woman who attracts three contrasting suitors: devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak, neighbouring farmer Boldwood, and the dashing Sergeant Troy. Creating evocative descriptions of rural life, Hardy explores the themes of rejection, poverty, faithful love, and unprincipled passion.


(1875—1877), LEO TOLSTOY

A novel described by Dostoyevsky as “flawless”, Anna Karenina by Russian author Leo Tolstoy traces the adulterous liaison between Anna, the beautiful and intelligent wife of Aleksy Karenin, and Count Vronsky, a young bachelor. Karenin discovers his wife’s affair but, desirous of maintaining his public position, he refuses to divorce his wife. The lovers move to Italy, have a child, and live troubled lives. Having broken the social codes of the day, Anna is shunned by society. Running parallel to Anna’s story is that of country landowner Levin — a character that Tolstoy based on himself — and Kitty, who is related to Anna by marriage and who was originally infatuated with Vronsky. Following a difficult courtship, Levin and Kitty ultimately have a happy and fulfilling marriage, reflecting Tolstoy’s belief in the simple, pastoral life.



Daniel Deronda is the last work that English novelist Eliot completed. Notable for its exposure of anti-Semitism in Victorian Britain and its sympathetic treatment of Jewish ideals, the novel incorporates two strands. The first concerns Gwendolen Harleth, stifled and frustrated in an unhappy marriage; the second describes Daniel Deronda, a wealthy and compassionate man who, by rescuing a young Jewess — Mirah Lapidoth — discovers his own Jewish roots. After Deronda and Gwendolen meet by chance, their lives begin to intertwine. Deronda’s decision to support the Jewish cause enables Gwendolen to seek her own freedom.



A three-act play by Norwegian playwright, poet, and theatre director Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House sparked outrage and controversy when it was first performed. The play portrays an ordinary family — Torwald Helmer, a bank lawyer, his wife Nora, and their three children. However, the play also expresses Ibsen’s critical opinion of conventional marriage when, after a serious disagreement with her husband, Nora leaves both him and their children to seek independence and self-fulfilment.

Henrik Ibsen

Considered to be the “father of realism” and seen as one of the trailblazers of Modernism in theatre, Ibsen was born in Skien, southern Norway, in 1828. He began writing plays when he was 15, and was determined to make this his career. His play Brand (1865) gained him recognition, while the plays that followed, with their biting social realism, established him internationally. Most of his dramas are set in Norway, although he spent his most productive years, from 1868 onwards, working in Italy and Germany, returning to Norway in 1891 as a national hero. Following a series of strokes he died in 1906.

Key works

1879 A Doll’s House

1881 Ghosts

1884 The Wild Duck

1890 Hedda Gabler

1892 The Master Builder



Some two years in the writing, The Brothers Karamazov by Russian writer Dostoyevsky was the author’s final novel, and is often considered to be his masterpiece. Recounted by an unnamed first-person narrator, the novel tells the story of irresponsible wastrel Fyodor Karamazov and his sons from two marriages — Dimitri, a hedonist; Ivan, a rationalist and atheist; Alyosha, a man of deep faith — and an illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, who is morose and epileptic. Describing family struggles over an inheritance, a love rivalry between Dimitri and Fyodor, and introducing the theme of patricide, Dostoyevsky creates a complex novel in which he explores profound questions of faith and doubt, the problem of free will, and the issue of moral responsibility. Dostoyevsky died within four months of the novel’s completion.



First serialized in a children’s magazine, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is a masterpiece of children’s literature, featuring pirates, buried treasure, and a swamp-ridden tropical island. Creating a gripping read that has entertained children around the world, Stevenson also interweaves a coming-of-age novel, as teenager Jim Hawkins gains sensitivity and maturity. The author also explores moral issues with his descriptions of the ever-changing character of one-legged pirate Long John Silver.



Feminist South African writer Olive Schreiner (1855—1920) set The Story of an African Farm in the South African veld — the grassy scrubland on which the region’s Dutch settlers reared cattle — where she grew up. Reflecting her strongly held views, the novel features a young woman, Lyndall, who challenges the Bible-led restrictions of Boer society, and her suitor Waldo, who also rebels against convention. Schreiner’s portrayal of Lyndall won her both feminist acclaim and notoriety, while her use of a fictionalized South African landscape was regarded as pioneering.

"Nothing is despicable — all is meaningful; nothing is small — all is part of a whole."

The Story of an African Farm

Olive Schreiner


(1884—1885), LEOPOLDA ALAS

Published initially in two volumes, La Regenta by Spanish novelist Alas (1852—1901) tells the story of a magistrate’s wife (la Regenta of the title — a pun in Spanish meaning “the woman in command”) who, living in a provincial town, seeks fulfilment through religion and adultery. Rich in characters, such as the cathedral’s priest and the local casanova, Alvaro Mesia, the novel presents a remarkable picture of provincial life as well as exploring the psychology of the characters by allowing them to narrate events.



The defining novel that cemented its author’s reputation and ensured his celebrity, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for its remarkable portrayal of what is sometimes described as a “split personality”. The book initially relates the mystery of two men — respectable and sociable Dr Henry Jekyll and the vice-ridden, brutal murderer Edward Hyde — who appear to be connected in some way. As the story progresses the reader learns that Jekyll has created a potion to suppress hedonistic aspects of his personality, only to create Hyde, seemingly an evil manifestation of the darkest attributes of his character.

Robert Louis Stevenson

When living in Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson took the nickname Tusitala, or “Teller of Tales”, a perfect description for the man who wrote some of the world’s most famous adventure stories. Born in Edinburgh in 1850, Stevenson decided early in life to make a career in writing, although he agreed to study law to please his father. Dogged by ill-health, he was nevertheless a keen adventurer and traveller, visiting the USA and spending time in France where, although bedridden, he wrote some of his best-known work, much of it for children. After leaving Europe for the USA in 1887, in search of more favourable climes to suit his poor health, Stevenson set out with his family in 1888 on a voyage to the South Seas. He settled in Samoa in 1890, where he died four years later.

Key works

1881—82 Treasure Island

1886 Kidnapped

1886 The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde



Regarded as the masterwork of one of the greatest European realist novelists, Eça de Queirós, The Maias is set in fin-de-siecle Lisbon. Notable for its satire and realism, its central character, Carlos Maia, is a wealthy and talented doctor who is keen to do good work, but lives a dissolute life. Maia embarks on an affair with a beautiful but mysterious woman, but a shocking discovery brings the relationship to an end.

Eça de Queirós

Considered Portugal’s greatest novelist, Eça de Queirós was also a political activist. Born in northern Portugal in 1845, he studied law but his real interest was literature, and his short stories and essays soon began appearing in the press. By 1871 he was part of the “Generation of 70”, a group of rebellious intellectuals who were committed to social and artistic reform; he denounced Portuguese literature as unoriginal. He served as consul in Cuba, England — where he wrote the satirical novels for which he is best known — and Paris, where he died in 1900.

Key works

1876 The Crime of Father Amaro

1878 Cousin Bazilio

1888 The Maias



Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun (1859—1952) was 30 when his first successful novel, Hunger, was published. He had previously spent many impoverished years travelling and working in various jobs, and his novel reflects those experiences. Set in Kristiania (Oslo), it describes the poverty and psychological despair of a young man so bent on success as a writer that he becomes almost demented. The novel’s portrayal of obsession and alienation established it as a literary landmark.


(1894—1895), RUDYARD KIPLING

A collection of stories, linked by poems, The Jungle Book by English writer Kipling (1865—1936) is most famous for its tales of Mowgli, an Indian boy raised by wolves and taught the laws of the jungle by Baloo, the brown bear; Bagheera, the panther; and the wolves of the pack. Kipling, who lived in India for many years, used the animals in the tales — which are effectively fables — to present moral lessons about good behaviour by contrasting irresponsible humans with animals that follow a strict jungle code.



Considered to be a landmark of Prussian realism, Effi Briest by German writer Fontane (1819—98) tells the story of its 17-year-old protagonist, who is married to Geert von Innstetten, an ambitious nobleman twice her age. Effi has a secret affair with a local womanizer. Six years later, the affair — long-since ended — comes to light and, with the characters bound by a strict Prussian social code so well depicted by Fontane, the story moves towards its tragic end.



In his fatalistic Jude the Obscure, English writer Hardy tells the story of Jude Fawley, a villager with scholarly ambitions that are never achieved. Married reluctantly and under false pretence, Jude falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead, who then marries a local schoolmaster. Repelled by sex within her marriage, Sue turns to Jude. They live together but poverty and society’s disapproval take a dreadful toll. Critics and readers were so shocked by the novel’s sexual frankness and pessimism that Hardy wrote no further novels, turning from fiction to poetry.



One of the great war novels and noted for its realism, terse style, and modern approach, The Red Badge of Courage by US author Crane (1871—1900) is set during the US Civil War (1861—65). The protagonist is Henry Fleming, a young private in the Union Army. He dreams of glory but, when faced with the stark and terrifying reality of fighting on the battlefield, flees from the advancing Confederate forces. Overwhelmed by his shame, he seeks redemption and meaning in a heroic act.



A masterly study of aimlessness and hopelessness, Uncle Vanya is thought by many to be Chekhov’s finest work. Set on a country estate in turn-of-the-century Russia, the play focuses on estate manager Voynitsky (Uncle Vanya), estate owner Professor Serebvryakov and his second wife Yelena and daughter Sonya, and Sonya’s unrequited love for local physician Astrov. Vanya, frustrated by his wasted life and failure to seduce the beautiful Yelena, attempts to shoot Serebvryakov but fails. The play ends with nothing having changed.

Anton Chekhov

Celebrated as one of the greatest Russian playwrights, Anton Chekhov was born in 1860. He qualified as a doctor and, despite writing prolifically, continued practising medicine, once describing the latter as “his lawful wife” and literature as his “mistress”. Initially it was short stories that brought him fame — in 1888 he won the Pushkin Prize for his short story The Steppe. From the 1890s he produced the plays for which he is remembered, which were performed at the Moscow Art Theatre. He married actress Olga Knipper in 1901 but died of tuberculosis in 1904.

Key works

1897 The Seagull

1897 Uncle Vanya

1904 The Cherry Orchard



A novella by US writer Henry James, The Turn of the Screw is one of the best-known ghost stories ever written. Narrated mainly through the diary of a governess, the story describes her struggle to save her young charges, Flora and Miles, from the demonic clutches of two deceased former servants. Ambiguous in approach — some critics suggested that the governess was hysterical rather than haunted — the story has been influential, paving the way for subsequent tales of innocent children possessed by evil spirits.

"Whatever I had seen, Miles and Flora saw more — things terrible and unguessable …"

The Turn of the Screw

Henry James



Set in New Orleans, The Awakening by US writer Kate Chopin (1851—1904) tells the story of Edna Pontellier and her struggle to break free from the restrictions imposed upon her by both marriage and motherhood. Pontellier seeks her “awakening” through two sexual affairs, but more importantly through independent thinking, art, music, and swimming. With its explicit portrayal of marital infidelity and female independence, the novel shocked readers and critics, and was censored on its first publication. Today it is regarded as a landmark feminist novel and an early example of Southern literature.



Lord Jim, by Poland-born English novelist Joseph Conrad, describes the efforts of Jim, a young British seaman, to overcome an act of unwitting cowardice that leaves his name tarnished. Helped by a sea captain, Marlow, who narrates much of the story, Jim becomes “Tuan” (lord) of Patusan — a fictional South Sea country — and ultimately overcomes his guilt through self-sacrifice. The novel is notable not just for its exploration of idealism and heroism, but also for its sophisticated use of a frame narrative structure.



The first novel by US novelist, journalist, and socialist Theodore Dreiser (1871—1945), Sister Carrie concerns the young woman of the title, Carrie, who leaves her home in Wisconsin for Chicago. She gains work in a shoe factory, but after two affairs — one with a married man — finally achieves success and wealth in a stage career. Dreiser’s publisher, Doubleday, accepted the book but considered the subject matter so shocking in the moralistic climate of fin-de-siecle USA that they delayed publication, altering the text and agreeing to only a limited print run. An uncut version did not appear until 1981.