How to Read a Nineteenth Century Novel

Are you tired of reading novels about dystopian futures, bittersweet romance, dark secrets, political conspiracies, and middle-aged protagonists finding a second chance at love? Does the New York Time Bestsellers list give you a sense of déjà vu, as if you’ve seen these stories before? Are you looking for something a bit different, if not necessarily new? Are you open to a challenge and unafraid of commitment?

Then why not treat yourself to a Nineteenth Century Novel!

Yes, the Nineteenth Century Novel, a relic of a bygone era, when novels were novel and writers were commonly referred to as “authors.” Most often associated with high school English classes, pretentious literary scholars, gentleman who smoke pipes and ladies obsessed with period dramas, Nineteenth Century Novels are in truth available to everyone. Sure, these books are often verbose, unruly, and have more characters than your average soap opera, but they also contain such universal themes as Love, Betrayal, Redemption, Despair, Faith, and above all that grand, long-forgotten ideal of Progress.


Unconvinced? Pick one up and decide for yourself.

Some present-day readers may feel intimidated by the very thought of attempting to read a Nineteenth Century Novel. You may feel overwhelmed by the massive word count of these tomes (typically ranging from 200,000 to 510,000 words—nearly double the length of your average contemporary literary novel). You may find yourself put-off by the old-fashioned language or unfamiliar attitudes of these novels’ protagonists.

Fear not, dear readers! To help guide you through the experience of reading your Nineteenth Century Novel, I offer the following friendly advice:

How to Read a Nineteenth Century Novel

Step 1: Ask yourself “Why do I want to read a Nineteenth Century Novel?”

While there are many, many reasons why one ought to consider reading a Nineteenth Century Novel, it can be helpful to keep one’s motivations in mind when selecting a novel to read.

Will you be reading your Nineteenth Century Novel for school? For work? For research? For pleasure? Are you bored? Are you trying to impress someone? Do you hope to expand your mind? To learn more about the Nineteenth Century? Is it because a significant other won’t stop bugging you about your reading habits? Or do you just want to finally understand all those literary references in the early seasons of Gilmore Girls?

Understanding your reasons for choosing to read a Nineteenth Century Novel may help sustain your interest in your Novel during some of its more tedious passages.

"Mrow! Twenty-five pages of Jim hanging out with Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey. When does it get back to the pirates?" (Image (c) Catunes. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0)
“Mrow! Twenty-five whole pages of Jim hanging out with Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey! When does it get back to the pirates?”
[Image (c) Catunes. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0]
Step 2: Locating a Nineteenth Century Novel

There are many options for finding your Nineteenth Century Novel. You could start by visiting your local library. Libraries (this may come as a bit of a surprise) are an excellent place to find books of all sorts, including the elusive Nineteenth Century Novel.

But wait! Your local library can offer you far more than just a good read or a place to wait for the bus out of the rain. Your local library has many admirable amenities: free books, free Internet, community resources—did I mention the free books? ‘Cause those public libraries got free books everywhere, y’all.

If libraries seem a bit too communal for your taste, you fascist, fear not! There are other options.

I would recommend buying your own copy of whichever Nineteenth Century Novel you decide to read, especially if you aren’t the fastest of readers. You’ll be a lot less intimidated by due dates that way. Besides, I’ve found that having a physical copy of a book staring me down from it’s place on my shelf gives me a lot more motivation to pick up and read the damn thing.*

Also I like to write comments in the margins. I’m weird like that.

Here are my Patented Steps for Purchasing a Nineteenth Century Novel:
1. Go to your Local Independent Bookstore.
2. Browse the Classics/Literature/Fiction section.
3. Spend a few minutes despairing at the state of contemporary fiction after accidentally glancing at the Bestsellers shelf.
4. Remind yourself that some readers legitimately enjoy their guilty pleasures Twilight ripoffs Paranormal Romances and that you shouldn’t be so judgmental of other people’s reading habits.
5. Go back to looking at book titles in the Classics/Literature/Fiction section.
6. Select a Nineteenth Century Novel.
7. Go to the counter. Purchase your Nineteenth Century Novel.

Sometimes your Local Independent Bookstore will have a few Nineteenth Century Novels for sale, especially if they specialize in used books. Eh? What’s that? You’re not sure about buying a secondhand copy of your Nineteenth Century Novel? Why? Used books are great! Shopping for used books at your Local Independent Bookstore has three excellent advantages:

1. It’s better for the economy (Want to fight against “The Man” on Wall Street? How ‘bout spending some of those hard-earned dollars at a local business?)
2. It’s better for the environment (“I just saved that old dog-eared copy of Madame Bovary from the landfill! Recycling!”)
3. It’s way better for your budget (A sprawling, convoluted, page epic with way too many characters for less than ten dollars? Yes please!)

"I didn’t even have to subscribe to HBO!"
“I didn’t even have to subscribe to HBO!”

Now onto some more serious advice:

Step 3: Choosing your Nineteenth Century Novel

There were a LOT of novels written in the Nineteenth Century, spanning every genre from realism and historical fiction to romance and speculative fiction. You’re a bit spoiled for choice on this one. To make things simple, I’ll break this step down into a few words of advice.

a) Start with something you’ve heard of.

There’ll be plenty of time to look for obscure gems and forgotten masterpieces later. Stick with something familiar, like Frankenstein or Pride and Prejudice. For the most part there’s a reason these stories have stuck around as long as they have.

b) Read the back cover. If the summary doesn’t interest you, can it.

I’m all for exploring new ideas, but let’s face it: your Nineteenth Century Novels is a commitment. If you’re going to spend time reading a book that has upwards of 500 pages, it darn well better hold your interest.

Keep in mind, though, there are some limitations with this. I’ve read more than one book where, after I’ve finished reading it, I’ll reread the back cover and find myself thinking “I don’t remember any of that happening in this book!” If you find yourself missing out on a good Nineteenth Century Novel because you decided to drop the book after reading the back cover, do what I do: blame the publisher.

Now for some tips on getting through the actual book:

Step 4: Read the first sentence

Does it sound familiar? Have you heard it before somewhere? Does it grab your attention? Are you curious to read more? If so, why are you still reading this how-to guide?

Step 5: Read the second sentence. And the third. Read the first chapter.

At this point you might be surprised by how little has happened so far in your novel. In 2013, we’re well-accustomed to stories that introduce us to everything we need to know at the very beginning. Nineteenth Century Novels are different. The author of your Nineteenth Century Novel may take fifteen, thirty pages to build up their Setting and Major Themes before introducing any of their main characters. Jean Valjean doesn’t even show up until Book 2 of Les Misérables.

Which brings me to my next point:

Step 6: Give yourself time to adjust to the author’s quirks

Be patient with them. These men and women had their own style of writing. Many of them believed in Taking Their Time to tell the story they wanted to tell. Often they intended for their readers to think about something beyond the plot of their novel, such as its Themes or its Literary Significance. Sometimes it helps to read up a little on the author’s biography, but that’s up to you.

Here are a few author quirks I’ve encountered:

-Victor Hugo was Classically Educated and often felt the need to remind his readers that he was indeed Classically Educated. Expect frequent allusions to historical events and literary figures, most of which you’ve probably never heard of (tip: the encyclopedia is your friend). Forgive him. His books, particularly Les Misérables, are full of rich, memorable characters and grand, inspiring ideals. If you want to understand how people in the Nineteenth Century could feel such a profound sense of confidence in Progress despite the societal ills all around them, read Les Misérables.

-Tolstoy, while slightly more down-to-earth than Hugo, was still educated and his books reflect this. He uses the story of Anna Karenina, for instance, to explore socio-political themes such as the tension between rural and urban life; agnosticism vs. religious hypocrisy (and sincerity); and the nature of personal happiness. Also jealousy, passion, and romance, if you’re into that sort of thing.

–Mary Shelley makes a lot of allusions in Frankenstein, but you don’t have to be familiar with them all to appreciate what she’s writing about. Also, bear in mind that she doesn’t necessarily want you to like Victor Frankenstein. ALSO also, Frankenstein is nothing like the movies. Any of them. Not even the Kenneth Branaugh one.**

–Nathaniel Hawthorne wields foreshadowing like a sledgehammer. You’ll probably figure out who Pearl’s father is by the end of the third chapter.

–The Brontë sisters (well, two of them anyway) had horrible taste in men.

I was going to write something about Mark Twain here as well, but honestly, his books are pretty easy to read. Dialects have changed a bit since then, but other than that you should be fine.

Last but not least,

Step 7: Take your time

Unless you’re reading your Nineteenth Century Novel on a deadline, it’s okay to take as much time as you need to finish your Novel. No one will judge you if it takes you nine months to read a book with nine hundred pages.

Only thirty-two chapters to go... (Image (c) leted)
Only thirty-two chapters to go…
[Image (c) leted. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0]
If you need to take a break for a while, take a break. Your Novel will be there when you’re ready to come back to it. If you need to alternate your Nineteenth Century Novel with something a little less demanding, that’s fine too.

Remember, reading a Nineteenth Century Novel is an experience to be cherished and enjoyed, not unlike a nice piece of rhubarb crisp.

On second thought, you could always skip the novel and just have the rhubarb crisp.


*Rumor has it you can also find quite a few good Nineteenth Century Novels online through some public domain electronic resource sharing website or another, if that’s your thing.

**Especially not the Kenneth Branaugh one.