19th Century English Novelists: More on Chesterton on Dickens

First, a little quiz. See if you can put a name to each of the following photographs.

Now, before I reveal the mystery of the final character, another question: Who is your favourite 19th Century English novelist?

All this is apropos of the fact that I have just finished listening to Chesterton’s Dickens. The final chapter (a very badly read Librivox recording of Chapter Twelve — I guess we get what we pay for in quality!) includes this paragraph:

At a certain period of [Dickens’] contemporary fame, an average Englishman would have said that there were at that moment in England about five or six able and equal novelists. He could have made a list, Dickens, Bulwer Lytton, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, perhaps more. Forty years or more have passed and some of them have slipped to a lower place. Some would now say that the highest platform is left to Thackeray and Dickens; some to Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot; some to Dickens, Thackeray, and Charlotte Brontë. I venture to offer the proposition that when more years have passed and more weeding has been effected, Dickens will dominate the whole England of the nineteenth century; he will be left on that platform alone.

Who on earth is Bulwer Lytton? Well, for starters, he is the person in the third picture above (after Dickens and Chesterton, of course). According to Wikipedia:

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (May 25, 1803–January 18, 1873) was an English novelist, poet, playwright, and politician. Lord Lytton was a florid, popular writer of his day, who coined such phrases as “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, and the infamous incipit “It was a dark and stormy night.” Despite his popularity in his heyday, today his name is known as a byword for bad writing. San Jose State University’s annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing is named after him.

There must be something to be said of a man whose phrases are better remembered than any of his works as a whole…

But what got me wondering about who Bulwer Lytton was, was the writers that Chesterton left off his list. According to my calculations, Anthony Trollope (one of my favourite 19th Century authors) was a near enough contemporary with Dickens. But not even an honourary mention from Chesterton. Is he telling me he didn’t enjoy reading the Barchestor Chronicles? I can barely credit it. Even Wikipedia’s short entry on the 19th Century English novel mentions Trollope (but NOT, I note, Bulwer Lytton!).

He leaves off Jane Austen (at her height when Dickens was born) and Thomas Hardy (just getting going when Dickens died). He doesn’t mention Lewis Carroll (wrong genre?).

Of course, the remarkable thing is that many of these authors have been given new life through very high quality TV and Cinema adaptions in recent years. Scores of Austen’s (current run on the ABC TV on Sunday nights is terrific), great Dickens (the recent BBC production of Bleak House was very good), superb Trollope’s, Thackery’s etc. etc. I have yet, however, to spot a production of Bulwer Lytton…

Anyway. Who’s your favourite nineteenth century English author? Anyone Chesterton and I have not covered?

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6 Responses to 19th Century English Novelists: More on Chesterton on Dickens

  1. Past Elder says:

    My dad counted Dickens’ A Child’s History of England the best book he had ever read — which he did as a blue collar working class Midwestern kid not that long after the nineteenth century had ended. I think he counted the copy I found for him in a used book store the best Christmas present I ever gave him.

    To answer your question, I don’t have a favourite English nineteenth century author, as in from England, but my favourite nineteenth century author writing in English is Mark Twain, hands down. Tom Sawyer is my Child’s History of England.

  2. Schütz says:

    Ah yes. American 19th Century novelists are another whole kettle of fish.

  3. eulogos says:

    Jane Austen is head and shoulder above the rest of them, in my opinion. But after you have read each of her books three or four times, what are you going to do?

    You can read Trollope forever and ever, it seems. His quality is uneven. He doesn’t pull off everything he tries. But he is usually “a good read.” I am currently just beginning ” The small house at Allington.”

    One Trollope which sort of shocked me, the name of which unfortunately I can’t remember,(It was the name of an estate or house) is a very minor romance and inheritance story, set against the background of the famine, which mainly serves to show off the charitable impulses of his heroines and some amusing scenes in which the RC priest comes off better than the low church parson. Like a good civil servant he also defends the hash that was made of the relief effort as the best that could have been done under the circumstances, a thesis which was seriously disputed by a very detailed book I read about the famine last year. To me this display’s Trollope’s limitations. A great writer would have realized that the background of people dying in ditches would make his own story and characters look shallow and petty. If he did’t think he could write the human story of the famime, he would have eschewed setting his rather trivial story anywhere near it.

    Susan Peterson

  4. eulogos says:

    Ah Google is wonderful.

    The Trollope book set against the background of the famine is Castle Richmond.

    The book I read last year or the year before about the famine was “The Great Hunger.”

    Susan Peterson

  5. Schütz says:

    I haven’t read “Castle Richmond”.

    Another very interesting Trollope novel is his short “The Fixed Period”, about an island state that was introducing enforced euthanasian for its elderly. Very interesting. I found it on the shelves at Bishop Anthony Fisher’s home and read it through in one day.

  6. Louise says:

    Jane-baby is my own favourite, but surely GKC was writin later than this mob?

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