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The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels Written In English: Part 1 (Top 20 Books)

Guardian's 100 Best Novels Written In English

Published on June 22nd, 2021

After two years of careful consideration, Robert McCrum has reached a verdict on his selection of the 100 greatest novels written in English. Take a look at the first part in which the top 20 books have been covered with the review.

1.  The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

The 100 best novels: No 1 – The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

John Bunyan s famous work, The Pilgrim’s Progress is, next to the Bible, the most popular book ever published. It has been widely distributed the world over since originally published in the 17th century. But many aren t familiar with the story in it s original form or it s famous author and his life story. Master Books is now making available this exquisite reproduction of this 125-year-old historical compilation manuscript in it s original 860-page entirety.

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The Pilgrim’s Progress is the ultimate English classic, a book that has been continuously in print, from its first publication to the present day, in an extraordinary number of editions. There’s no book in English, apart from the Bible, to equal Bunyan’s masterpiece for the range of its readership, or its influence on writers as diverse as William Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, CS Lewis, John Steinbeck and even Enid Blyton. Read More

2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

The 100 best novels: No 2 – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe  is a novel by Daniel Defoe, first published in 1719. Just as in its significantly more popular predecessor, Robinson Crusoe (1719), the first edition credits the work’s fictional protagonist Robinson Crusoe as its author. It was published under the considerably longer original title: The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; Being the Second and Last Part of His Life, And of the Strange Surprising Accounts of his Travels Round three Parts of the Globe.

Review

The text was first published in London by W Taylor on 25 April 1719. This first edition credited the work’s fictional protagonist Robinson Crusoe as its author, and its title was The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: Written by Himself. Read More

3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

The 100 best novels, No 3 – Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel was first published in 1726, yet it is still valid today. Gulliver’s travels describes the four fantastic voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, a kindly ship’s surgeon. Swift portrays him as an observer, a reporter and a victim of circumstance. His travels take him to Lilliput where he is a giant observing tiny people. In Brobdingnag, the tables are reversed and he is the tiny person in a land of giants where he is exhibited as a curiosity at markets and fairs.

Review

In its afterlife as a classic, Gulliver’s Travels works on many levels. First, it’s a masterpiece of sustained and savage indignation, “furious, raging, obscene”, according to Thackeray. Swift’s satirical fury is directed against almost every aspect of early 18th-century life.

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4. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)

The 100 best novels: No 4 – Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)

Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel was first published in 1726, yet it is still valid today. Gulliver’s travels describes the four fantastic voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, a kindly ship’s surgeon. Swift portrays him as an observer, a reporter and a victim of circumstance. His travels take him to Lilliput where he is a giant observing tiny people. In Brobdingnag, the tables are reversed and he is the tiny person in a land of giants where he is exhibited as a curiosity at markets and fairs.

Review

Modern readers will find his treatment of Clarissa unbearably cruel. Still, softened and humanised, it’s not too much of a stretch to see his inspiration standing behind a character like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Read More

5. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

The 100 best novels: No 5 – Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

It hath been observed, by wise men or women, I forget which, that all persons are doomed to be in love once in their lives. Abandoned on Squire Allworthys bed as an infant, Tom Jones is raised by him. As he grows up inheriting the generosity and virtuousness of the distinguished philanthropist, Tom wins the hearts of many countryside women and has several romantic dalliances.

Review

The secret of Tom Jones was to be intimately connected to its contemporary audience. By the 1740s, the English novel was attracting new kinds of reader and, in turn, new kinds of writer. Read More

6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)

The 100 best novels: No 6

Tom Jones is the ward of a liberal Somerset squire. He is a generous but slightly wild and feckless country boy with a weakness for young women. Misfortune, followed by many spirited adventures as he travels to London to seek his fortune, teach him a sort of wisdom to go with his essential good-heartedness. One of the great comic novels in the English language, Tom Jones was an instant success when it was published in 1749: Ten thousand copies were sold in its first year.

Review

The first two volumes were published in 1759 in York by Ann Ward (at Sterne’s expense) having been turned down by Robert Dodsley. When the novel became a runaway success, Dodsley rushed out a second edition, with illustrations by Hogarth in April 1760, and then published volumes III and IV. Read More

7. Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

The 100 best novels: No 7 – Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

Emma, by Jane Austen, is a novel about youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance. The novel was first published in December 1815. As in her other novels, Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in Georgian–Regency England; she also creates a lively comedy of manners among her characters. Before she began the novel, Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

Review

The novelist herself is highly conscious of her art. Emma, she wrote to a friend, is “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Perhaps. However, compared with her other heroines – Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot, and Catherine Morland – Emma is the most complex, subtle and complete. Read More

8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

The 100 best novels: No 8 – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

The idea of a reanimated corpse was famously conceived by an 18 year old Mary Shelley on holiday with her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron near Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

The three were tasked with writing a ghost story, which resulted in one of the most famous novels to come from the 19th century. Published anonymously in a three volume series, Frankenstein instantly set the standard for a true literary horror and its themes led many to believe it was the first true science fiction novel.

Review

Plainly, Frankenstein is rather different from, and much more complex than, its subsequent reinterpretations. The first reviews were mixed, attacking what one called a “disgusting absurdity”. Read More

9. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)

The 100 best novels: No 9 – Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)

This 1818 novel is set in a former abbey whose owner, Christopher Glory, is host to visitors who enjoy his hospitality and engage in endless debate. Among these guests are figures recognizable to Peacock’s contemporaries, including characters based on Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Mr. Glory’s son Scythrop  locks himself up in a tower where he reads German tragedies and transcendental philosophy and develops a “passion for reforming the world.”

Review

After a long gestation, literary life had arrived. More than 100 years after Daniel Defoe had sat in the stocks and John Bunyan had composed The Pilgrim’s Progress in Bedford jail, English novelists were now fully established at the centre of cultural life. Read More

10. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838)

The 100 best novels: No 10

Poe found the germ of the story he would develop into ARTHUR GORDON PYM in 1836 in a newspaper account of the shipwreck and subsequent rescue of the two men on board. Published in 1838, this rousing sea adventure follows New England boy, Pym, who stows away on a whaling ship with its captain’s son, Augustus. The two boys repeatedly find themselves on the brink of death or discovery and witness many terrifying events, including mutiny, cannibalism, and frantic pursuits. Poe imbued this deliberately popular tale with such allegorical richness, biblical imagery, and psychological insights that the tale has come to influence writers as various as Melville, James, Verne and Nabokov.

Review

First and foremost, Poe was a fearless critic of the fledgling American literary scene, so fierce in his assaults on what he considered to be inferior writing that one fellow critic complained he used prussic acid not ink. Poe was a man of extremes, who knew the highs and lows of success and failure. Read More

11. Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli (1845)

The 100 best novels: No 11 – Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli (1845)

Sybil, or The Two Nations is an 1845 novel by Benjamin Disraeli. Published in the same year as Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Sybil traces the plight of the working classes of England.

Disraeli was interested in dealing with the horrific conditions in which the majority of England’s working classes lived – or, what is generally called the Condition of England question.

 

Review

In its own day, Sybil precedes, and possibly influences, Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848), Charles Kingsley’s Yeast (1848) and Froude’s Nemesis of Faith (1849). Occasionally, this genre was taken to ridiculous lengths, as in Mrs Frewin’s The Inheritance of Evil, or The Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife’s Sister (1849). Read More

12. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

The 100 best novels: No 12 – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

The orphaned Jane Eyre has emerged a fiercely independent young woman. As governess at Thornfield Hall, she’s found her first real home—though it stands in the shadow of the estate’s master, Mr. Rochester, and its haunted halls ring with maniacal laughter.

For even the grandest houses have secrets. As much a story about defying convention as it is about coming-of-age, Jane Eyre remains one of the most beloved novels in the English language.

Review

Charlotte Brontë’s erotic, gothic masterpiece became the sensation of Victorian England. Its great breakthrough was its intimate dialogue with the reader. Read More

13. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

The 100 best novels: No 13 – Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

Emily Brontë’s only novel endures as a work of tremendous and far-reaching influence. The Penguin Classics edition is the definitive version of the text, edited with an introduction by Pauline Nestor. Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange, situated on the bleak Yorkshire moors, is forced to seek shelter one night at Wuthering Heights, the home of his landlord. There he discovers the history of the tempestuous events that took place years before. What unfolds is the tale of the intense love between the gypsy foundling Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw.

Review

Emily Brontë’s windswept masterpiece is notable not just for its wild beauty but for its daring reinvention of the novel form itself. Read More

14. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)

The 100 best novels: No 14 – Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)

“All is vanity, nothing is fair.” A ruthless social climber, Becky Sharp is scheming and deceitful. Orphaned when young, she has desired wealth and social security above everything. Engaged as a governess at Sir Pitt Crawley’s house, Becky secretly marries his son, Captain Rawdon Crawley.

Wealthy and warm-hearted, Amelia Sedley is her complete opposite. All that she has ever longed for is the stunning and egotistic Captain George Osborne—her childhood sweetheart—whom she marries against her father’s wishes.

Review

William Thackeray’s masterpiece, set in Regency England, is a bravura performance by a writer at the top of his game. Read More

15. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)

The 100 best novels: No 15 – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)

“David Copperfield” is the story of a young man’s adventures on his journey from an unhappy & impoverished childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist.

Among the gloriously vivid cast of characters he encounters are his tyrannical stepfather, Mr. Mudstone; his formidable aunt, Betsey Trotwood; the eternally humble yet treacherous Uriah Heap; frivolous, enchanting Dora; & the magnificently impecunious Micawber, one of literature’s great comic creations.

Review

David Copperfield marked the point at which Dickens became the great entertainer and also laid the foundations for his later, darker masterpieces. Read More

16. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

The 100 best novels: No 16 – The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

“The finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country.” —Henry James”[Nathaniel Hawthorne] recaptured, for his New England, the essence of Greek tragedy.” —Malcolm Cowley” There could be no more perfect work of the American imagination than ‘The Scarlet Letter’”. —D. H. Lawrence”

The style of Hawthorne is purity itself. His tone is singularly effective — wild, plaintive, thoughtful, and in full accordance with his themes… We look upon him as one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has as yet given birth.”

Review

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s astounding book is full of intense symbolism and as haunting as anything by Edgar Allan Poe. Read More

17. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

The 100 best novels: No 17 – Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is a novel by American writer Herman Melville, published in 1851 during the period of the American Renaissance.

Sailor Ishmael tells the story of the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler the Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, the white whale that on the previous whaling voyage bit off Ahab’s leg at the knee.

The novel was a commercial failure and out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891, but during the 20th century, its reputation as a Great American Novel was established.

Review

Wise, funny and gripping, Melville’s epic work continues to cast a long shadow over American literature. Read More

18. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The 100 best novels: No 18 – Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, commonly shortened to Alice in Wonderland, is an 1865 novel written by English author Lewis Carroll. The plot centers around a young girl named Alice, who falls through a rabbit hole into an underground fantasy world populated by strange creatures.

Along the way, she meets a Cheshire Cat, a Mad Hatter, a smoking Caterpillar, the Queen of Hearts, and many other characters that we readers have come to know and love.

Review

This well-known story marks the beginning of perhaps the greatest, possibly most influential, and certainly the most world-famous Victorian English fiction, a book that hovers between a nonsense tale and an elaborate in-joke. Read More

19. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)

The 100 best novels: No 19 – The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)

The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins is a 19th-century British epistolary novel. It is generally considered to be the first detective novel, and it established many of the ground rules of the modern detective novel. The story was originally serialised in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round.

The Moonstone and The Woman in White are widely considered to be Collins’ best novels, and Collins adapted The Moonstone for the stage in 1877, although the production was performed for only two months.

Review

Wilkie Collins’s masterpiece, hailed by many as the greatest English detective novel, is a brilliant marriage of the sensational and the realistic. Read More

20. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9)

The 100 best novels: No 20 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9)

Little Women is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), which was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869.

Alcott wrote the books over several months at the request of her publisher. Following the lives of the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—the novel details their passage from childhood to womanhood and is loosely based on the author and her three sisters.

 

Review

At first, when, in 1867, the editor of the Boston publisher Roberts Brothers asked her to write “for girls”, Alcott demurred. She wasn’t interested, she said; but the idea stuck. Read More