Rebecca Mead's 6 favorite books that illuminate the Victorian era
The New Yorker staff writer recommends works by Phyllis Rose, Adam Gopnik, and more
Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (Dover, $10). Published in 1918, at the tail end of the Great War, this book offers an acidulous retrospective of an era only recently departed by way of four short profiles of 19th-century worthies: an influential educator, a military hero, a cardinal, and Florence Nightingale. It was later republished under the title Five Victorians, incorporating Strachey's delicious 1921 biography of Queen Victoria herself.
Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose (Vintage, $17). Rose examines the institution of marriage in the Victorian era by looking at the unusual marital arrangements of five literary couples, including the notoriously unwed George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. It is an exemplary work of sympathetic criticism, and when I meet someone else who loves it, I know I have found a friend.
Possession by A.S. Byatt (Vintage, $16). Byatt won the 1990 Booker Prize for this novel, in which two modern-day scholars discover a previously unknown romance between their 19th-century objects of study. Byatt's deep immersion in Victorian literature and her familiarity with late-20th-century academia allow her to create two utterly persuasive, intersecting worlds.
Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik (Vintage, $15). Gopnik's double biography concerns two men born on the same day in 1809: Abraham Lincoln — who was not a Victorian — and Charles Darwin, who most decidedly was. Gopnik's deft touch as he weaves their worlds together belies the scrupulousness of his research.
Gross Indecency by Moisés Kaufman (Vintage, $14). Kaufman's play provides a dramatic reimagining of the criminal trials in 1895 that consigned Oscar Wilde to prison. The performance I saw in New York in 1997 brought the hypocrisies of Victorian morality alarmingly to life.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Vintage, $17). Of all the contemporary novels that have self-consciously attempted to achieve the sweep and texture of a Victorian triple-decker in a modern context, A Fine Balance is one of the best. Set in 1970s India, Mistry's novel is as satisfyingly convoluted and as emotionally wrenching as Dickens.