The Later Nineteenth Century

In America, the transition from James Fenimore Cooper’s straight-laced adventure The Last of the Mohicans (1826) to Mark Twain’s seminal The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), with its satire and social conscience, showed the irreversible movement away from idealistic and naïve fictions that would culminate in the 20th century writings of the Beats such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. In mid-19th century Russia, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy concurrently investigated the possibility of presenting a life entirely without hope and leading inevitably to suicide and spells in prison. Here, though, the sheer scale of the novels and their vision of an entire society put them in a separate – if not necessarily superior – league to George Eliot.

In the latter half of the 19th century the novel became ubiquitous. From around 1810, public lending libraries had opened up literature to the masses (very controversially at the time) and, with the serializations of Dickens and other authors in popular journals, novels became the popular entertainment of choice. This not only goes to explain the didacticism of George Eliot but also the outright populism of works such as Blackmore’s wonderfully romantic and – unusually for the 19th century – optimistic novel Lorna Doone (1869). Further, it explains the rise of the mystery novel as founded by Wilkie Collins in the 1860s. The Moonstone (1868) and The Woman in White (1860) were exciting tales of devious goings on, mysterious Indians prowling the grounds of mansions, and strange doppelgangers that enthralled and perplexed. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Arthur Conan Doyle and the rest would carry this baton into the next century. Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Kidnapped (1886) were in the same vein as Collins’s novels and were similarly appealing to adults and children alike with their swashbuckling adventures. Around the same time, H. Rider Haggard’s many novels such as King Solomon’s Mines (1886) and She (1887) explored distant lands, again with great popular success.

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