SocietyEmma and Mansfield Park by Jane Austen - Small town actions and attitudes are the focus of all of Austen's novels, but these two demonstrate most perceptively the author's sense of the weakness of human nature and the values of the sensibility-obsessed society of her time. See also Northanger Abbey (the influence of art on young minds), Persuasion (the matter of class), and Pride and Prejudice (the contemporary importance of marriage).
Shirley by Charlotte Brontë - Of all of the Brontë sisters' novels, this is probably the most acutely socially aware. It is the tale of class conflict and the social background to the story is as important as the plot itself. See also Jane Eyre.
The Way of all Flesh by Samuel Butler - A critique of the Victorian values of society that the author so despised through the eyes of four generations.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer - The first social-realist work in the English language, perhaps. The stories themselves are fascinating, but it is the characters who tell them, representative of their stereotypical values and attitudes, who make this such a delight.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad - One of the few land-based Conrad tales, and also one of the most detailed in its portrayal of society: bitingly satirical and extremely dark. Meanwhile, Youth and Lord Jim speak volumes about the microcosmic society of the boat and the island community respectively.
Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities and Nicholas Nickleby are characteristically socially-concerned Dickens novels. Dickens is famous for documenting the foibles of his society, so none of his books should disappoint in this area. However, for compelling detail and mature social critique Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Dombey and Son are the very best.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky - The Russian perspective, with an emphasis on greed and betrayal.
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot - One of the bleaker accounts of Victorian rural life imaginable (even with Eliot's previous novel Adam Bede in mind). This is a tale of two contrasting societies, both similarly merciless towards a wayward but well-meaning young girl.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon - An old and dead society, perhaps, but a fascinating one nonetheless, and in Gibbons' acclaimed book.
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy is, like so many of his novels, concerned with the passing of one way of life and its replacement with the new and 'improved'. Here, society itself adapts to technological improvements and the old ways die with Henchard, the tragic hero of the tale.
Dubliners by James Joyce - This is the most socially realistic work of Joyce: a collection of stories set in Dublin looking with a keen bespectacled eye at the moments that define society and its urban paralysis as the author sees it.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling - One of the reasons this book is still so respected is that it offers an extremely detailed portrait of India in colonial times.
Sons and Lovers, Women in Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence - The politics of love, work and the family, not to mention being the first truly northern working-class English novels.
Martin Eden by Jack London - A writer becomes increasingly alienated by society and assumptions made about his beliefs and politics. This book focuses on the pain of finding oneself on the outside of a paranoid and judgemental society.
Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay - A wonderful compilation of some of the most extreme and unusual happenings and habits in mankind's history.
Pepys' Diary by Samuel Pepys - The society of the London poor, the fortunate worker, and the less than fortunate criminal in the Tower are all to be found in Pepys' famous diary.
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne - The first post-modern book if truth be told and well ahead of its time (by two centuries or so) in its deconstruction of the then nascent concept of the book. Sterne has time in these pages to satirise every absurd element of his society and himself in a compelling and downright hilarious manner.
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe - The politics of race are central to this abolitionist volume that stirred up anti-racist feeling through its sympathetic vision of black men but was so exaggerated that it actually provoked some racist attitudes.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - The different fates of two families at the time of the Napoleonic Wars with inevitable detail of Russian society.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray - A visceral portrait of the upper classes in the nineteenth century.
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