Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Question of the Week – What’s your favorite work of fiction from before 1914?

I’ve been slacking a bit with my Questions, and I apologize. I know you guys love answering random questions on the internet!

Today’s Question is about “classic” literature, which is why I used the somewhat arbitrary date of 1914. World War I fucked up a lot, including the creative impulse, and I wanted to take away you nerds coming at me with Conan stories or a lot of 1930s science fiction. Hey, I left you Tarzan, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Haggard – still a lot of nifty pulp fiction if that’s your bag! I’m thinking of “classic” literature, obviously, but I’m not limiting it. If your favorite book from pre-1914 is Around the World in Eighty Days, let me know!

I haven’t read as much “classic” literature as I should, but as an English major, I’ve read my share. Some I like, some I don’t. I love War and Peace, for instance, which seems like it might be a slog, but I found amazing. I did not like Great Expectations too much, but I love Bleak House. I very much dig Wuthering Heights, which is a keen book. My favorite pre-1914 book, though, has been Heart of Darkness (1899) ever since I first read Heart of Darkness back in high school. It’s beautifully written, it’s mysterious and a bit creepy, it’s about something important but it’s also a good adventure story and a terrifying examination of power and corruption, and it’s still relevant, sadly (I read it to high-risk high school students in class once who did not do a lot of reading, and they were riveted). Everyone says Nostromo is Conrad’s best work, and Nostromo is a very good book, but Heart of Darkness hits me just right. It’s superb.

So, fellow readers of old stuff – what’s your favorite work of fiction from before 1914? Have at it in the comments!


  1. tomfitz1

    BURGAS: How could I possibly remember this?!? I wasn’t even born then. lol

    Gawd, I can’t remember off-hand. LOTR and The Hobbit books is the oldest that I remember. Some might say, The bible could be fictionous.

    Hamlet for sure, if plays are allowed.

    1. Peter

      It’s funny you mention Tolkein; I recently read an anthology of pre-Tolkein English-language fantasy and was surprised at how great many of the stories were. I’m not a big Tolkein fan, and I think I prefer the “low” fantasy that was generally in vogue before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Some of the better writers I discovered through that anthology published their best stuff between 1914 and the 1940s though so would be ineligible for this question. James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison – they all had some great stuff. George Macdonald and William Hope Hodgson emerged as some of the most interesting genre writers pre-1914, though.

  2. I’m trying to remember what I read that wasn’t Classics Illustrated or movie adaptations. I read a LOT of Classics Illustrated.

    Probably Frankenstein.

    But I’m a sucker for A Christmas Carol, Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter (required reading in 8th grade), and generally Wells and Verne, because they are so adaptable.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    In my experience, a lot of “classic literature” isn’t all that classic and is perpetuated by a few literature professors. I got on a kick where i tried to read a bunch of classics because I felt I should; but then found them dull beyond belief and stopped. That said, some authors who became synonymous with great literature were better than others and are worth reading in any age. I found some exoneration when I read Mark Twain’s attack on James Fenimore Cooper, one of those “classic literature” authors whose work was boring beyond belief (the adaptations were way better than the source material).

    Enough prologue. My favorite work of “classic literature?” The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas. Dumas knew how to spin a yarn and write to an audience other than stuck up academics and snooty patricians. It features more swash than you can buckle with a dozen belts, some fine romance, intrigue, politics, history (in the sense that these people mostly existed, in the past) and humor. I once heard Randall Wallace (the guy who threw history out the window, with Braveheart), in the commentary for his man in the iron Mask, criticize the Richard Lester Musketeer adaptations as jokey, while he pretty much ignored everything Dumas wrote, in the Man In the Iron Mask (or, more accurately, Vicomte de Bragelone, part 3: The Man in the Iron Mask). Dumas filled the Three Musketeers with great moments of humor and the Lester version was the most faithful to Dumas. in every way. Sure, he left out the chapters about how each gained his equipment for the siege of La Rochelle; but, did anyone really want to see that on screen? The original, like most of Dumas’ work, was serialized, which is part of why the complete work tends to run kind of long (Count of Monte Cristo is often abridged, in most editions).

    It is everything I love in an adventure story, from one of the masters.

    Count of Monte Cristo is a close second. You could also add some other French literature, like Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsene Lupin stories, or the tales of Fantomas, by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, not to mention the works of Jules Verne.

    For English literature, I am quite fond of Dickens (another who knew how to write for a wider audience), as well as Haggard and Kipling. There is also Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Sadly, your 1914 cut-off precludes PC Wren’s Beau Geste and PG Wodehouse’s entire body of work.

    For American literature, it is Mark Twain and O. Henry.

    1. HAL 2000

      Jeff, I have to agree with you about the Lester Three Musketeers/Four Musketeers. Bravo! It must have been hard for Wallace to perform that commentary with his head up his ass.

    2. Greg Burgas

      Twain’s attack on Cooper is quite good.

      Your objection is why I didn’t call it classic literature in the title and why I use quote marks when I write it, sir! I agree that some of the “classic” stuff is deadly dull!

      I do like Monte Cristo better than the Musketeers, although they’re both quite good.

    3. For me it’s Count of Monte Cristo over Three Musketeers but we’re talking a difference on points. However I made the mistake of reading the unabridged edition and man, the endless descriptions of the Count’s fabulous wealth get wearisome.
      I love the Lester adaptation. I enjoyed the DiCaprio Iron Mask (while I thought the big reveal was obvious, someone in the audience was shocked enough to gasp aloud). I enjoyed Richard Chamberlain’s Man in the Iron Mask and Count of Monte Cristo on TV.

  4. HAL 2000

    Shamefully I’m more of a Twentieth Century boy (“Let me be your toyyyy!”) in literature terms but I very much like The Return of the Native (love Eustacia Vye! Huuge let down when she was played by Catherine Zeta Jones in a pretty awful clod-footed clot-headed adaptation). Hardy’s extremely architectural writing/plotting – despite the nature imagery and hints of mysticism, repressed paganism – can be really suffocating (and even more depressing) but it works here and in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
    The stories of Edgar Allen Poe are very memorable (William Wilson, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, Masque of the Red Death, et cetera). Murders in the Rue Morgue is hilarious! Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes are great. A Scandal in Bohemia, The Five Orange Pips, The Red-Headed League, The Speckled Band, and – possibly my favourite – The Musgrave Ritual.
    Bleak House – which along with Little Dorrit has one of the great openings in English literature, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend (another great opening).
    Oh, of course! The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
    The Wings of the Dove by Henry James?
    My memory isn’t too good. Me no think too well!

      1. HAL 2000

        Goofballs, that’s who! Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Oh, it was a rhetorical? Never mind!
        It’s interesting that Poe influenced Doyle with his Dupin stories then Doyle went onto influence legions. Even imitations/homages such as Sexton Blake and Solar Pons enjoyed some success, as did Doyle relative E.W. Hornung’s Raffles, the amateur cracksman. Agatha Christie’s early Poirot tales with the annoying Belgian’s dense English pal Hastings obviously bore the mark of the Scots Doctor and his creations. Fascinating.
        It’s pretty amazing that Joseph Conrad/Józef Korzeniowski became one of the greatest writers in the English language when it wasn’t his native tongue. Similar to Nabokov I suppose. It puts to shame modern British and American people who moan about reading certain types of English as it is too “difficult”. There’s something to Orwell’s pane of glass metaphor but the richness of the language is also to be celebrated or everyone will end up as either Morlocks or Elio. From the look of things that’s already begun. *rimshot* *air guitar solo*

  5. Peter

    I often find pre-modernist novels a bit of a chore to get through, but a lot of the canonical short stories of the 19th century are among my favorite works of fiction. (Usually I find early American writers’ stories to be a lot more enjoyable than their novels. I.e. – don’t like The Scarlet Letter at all, but Hawthorne’s short stories are great. Haven’t made it through Typee or Moby-Dick yet, but The Piazza Tales is an essential collection. “Bartleby, The Scrivener” might be my favorite short story of all time, though there’s a lot of competition).

    Some other favorites besides “Bartleby” include the Sherlock Holmes short stories, Poe’s stories, Dubliners (published in 1914 but everything was basically written a good while before), Persuasion, Pride & Prejudice, The Moonstone (pretty nifty structure for such an early detective novel!), The Brothers Karamazov, Tristram Shandy, and Heart of Darkness.

    I have yet to read any unabridged Dumas but I have only heard great things about how accessible his books were. I also need to read some Melville novels, earlier Edith Wharton works (I did just read The Age of Innocence and dug it, but that was 1920), and some more Russian classics. But I actually think my favorite work of fiction pre-1914 is unlikely to be supplanted; “Hamlet” is just really, really good. Brilliant language, of course, and the themes are deeply striking and moving. It will always be my favorite Shakespeare play and that’s saying something, y’know? That guy was a pretty good writer.

    1. We were supposed to attend a local production of Hamlet this weekend but it was postponed for some reason. Darn it.
      I have friends in Virginia who volunteer at a theater that does their shows Elizabethan style (though not all-male casts) — simple sets, some of the audience sitting on the stage, etc. Once a year they do “original practice” where everyone learns their lines separately and comes together for the show.

  6. My favorites? Holmes, Alice and Shakespeare. The first two are definitely closer to my heart.
    The Mabinogion, Lady Charlotte Guest’s reworked collection of old Celtic myth, is darn good too.
    The Time Machine is great as are a number of Wells’ short stories. Kipling too. I love seeing how authors in those eras could bounce between what are now separate genres without anyone batting an eye.

  7. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

    Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion are pretty damn hard to beat, and I’d put The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the same level.

    Crime and Punishment is pretty stunning, as well.

    I’ve not read Bleak House – my opinion on Dickens is that he was very clearly paid by the word, haha.

    Shakespeare-wise, I love Much Ado and As You Like It, and I loved the production of Othello I saw in Stratford a few years ago.

  8. conrad1970

    Oldest book I’ve read, I think, would be Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. I think it was released mid 20’s or early 30’s.
    Think it may have been a bit of an inspiration for Gaiman’s Stardust novel.

  9. Jeff Nettleton

    Dumas’ non-Musketeer & Monte Cristo material is pretty good, too. he had some historical fictions and some other court intrigue material, such as The Queen’s Diamonds, which revolves around Giuseppe Balsamo, aka Cagliostro, the con artist/alchemist. Maurice LeBlanc used that to create the antagonist Josephine Balsamo, for his Arsene Lupin stories. Lupin also tangled with Holmes, in a copyright violation that led to legal threats, leading to Homes’ name being slightly altered in reprintings. Basically, Lupin outdoes the English detective, since his author is booking the fight. Lupin & Raffles provide the template for every other “gentleman thief,” like the Saint or It Takes a Thief. I haven’t read Raffles, but from what I have read about the character, he gets a bit bogged down in cricket. Lupin is a bit more about the joy of the caper.

    In the world of early detective fiction, there is also Monsieur Lecoq, by Emile Gaboriau. The character is a detective of the Surete, and was based on the historical Eugene Francois Vidocq, a former criminal who founded the Surete Nationale and many techniques of modern criminology. Lecoq was hghly influential on the Holmes stories, though Doyle dismisses him in “A Study in Scarlet.” Dupin, as well.

    I would also agree about short stories of the 19th century often being better than the novels. Most were written for story magazines, which were the real mass literature and they were far more accessible and also a showcase for much of the development of various genre fiction. Story magazines remained the dominant form of literature, until the post-WW2 era, when the paperback book had mostly taken over their role. Still, they tended to be a strong component of genre fiction, up through the 60s.

  10. Le Messor

    I really like Holmes – I find I can figure out how the crime was done, usually, but never who (because that’s always some random person you’ve never heard of; ‘how’ is the real mystery).
    It’s been a while, but I like Wells, too. I haven’t read much Dickens, but I liked A Christmas Carol (and was surprised to learn most of the adaptations seem to get most of the book in there). I really like The Importance Of Being Earnest, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, both by Wilde. Also Treasure Island was okay, and I really like The Strange Case Of Doctor Jeckyll And Mr Hyde (both by Robert Louis Stevenson).

    But for actual favourites?
    I was going to say Dracula then Frankenstein, but then I remembered; it’s The Phantom Of The Opera. i recently read the original original for the first time (kind of), and I still love it.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I’ve never been able to get through Moby Dick. I did read the Classics Illustrated version, though, and the comic book version that Sienkiewicz drew, so I think that counts! 🙂

  11. Lee

    I admit I have not done extensive reading of novels from the time in question, although I have read some Dickens, some Shakespeare, some pre-1914 Wodehouse (there are a few, but no Jeeves stories yet!), and a few random books here and there.

    As for my favorite, I’ll go with some books that have surprisingly not been mentioned yet!

    I just finished reading all 14 Oz books by L. Frank Baum, eight of which were published in 1914 or before. The first book is obviously the most famous (from the movie, which was a pretty faithful adaptation) but the others are really good, too. I can easily see why they are perennial best sellers.

    1. Le Messor

      Oh, yeah. Oz. That reminds me, I wanted to mention Alice In Wonderland, though I don’t think I’m the first. (Somebody above just said ‘Alice’; I assume it’s her.)

    2. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

      Forgot the Oz books were that old!

      Scarecrow of Oz is my favorite, but it came out in 1915…luckily, Emerald City of Oz, Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz are pretty damn great as well!

      1. My favorites after the first three are Patchwork Girl of Oz and Lost Princess of Oz.
        I do love how Scarecrow constantly mocks its romance B-plot (“I shall die if I do not have Pon.” “Oh he’s nothing special, you can find another guy like him easy.”).

  12. John King

    I must admit almost all the books I’ve read were written after 1914 (…I do have a couple of Haggard’s in my to read “pile”)

    From my very limited range to select from I pick “War of the Worlds” by HG Wells – I’ve always focussed on science-fiction and fantasy

    1. Le Messor

      The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Another one I was going to mention, along with Rip Van Winkle – two stories which I swear are broadly misunderstood by the general public.

  13. Edo Bosnar

    Hmm, with a 1913 publication date, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers just qualifies here. Not sure that would be my pick, much as I liked it.

    Gogol’s Dead Souls is also quite good. Maybe I’ll go with that.

    But then there’s also all of that great short prose by Ambrose Bierce…

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