Adventures in Thrifting

Literature Appreciation Fiction: Contemporary Nineteenth-Century Novels

I was thrilled to see so many people call for more book reviews when asked about what content they wanted to see on Hello Giggles, so I decided to take a one-week break from thrifting  to talk about books.

I’ve always been a lover of nineteenth-century fiction, particularly those Brits, from Jane Austen to George Elliot to Henry James (technically an American but…).

Still, with their love-plots and melodrama, such books became a bit of a guilty pleasure as I got older and went to graduate school in Creative Writing, where everyone read understated short stories about sad contemporary people.  I also started to feel guilty for not supporting living authors in favor of re-reading Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice yet again.

But I’ve discovered a way to have my cake and eat it, too: the contemporary nineteenth-century novel.

For instance: I’m currently reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.

It’s about a young woman, Madeline, a college English major in the 1980s who loves nineteenth-century books–at a time when such subject matter couldn’t have been less fashionable in academia.

The novel discusses the difficulties of writing a nineteenth-century-style book–often about courtship and marriage–in contemporary times. Here’s Madeline’s uncool English professor explaining:

In Saunder’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance…The great epics sang about war, the novel about marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel…What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t.

But of course Eugenides is doing exactly that: he’s writing a novel all about Madeline and her various suitors, resting the plot of the book on whom Madeline ends up with. The book’s style–limited third person, a focus on social and romantic life, realistic narration sprinkled with humorous social observation–is that of a nineteenth-century novel. A contemporary nineteenth-century novel.

As you might expect, I’m really enjoying it.

Another solution is to write a novel about a nineteenth-century author. There’s practically an entire sub-genre of novels about the life Henry James: David Lodge’s Author, Author, Colm Toíbín’s The Master, and Emma Tenant’s Felony.

These novels fictionalize James’ life, producing in the process contemporary Jamesian novels (actually, all these novels are much more enjoyable to read than much of James’s actual fiction. Sorry, Henry: I love you but your late stuff is really hard going). David Lodge just did the same thing with H.G. Wells in his new novel, A Man of Parts.

Or, instead of fictionalizing a real person’s life, you can just make up your own nineteenth-century writer, loosely based on real people. There’s A.S. Byatt, who invented two nineteenth-century authors falling in forbidden love in her romance Possession (this book is amazing–run, don’t walk to go get it) and invented a whole crew of Edwardian artists in The Children’s Book.

And there’s a whole host of Jane-Austen-homage, from sequels to Pride and Prejudice to novels with Austen as the heroine.  I’m too much of a purist to read Austen sequels, but I did a read of series of mystery novels by Stephanie Barron, starring Austen as the detective. Yes, Jane Austen detective novels. You know you want to read them.

In fact, maybe there’s a swelling sub-genre of Jane Austen mystery fiction. One of my favorite mystery writers, P.D. James, just wrote a mystery-novel sequel to Pride and Prejudice called Death Comes to Pemberley, which may mean that I’ll have to break my no-Austen-sequels rule.

Speaking of mystery-novel-sequels, there’s tons of sequels to the Sherlock Holmes stories, from Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Percent Solution, in which Holmes goes to Freud for therapy (no, really), to Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice series. These books feature a female sidekick  to Sherlock Holmes and are basically really, really, really well and intelligently written fan-fiction (run, don’t walk).

And finally, there’s always homage, like Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which is structured and styled like E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End–the same basic outline and concept in a contemporary setting.

One of The Marriage Plot‘s Library of Congress categories is Literature–Appreciation–Fiction. I think this is just right, and perhaps a good term of the whole genre. It’s fiction about the appreciation of literature. Specifically, nineteenth-century literature. And it means that at parties you can say, “Oh, I love  contemporary fiction. Jeffrey Eugenides and Zadie Smith and A.S. Byatt are my absolute faves.”

Secretly, though, you never have to leave the nineteenth century.

Image from drewbookclub.

  • Georgette Eva

    I really enjoyed The Marriage Plot, and funnily enough, a lot of your reasoning like your love of Austen has led me to it. It’s weird how revolutionary it is to try to make a modern novel work with 19th century novel style, but this book amazed me. I’ll have to check out your other suggestions, but I have to admit, I’m staying away from the Jane Austen fanfiction…ahem homage.

    • Laura Owen

      Hee! Fanfiction is the right word…I agree that it seems like sacrilege with Jane Austen. Sherlock Holmes fanfiction-sequels, on the other hand, are sometimes better-written than the originals, as the original writing wasn’t so great. Michael Chabon has a great essay on Holmes fanfiction in his book “Maps and Legends”

  • Leslie Veneman Arendt

    Thank you, thank you for these wonderful suggestions! Can’t wait to get started!

  • Siobhan Kümm Thank-you. You’ve just solved my problem of not reading contemporary authors. I won’t read Austen sequels, either, but I’m totally on the fence with Death Comes to Pemberley.

    I CANNOT wait to run out and buy The Marriage Plot and Author, Author.

    SOOOOO excited. =)

    • Laura Owen

      Yeah, I’m on the fence about Death Comes to Pemberley too — I can’t quite believe P.D. James wnet there. But she’s a great, great mystery writer…

  • Mackenzie Barrow Warren

    This list is so great! Thank you! Been hesitant to buy The Marriage Plot, but definitely will now.

  • Tessa DuRocher

    I enjoyed Michael Faber’s “The Crimson Petal and the White” it takes place in the nineteenth century and felt like it was written then too. Its quite long but a very good read.

  • Melanie Mccauley

    It’s nice to see that I’m not the only Austin purist out there!

  • Liz Lopez

    I bit the bullet and read Death Comes to Pemberley and kind of wish that I had not! I found it a little boring, and impersonal in regards to Elizabeth and Darcy. It was a light easy read however, and I can imagine how hard it is to write about such loved characters while trying to staying true to Austen’s intentions, and not step on any fans toes!

  • Ciara Mulvihill

    I loved Pride & Prejudice, the BBC series not the book ;).Me and my sister were obsessed with the furtive glances and talk of new sleeve lengths- quality stuff

  • Sílvia Juncà

    A Friend of mine just read The Marriage Plot and is bringing it to me tomorrow, she says it’s imperative to read it if you love nineteenth-century fiction :) I’m thrilled to read many more book reviews here in HG!!! 😀

  • Melissa Rae Brown

    um, Jane Austen detective novels? Yes, please! Also, I think Zadie Smith is one of the most amazing writers of our time!

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