In Praise of Pre-19th Century Literature

The novel "came of age" in the 1800s, but that of course doesn't mean there weren't some great literary works before then.

I was reminded of that after reading The Sorrows of Young Werther this month. Goethe's 1774 novel -- about a sensitive, self-involved guy pining after an unattainable woman -- was a revelation. Some of the best 18th-century novels are long and kind of clunky, but Werther is short, smoothly written, and seemingly simple while packing more wisdom per square inch than most fiction. The woe-is-me title character does get a bit annoying at times, but there are strong hints that his depression and romantic obsession are psychologically beyond his control.

And Goethe wrote Werther at the age of 24!

Other quite readable 18th-century novels include Voltaire's Candide (1759) and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Both are satirical works and adventure stories, meaning a reader can enjoy them on one or both levels.

Also very readable is Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). Not surprising given how compelling the tale of any shipwrecked character can be.

Defoe, with Moll Flanders (1722), also proved that 18th-century novels can be satisfying despite prose that might be a bit long-winded, plots that might be a bit creaky, and/or narrative that might be a bit awkward. I also put in this category Samuel Richardson's Pamela (which, like much of Werther, is in the form of letters) and Henry Fielding's somewhat choppy but hugely entertaining Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. Those three books are from 1740, 1742 and 1749, respectively.

Also humorous is Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), but, for whatever reason, I found parts of it rather tedious.

I have not read Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), but I've heard good things about it. Same for Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (the 1794 novel that helped inspire Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey), and William Godwin's Caleb Williams (another 1794 novel, by the father of writer Mary Shelley and husband of writer Mary Wollstonecraft).

Of course, I shouldn't forget to mention Miguel de Cervantes' earlier Don Quixote (1605-1615), which many consider the first modern novel. It's a wonderfully deep, engaging read.

Then there are the pre-19th-century writers who excelled at plays and/or poetry. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Moliere, to name a few. Plus the various wordsmiths of ancient Greece.

Great pre-1800s literature is interesting for reasons in addition to the quality of the work itself. For instance, we see the roots of -- and influences on -- later fiction. We also get a fascinating sense of long-ago life (though not as long ago as the beyond-ancient Antarctic civilization in H.P. Lovecraft's memorable At the Mountains of Madness, but that's another story!). Last but not least, we feel gratitude that more recent fiction is no longer mostly by a bunch of white guys. :-)

What are your favorite literary works from before the 19th century?

(Many thanks to "jhNY" for recommending The Sorrows of Young Werther and to Steve Yahn for recommending Joseph Andrews.)


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