We tend to think of the life of the English population a century and a half ago as quaint, cluttered, and repressed. However they saw themselves on the frontier of a great social change. The aristocracy saw their social position and role in society challenged by a new and wealthy class of merchants and manufacturers. Reform Bills were hotly debated and then passed by the parliament increasing the size of the electorate. At the same time traditional gender roles were beginning to be questioned and challenged. It was an exciting time and it produced a feast for fiction fans, especially fans of the weighty tome stuffed with intriguing characters and spiced with surprising, and often ironic, twists of plot and phrase.
David Copperfield  by Charles Dickens
This fictional autobiography borrows freely from Dickens’s own life. In it a successful writer reminisces about his early life and education. What starts as episodic memories soon becomes a vast witty narrative delight of over eight hundred pages with multiple intertwining plots and over thirty distinctly memorable characters from every level of nineteenth century English society. The false humility of the repulsive Uriah Heep and the grandiloquent optimism of the ever impoverished Wilkins Micawber, a character Dickens based on his own father, have become characters that have grown to be cultural touchstones beyond the novel.
Jane Eyre  by Charlotte Brontë
This is another fictional autobiography that borrows freely from author’s own life. Plain but spunky Jane remembers growing up unhappily orphaned among three rude cousins and a tyrannical aunt until she is sent away to a charity school where she finds friends and a kind headmistress, but also some stern teachers and a penny-pinching administration. At age eighteen she sets out to seek, if not her fortune, at least a living as a governess. She’s hired to teach the ward of an eccentric landowner. Mr. Rochester has come into an inheritance of property and land in England that he had not hoped for as a youth. His manners are brusque and his looks are gruff. But he is unexpectedly charmed by the frankness of the new governess, although he does not express that to her immediately. For her part, Jane falls hopelessly in love with her new master, and must wrestle with the insurmountable difference in their social positions. In Jane’s breast passion, ambition, and honesty strive with reason, duty, obedience, and a desire to be accepted.
Vanity Fair: a Novel Without a Hero by William Makepeace Thackeray
The scope of the story grows larger in this virtuoso piece by Dickens’s rival. It’s a biting and witty satire on English social life and customs during the first part of the nineteenth century, its subtitle is “a novel without a hero,” and it could also be added without heroines. Yet the book’s two central characters, the virtuous but dim and naive Amelia Sedley and the amoral, clever, congenial Becky Sharp both display admirable and distressing qualities as they rise, fall, and rise again in society. One of the great virtues of Vanity Fair is that while it is told in hilarious prose, with short burst of genuine pathos, it was praised by its contemporaries as a thoroughly realistic account of the society that it portrays.
Middlemarch: a Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot
“Miss Brooke had the kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments…” Middlemarch Book 1 chapter 1
At the start of Middlemarch (quoted above), Dorothea Brooke sounds like she could be the heroine of a romantic novel. Hers, however is not a happily ever after story. It’s possible to read Jane Eyre as a love story, and it’s possible to read Middlemarch  as an anti-love story since at least two sets of couples are chronicled through some very unhappy years of marriage. But this long and intriguing novel is much more than a harsh spotlight on domestic tribulation. Like Vanity Fair it is a realistic account of the society that it portrays, although its setting is not the bustle of urban life, but the country where the same publically unacknowledged angling for social position and wealth are at work.