Dickens wrote fourteen and a half novels, which means that any devotee of his work runs the risk of running out. I recommend the titles below to fill the void and expand your sense of both his literary scene and his legacy. Whether they’re stories Dickens published, novels by his rivals or contemporary updates of his plots and characters, these 10 books should help keep you happy and occupied until the Trollope bicentennial in 2015.
1. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), by Daniel Defoe
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is touted as the first modern novel, but fans of Dickens’ London should check out Defoe’s hybrid fictional-historical narrative of the English capital in 1665, when 100,000 of its citizens were lost to the plague. The body count becomes a little relentless, but it’s fascinating to walk the streets of London with Defoe’s narrator and realize that, like many European cities, it’s built on the dead. Aside from being a pioneering example of creative nonfiction (in this case, accurate facts and statistics paired with embellished personal stories and presented by a fictional narrator), the Journal adds an extra touch of macabre to the nighttime marches of Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend.
2. Vanity Fair (1848), by William Makepeace Thackeray
The friendship of Amelia Sedley — the placid, petted daughter of a well-off London family — and the clever, ambitious orphan Becky Sharp begins in boarding school and takes them on a journey of love and betrayal through sharp-knifed high society. Becky’s personal manifesto, “I think I could be a good woman, if I had five thousand a year,” tells you all you need to know about her priorities. But it’s hard to blame her for using her wits and seductive wiles to material advantage when you see the complacent, lecherous upper-class boobs she’s up against. Her machinations are impressive to behold, and Thackeray’s satire of moneyed life even more so.
Pro tip: I didn’t love the 2004 Mira Nair film with Reese Witherspoon as Becky, but the costume department did a nice job outfitting the women in colorful cashmere shawls. If you inspect the wardrobes of many 19th-century fictional Englishwomen from Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park on, you’ll find a stock of Indian scarves, reflecting a pashmina craze supported by textile trade between England and its then colony.
(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels—Number Three: Little Dorrit)
3. North and South (1855), by Elizabeth Gaskell
This novel, serialized in Dickens’ magazine Household Words right after Hard Times, follows a family’s journey into the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Clergyman Mr. Hale, his wife and his daughter Margaret live among fragrant rose bowers in bucolic southern England until a religious crisis prompts Mr. Hale to give up his preaching and move to a northern manufacturing town. When not choking on the fumes, Margaret develops a testy relationship with the local cotton-mill manager, John Thornton. As their romance starts and stops and starts, Gaskell does an admirable job bringing the reader into the lives of those who labor on the factory floor.
Pro tip: Pay attention to the mentions of wallpaper, which provide a literal backdrop for arguments about taste, aesthetics and mass-production in Victorian society. The first machine-printed wallpapers came on the market in England in 1841, providing a cheaper alternative to fashionable handmade French and English papers, but the new technology brought about all the usual class tensions regarding quality versus quantity and refinement versus vulgarity.
4. The Woman in White (1860), by Wilkie Collins
The first sensation novel, and one of my favorite novels of all time, this stolen-identity saga by one of Dickens’ closest collaborators and protégés draws on split-narrative techniques to piece together the mystery of its title character. After appearing in the road one night to a poor artist, Walter Hartright, the elusive woman in white crosses paths with Walter’s new patrons, half-sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe, as they fall prey to the schemes of Laura’s nasty new husband, Sir Percival Glyde. One insane asylum, mustachioed Italian villain, moated estate, secret society, illegitimate child and falsified tombstone later, the novel arrives at its artful conclusion. It could have been so bad — if it weren’t so good.
Pro tip: In Woody Allen’s 2005 film Match Point, the character played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers leaves the scene of his crime to meet his wife at a performance of the musical version of The Woman in White, which ran from 2004 to 2006 in London’s West End. It probably made him feel a lot guiltier.
5. The Way We Live Now (1875), by Anthony Trollope
This novel was much discussed (among literary types, at least) in the early days of the 2008 financial crisis, and rightly so. Like Little Dorrit, it is a morality tale about the dangers of market speculation. Along the way, Trollope finds time to skewer many other enterprises, including marriage (corrupt!), book-reviewing (corrupt!) and institutionalized religion (you see where we’re going with this).
Pro tip: The suspicious financier in The Way We Live Now is named Melmotte. In Little Dorrit, he’s named Merdle. In the meltdown of 2008, he’s named Madoff. I am no financial genius, but I would suggest not handing your money over to anyone whose name begins with M.
(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels—Number Four: David Copperfield)
6. Daniel Deronda (1876), by George Eliot
Middlemarch may be Eliot’s greatest work, but Daniel Deronda is her most intriguing. In Eliot’s last novel, two protagonists journey toward a better understanding of themselves and the highly judgmental world they live in: Gwendolen Harleth through a propitious marriage that goes precipitously wrong, and Daniel Deronda through an investigation of his mysterious parentage.
Pro tip: My favorite subplot involves the heiress Catherine Arrowpoint and her inappropriate crush on her piano teacher, Herr Klesmer. Their romance is adorable, and Catherine’s mother could offer Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess tips on issuing inadvertently comic rejoinders to the news of an impending cross-class union.
7. New Grub Street (1891), by George Gissing
This masterpiece by an early admirer of Dickens — Gissing wrote one of the first serious critical studies of his work — is a caustic, amusing and sometimes brutal survey of the dog-eat-dog publishing scene at the end of the 19th century. In addition to being astonishingly prescient about the human desire for very short text in magazines (see the evidence quoted here), Gissing succeeds in reinventing the marriage plot for his own literary ends, matching up writers with their perfect readers.
Pro tip: Most endearing character award goes to Harold Biffen, an earnest, down-at-the-heels novelist intent on writing a work of pure, ignoble, unmarketable and aggressively boring realism. It is the true story of a nearby grocer, which he plans to call Mr. Bailey, Grocer. How great is that title? Also: I know it’s hard to dramatize people writing, but someone really needs to make a movie of this book. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin? I am available to consult.
8. The Forsyte Saga (1906-21), by John Galsworthy
This trilogy follows three generations of a prominent London family across the great divide between Victorianism and modernism. It’s a period of intense aesthetic and social transition, embodied by the haughty and beautiful Irene Forsyte, who marries Soames Forsyte for money but soon learns she values freedom more.
Pro tip: Do not miss the miniseries starring Gina McKee and Damian Lewis (now of the Showtime drama Homeland) as Irene and Soames Forsyte. It’s superbly acted, and it offers a compelling visual of the period’s sea change in taste through its depiction of the modernist house designed for the couple.
9. A Fine Balance (1995), by Rohinton Mistry
I’ve said that nobody writes like Dickens anymore, but it’s still possible for a writer to attain a Dickensian effect. All you need to do is invent a deeply detailed and immersive fictional world, fill it with characters from all strata of society, plot it with cunning and intricacy and create the overall impression of real life. Rohinton Mistry nails it with this novel set in 1970s Bombay against the backdrop of Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency, in which a widow named Dina Dalal takes in three boarders whose lives become intertwined with hers in ways both magical and terrible.
10. Jack Maggs (1997), by Peter Carey
In this dark reimagining of the plot of Great Expectations, the convict Jack Maggs, transported to Australia, returns to England in 1837 under penalty of death to unite with the boy whose education he has funded from exile. In the process, he gets tangled up with a young novelist named Toby Oates, whose professional and personal accomplishments closely resemble those of a certain Victorian author we know.
Pro tip: In the novel, Toby embarks on an ill-fated physical relationship with his sister-in-law, Lizzie, who lives with him and his wife. There’s no evidence that Dickens crossed that particular line, but wife’s sister Mary did live with them and he was deeply attached to her. Her sudden death in 1837 sent the writer into a protracted period of grief, and it was the only time in his career that he missed a monthly deadline.
Come back tomorrow for our look at Charles Dickens’ second best novel.
LIST: The All-TIME 100 Novels