For this list, I am bypassing ‘War and Peace’, ‘Middlemarch’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, etc. in order to highlight some of the lesser known novels and novelists of the 19th century which I have read and found to be among my favorites.
‘Mysteries’ by Knut Hamsun (1892) – Hamsun’s most famous work was ‘Hunger’, but he wrote several novels in the 19th century which are exceedingly good including ‘Mysteries’ and ‘Pan’ and ‘Victoria’. You may want to avoid this Norwegian writer’s later work in the 20th century though.
‘Cousin Phillis’ by Elizabeth Gaskell (1864) – Her pen name was Mrs. Gaskell, and her real name was Elizabeth Gaskell. Her most famous novel was probably ‘Cranford’, but I have found all of her work I’ve read uniformly good.
‘The Relic’ by Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz (1887) – So far I have discovered three wonderful Portuguese writers: Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, and Jose Saramago. Of the three, Eca de Queiroz was the earliest. In ‘The Relic’, its anti-hero is ridiculed with comic irony.
‘Marianne’ by George Sand (1876) – Her real name was Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin. She dressed like a man, smoked in public, and had affairs with a number of artists including musician Frederic Chopin. Ivan Turgenev said of Sand, “You breathe freely when you read her.”
‘Torrents of Spring’ by Ivan Turgenev (1872) – Of all the great Russian writers of the 19th century, Turgenev is probably the lightest. That may be due to his connection to the French and George Sand. ‘Fathers and Sons’ is his most famous work, but I find all his fiction uniformly good.
‘Dom Casmurro’ by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1899) – No question here, Machado de Assis is the greatest Brazilian writer of all time. After reading his most famous work, ‘Epitaph of a Small Winner’, I plunged into all of his work available which was all fine. Ultimately I plunged into a lot of Latin American fiction which I continue to find vastly rewarding.
‘Castle Rackrent’ by Maria Edgeworth (1800) – Here is the first historical novel, the first Anglo-Irish novel, and the first saga novel with an unreliable narrator. I must warn you that the style of this novel is somewhat old-fashioned and different from the styles of today so that it might be difficult to fully appreciate.
‘New Grub Street’ by George Gissing (1891) – It is Gissing’s most famous novel, but I’ve read another, ‘The Odd Women’, which was also good. This is a doubly literary novel, because it is about writers pursuing literary careers.
‘The People of Hemsö’ by August Strindberg (!887) – Strindberg was most famous as a Swedish playwright competing with Norwegian Henrik Ibsen for European audiences. I have only read this one fine novel by Strindberg so far, although I have read at least a couple of his plays.
Since female writers are somewhat underrepresented in this list just as they are in 19th century literature (except at the very top with Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot), I will finish with a poem from my favorite 19th century poet, Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson wrote over 1700 poems, but less than a dozen were published during her lifetime.
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Emily Dickinson (1864)