Best Novels of All Times
Henry Fielding (1749)
Joyous and irrepressible, bawdy and fast, Fielding’s picaresque adventure is short on moralising over sexual liaisons, and long on a rich depiction of 18th-century life. Ceaselessly engaging and everlastingly fresh.
Jane Austen (1815)
Of all Austen’s heroines, Emma Woodhouse is the most beguilingly flawed; and naturally, beneath the comedy of disastrous match-making and snobbery, the narrative has a keen intelligence and finely wrought moral sense that makes even a picnic on Box Hill seem universal.
Charles Dickens (1860)
All that we associate with Dickens, from the large characters to the sense of social injustice, finds its most perfect expression here: Pip’s journey from blacksmith’s boy to nouveau gentility is an elegy of regret and nostalgia; and London and the windwhipped Thames estuary are unforgettably conjured.
What Maisie Knew
Henry James (1897)
Legal divorce came to England in 1857 and was still a rarity when 40 years later, James’s novel told of a young girl being shuttled between two ghastly separating parents. Bleak, yet perfectly formed.
George Eliot (1874)
Eliot brought her formidable acuity to the evocation of a very particular time – the political reforms of 1832 – but she also pioneered a real depth of psychological understanding in her unforgiving depictions of disintegrating love. Virginia Woolf described it as the only English novel “for grown-up people”.
James Joyce (1922)
Or: a day in the life of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, as they criss-cross Dublin on June 4, 1904. Every word is pregnant with meaning, every character’s thought conjured with precision, yet it is brilliantly, consistently, laugh-outloud funny.
Virginia Woolf (1925)
Well-connected Clarissa Dalloway is to give a party later that evening; not far away, Septimus Smith, a victim of shell shock, sits in Regent’s Park, subject to hallucinations. Through their thoughtsWoolf addresses Society and the delicacy of sanity.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
D H Lawrence (1928)
The sex scenes and language are now inadvertently hilarious, but none of us were to know this until 1960, when the ban on this novel was lifted. Still startling, there is also another level here to do with landscape, inheritance and war.
A Dance to the Music of Time
Anthony Powell (first volume, 1951, 12th volume 1975)
A fantastically ambitious and panoramic sequence detailing the lives and loves of various interlocking mostly upper middleclass characters across the 20th century, it continues to draw in fresh enthusiasts.
Robert Graves (1934)
Graves hit a rich seam with this imagining of the lost autobiography of Emperor Claudius. Lethal palace intrigues, poisonings and sex, as well as satisfyingly complex relationships gives ancient Rome a vivid new colour and energy.
Flann O’Brien (1939)
A book within a book within a book, a satirical evocation of 1930s Ireland, in which the characters write about one another, and these various fictional figments gang up on the notional author.
The New Confessions
William Boyd (1987)
A sprawling picaresque aping the form of Rousseau’s The Confessions, New Confessions follows John James Todd from Edinburgh through the First World War to Berlin, Hollywood and then into exile on an island in the Mediterranean. Surprising, engaging, often very funny, it is also ultimately rather moving.
A Clockwork Orange
Anthony Burgess (1962)
Young Alex loves Beethoven and ultraviolence, but the state thinks it has found a way to scientifically purge him of evil. The real point of the book is the dazzling language – a blend of cockney, Russian and Romany.
The Girls of Slender Means
Muriel Spark (1963)
Set in drab 1945 London, Spark’s genius for conveying the flavour of a time, combined with the collision between light-hearted youth and intimations of a heavier life to come, results in a story with an unusual sweet-sour after-taste.
The Sea, The Sea
Iris Murdoch (1978)
A theatre director takes a house on the coast where he meets his former love and disastrously begins wooing her afresh. Murdoch juggles philosophy with raw emotions and self-absorption and finds humour in both.
Jilly Cooper (1985)
One of the greatest of guilty pleasures, Cooper’s febrile Rutshire Chronicles started here: show jumping is a backdrop to the extraordinary sexual dealings of the caddish Rupert Campbell-Black and the wealthy English county set. Pure glitzy class porn, yet still weirdly moving.
John Banville (2005)
A masterful exploration of memory, and of loss, Banville’s Booker-winning novel focuses on an art historian reaching back to the seaside years of his childhood, and of the people and experiences and loves that have subsequently shaped the meaning of his life.
Zadie Smith (2000)
The most startling quality of Smith’s precocious debut – a northwest London multiracial multigenerational saga – is the blend of extreme energy and stop-you-in-your-tracks psychological observation. Immigration, the human genome, Kilburn, failed fathers, 1970s pubs and a Nazi too; the genius lies in Smith’s flair for making it all seem so natural, as well as so funny.
Hilary Mantel (2009)
There is the temptation to think of this extraordinary work as populist, even crowd-pleasing. But Mantel’s achievement runs deeper. In fictionalising Thomas Cromwell and the Henrician court, the deadly power struggles and the most tender relationships, Mantel has reinvigorated not just a genre but the English novel as a whole.
Tess of the d’Urbevilles
Thomas Hardy (1891)
There are times when Tess’s ruralWessex has a medieval feel; but Hardy’s tragedy of a wronged country girl is also on another level about the painful onrush of modernity and industrialisation – a foreshadowing of simple purity despoiled by capitalism.
THE OTHER CONTENDERS
The Pilgrim’s Progress
John Bunyan (1678)
Daniel Defoe (1719)
Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady
Samuel Richardson (1748)
William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
Charles Dickens (1852)
Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)
Anthony Trollope (1857)
EM Forster (1910)
Of Human Bondage
Somerset Maugham (1915)
The Forsyte Saga
John Galsworthy (1922)