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The 25 greatest British novels

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What are the greatest British novels ever written? In search of a collective critical assessment, BBC Culture contributor Jane Ciabattari polled 82 book critics, from Australia to Zimbabwe, Beirut to Seoul – but not the UK. They were asked each to name the 10 greatest British novels ever published, with their top pick receiving 10 points in the tabulation. This list includes no nonfiction, no plays, no narrative or epic poems (no Paradise Lost or Beowulf), no short story collections (no Morte D’Arthur) – novels only, by British authors (no James Joyce). Here are the top 25. (Credit: Getty Images)

  1. White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000)

At 24, Smith astonished the literary world with a first novel of tremendous breadth and wit, winning both the Whitbread and Guardian first book awards. White Teeth is set in 1970s London, where two lifelong friends, Archie Jones, a working-class Londoner and Samal Iqbal, born Muslim in Bangladesh, have settled to raise their families. They live in Willesden, north-west London, where Smith was raised. The novel, which Smith has described as having a “utopian” view of race relations, offers a vivid portrait of a multicultural postcolonial city: “Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks.” Smith’s 2012 novel NW ranked at number 54 in this BBC Culture poll. (Credit: Random House)

  1. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing, 1962)

The first of three novels by the Nobel laureate that Margaret Drabble dubbed Lessing’s “inner space fiction” centres around the four notebooks in which Anna Wulf records and deciphers her life (and the fifth “golden” notebook in which she works to integrate the others). “‘The two women were alone in the London flat’ – what an auspicious beginning for this intricately constructed story of a woman thinking, making sense of her life, trying to have it all!” writes critic Susan Larson of WWNO’s The Reading Life of Lessing’s masterpiece. “This novel is a touchstone for a generation of readers. I have read it some five times over the years and am astonished to find it still relevant, still challenging.” Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor ranks at number 96 in this BBC Culture poll. (Credit: Harper Perennial Modern Classics)

  1. Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy, 1895)

As a young man Jude, a stonemason in a small village in Hardy’s invented “Wessex” dreams of studying classics at the fictional Christminster (modelled after Oxford). In the course of 19 years, his ambitions are stymied by his involvement with Arabella Donn and then his cousin Sue Bridehead, the birth of his son Jude, other children, and the limits of his class. “It remains so sobering to me how much the main character went through and how much he suffered, at an age (by the end of novel) when most of us are still trying to ‘find ourselves’,” writes Barbara Hoffert of Library Journal. Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge ranks at 74 in this BBC Culture poll, his Tess of the d’Urbervilles at 51. (Credit: Wikipedia)

  1. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (Henry Fielding, 1749)

Fielding’s picaresque novel of the good-natured foundling Tom Jones “created that sensational artifact we still call ‘the novel’, a long prose work with multiple strands of story, arriving at a resolution complex enough to satisfy an educated adult,” writes John Domini, author of The Sea-God’s Herb. “There were such works before Fielding, of course, Quixote being the outstanding example (and Fielding himself began with a parody of Samuel Richardson), but Tom Jones ushered in a good century and a half of the novel’s supremacy… The novel remains a fine and moving read, a-slosh with humanity and surprises.” Geoffrey O’Brien of The New York Review of Books treasures “its syntax, which when first encountered was a paradise larded with every available taste and surface of the material world”. (Credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899)

This canonical novel was based in part on Conrad’s experiences as a steamboat captain on the Congo in 1890. “Conrad’s fidelity to the power of words, sounds, images is astounding,” writes Ainehi Edoro of Brittle Paper. “The economy of language is remarkable. Everything is swollen with significance. Even Chinua Achebe, who hates Conrad to death, admits that there is something wildly seductive about the novel. In the same essay where he calls Conrad a racist he worries about the fact that Conrad’s use of imagery is hypnotizing. I also think of Heart of Darkness as the first truly global novel in the sense that there are no more sealed off, hermetic spaces like the Victorian drawing room. Every locality is suffused with anxiety about what’s happening in distant spaces.” Conrad’s Nostromo ranked 69th in this BBC Culture poll. (Credit: Penguin Random House)

  1. Persuasion (Jane Austen, 1817)

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” Anne Elliott tells Captain Harville, in one of Austen’s pointed allusions to the ways in which women’s lives and history have been narrated by men. Austen’s posthumous final novel revolves around a woman whose virtues seem invisible to those around her as she grows older, but who, in the end, makes a fulfilling marriage to a man she loves. Persuasion’s “sheer weight and immense complexity has turned it into a ‘should read’ rather than an actually read novel – or else a feat for graduate students (as in my case),” writes Brett Josef Grubisic of the Vancouver Sun. “It’s nonetheless the pinnacle of formal accomplishments.” The New York Review of Books’ Geoffrey O’Brien praises “its particular leanness and acuity”. (Credit: Wordsworth Classics)

  1. Emma (Jane Austen, 1815)

The last book published in Austen’s lifetime, Emma, writes Heller McAlpin of the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, is “a stellar example of this beloved author’s astute, arch, entertaining brand of social criticism, with a heroine who remains a model for the dangers of hubris and cluelessness. Austen never gets old.” Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever and rich,” is a woman of means with time on her hands and no financial pressure to marry. Still, she is pulled into the marriage plot. She fancies herself a matchmaker, to comical effect – convincing Harriet Smith, wrongly, that three men are in love with her, including George Knightley. Emma interferes in the lives of her family and friends, blind to her own flaws, until at last she finds “perfect happiness” with Knightley herself. (Credit: Wordsworth Classics)

  1. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989)

Ishiguro’s third novel, the 1989 winner of the Man Booker prize, tells the story of Stevens, loyal butler to Lord Darlington during the years before World War Two, a man so formal we never learn his first name. Through his diaries and flashbacks, he considers, in retrospect, his fondness for the housekeeper, Miss Kenton (who has since left Lord Darlington’s service, married and had children). In the midst of a shift to a new employer, he takes a motoring trip, in search of Miss Kenton, and faces the regrets and missed opportunities in his life. A picture of restraint, and self-sacrifice, he turns, at last, to “the remains” of his days. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go ranked 34th on this BBC Culture poll. (Credit: Vintage International)

  1. Howards End (EM Forster, 1910)

“I will never forget the depth of emotion I felt upon reading the words ‘Only connect,’” writes Anne Boyd Rioux of The Millions and The Rumpus. “Forster had summed up not only the novel itself and the purpose of literature generally, but the whole of human yearning. Rarely have I read a book that so perfectly cut to the quick of existence and summed it all up in the briefest but most powerful of passages.” Brett Josef Grubisic (Vancouver Sun) calls Howards End “a delicate and nuanced and superbly realized depiction of family and the complexity of sisterhood”. Forster’s A Room with a View ranked 32nd in this BBC Culture poll. (Credit: Vintage)

  1. The Waves (Virginia Woolf, 1931)

“An experimental novel very much ahead of its time, Woolf’s The Waves is as complex and thrilling as the ocean itself,” writes Michele Filgate of Salon and The Literary Hub. The narrative of The Waves consists of six voices – soliloquies with the intimacy of interior monologue – and a seventh character off stage. These characters, which echo EM Forster, TS Eliot, Lytton Strachey, Mary Hutchinson, Thoby Stephen, Vanessa Ball and Woolf herself, are woven together with poetic passages tracking the progress of the day. In her diaries, Woolf wrote that she intended the book to be “an abstract play-poem… a mystical eyeless book… A mind thinking… life itself going on”. Later, she settled on the shape: “a series of dramatic soliloquies….running homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves.” Woolf’s Orlando ranked 65th in this BBC Culture poll. (Credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Atonement (Ian McEwan, 2001)

McEwan’s gorgeously crafted and haunting novel spans six decades, beginning on a summer day in 1935, when young Briony prepares to present a play to her family and witnesses an assault in darkened woods. Her testimony implicates a neighbour, with long-lasting effects. In the following sections – a panoramic account of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, and scenes of London during the Blitz, where she works as a nurse – Briony’s search for redemption evolves into a meditation on the power of art. “The shifts in perspective in Atonement, the sheer force of the story he builds, the shock of the twists in the narrative, his portrayal of the war’s devastating impact– it’s stayed with me for a long time,” writes Mary Ann Gwinn, book editor of the Seattle Times. (Credit: Anchor Books)

  1. Clarissa (Samuel Richardson, 1748)

“At the very dawn of English literature, Samuel Richardson gave us his brave and unsentimental epistolary tragedy about the deliberate ruination of Clarissa Harlowe, who is at first an accomplice of her own delusions of unfettered love and then later a captive of the charming, utterly cynical and unspeakable Robert Lovelace; Clarissa is a novel at whose black heart is the evil men do to women – one of the main reasons fiction was invented,” writes Steve Wasserman of The Nation. “Richardson’s colossal, sadly neglected novel remains unmatched in its rendering of the mercurial and estranging workings of the human mind,” writes Terry Castle, author of The Professor. “It’s a tragic masterpiece, as profound as Don Quixote and as unsparing as any story told by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Flaubert.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

  1. The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford, 1915)

A visionary impressionistic work, The Good Soldier opens simply, with a comment by Edward Dowell, the distinctly unreliable American narrator – “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” – and evolves into the story of unfaithful couples, multiple divorces, deaths, suicides and madness. As a Ford friend once put it, The Good Soldier is “the finest French novel in the English language”. “Captures adultery, heartbreak, stoic grace in tones that resemble an (extremely) Anglo-Saxon Flaubert,” writes Paul Wilner (Zyzzyva). “With stylistically exquisite technique, Ford obliquely penetrates his character’s psychologies, moral failures, and the era’s anguish,” writes Ron Slate (On the Seawall). “The unspooling perspective of his narrator, masterfully controlled, is the story. Ford’s handling of paradox sets an example for all novelists.” (Credit: Penguin Classics)

  1. Nineteen Eighty-four (George Orwell, 1949)

Orwell’s dystopian novel of governmental control and surveillance, with its indelible and lasting vocabulary, is “as relevant today – if not more relevant – as when it was published in 1949,” writes Stephen Romei of The Australian. “A work of extraordinary prescience, political insight and narrative power, the language of which has become part of the cultural DNA, from ‘thought police’ to Big Brother. A book that was a warning to the world to come. Also has one of the great opening lines in literature: ‘It was a cold bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’” Brett Josef Grubisic of the Vancouver Sun writes,“There’s no better depiction of the cruelties and malignancy of an authoritarian regime, nor the viral insidiousness of ideology.” (Credit: Harvill Secker)

  1. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)

Austen’s novel begins with a line that resounds to this day: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The story of Elizabeth Bennett, one of five unmarried daughters of a country gentleman, and Mr Darcy, her land-owning suitor, has wooed readers for two centuries, selling more than 20 million copies and inspiring dozens of imitations. The novel concerns itself with the marriage prospects of the five daughters, their varied reactions toward their suitors, and the upward mobility promised by various matches. Excursions, fancy balls, proposals, aftermaths, weddings and “familial approbation” abound in a novel Austen playfully called “too light, and bright, and sparkling”. (Credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848)

“Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” “Thackeray’s sole masterpiece rarely receives the kind of praise that critics heap on 19th Century novels by Dickens, Eliot or the Brontës,” writes Tom Beer of Newsday. “But this 1847-1848 doorstop novel (originally serialised) features probably the greatest anti-heroine in English literature, Becky Sharp, and a plot that revolves around class, social climbing and a financial crisis that will seem eerily familiar to modern readers.” “Vanity Fair has it all,” writes Dan Akst of The Wall Street Journal and Newsday, “scope, humour, pathos, and unforgettable characters. It both speaks of its time, and speaks of all times.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

This pioneering work of science fiction and Gothic horror developed an indelible ‘monster’ of a theme that has endured for centuries: of the scientist as a “modern Prometheus”. Frankenstein “continues to shape the imagination of writers, and it is a chilling, contemporary read, more relevant than ever in a time of AIs,” writes Nilanjana Roy (author, How To Read in Indian, Business Standard). “While it’s not my favourite British novel, Frankenstein is what I’d put at the top of my list for most important,” writes Terry Hong of Bookdragon. “Why? For its content and form (the horrific story, a precocious blend of frame story/bildungsroman), as well as inspiring context — the author was still a teenage girl in the early 19th Century when she began what would become the groundbreaking novel.” (Credit: Penguin)

  1. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens, 1850)

David Copperfield is “populated by some of the most vivid characters ever created,” writes NPR’s Maureen Corrigan. “David himself, Steerforth, Peggotty, Mr Dick – and it climbs up and down and off the class ladder – the Blacking Factory, the London literary world, exile to Australia!” “Not a month passes that I do not think of one of its characters in relation to some aspect of my daily life,” writes Wendy Lesser (Threepenny Review, author, Why I Read). “Not so much the main characters like David, Agnes, or even Steerforth, but the bit players: Micawber, Peggotty, Barkis, Uriah Heep, Mr Dick. They are as much a part of my world, and my way of thinking about the world, as people I have actually met.” (Credit: Signet Classic)

  1. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847)

Wuthering Heights, writes Dale Peck (editor, the Evergreen Review), is “as formally ingenious as any novel in the 19th Century, and powered by more psychological energy than any book ever written”. Randon Billings Noble (of the Los Angeles Review of Books) admires Wuthering Heights because of “its layered narrative structure, because it is a work of incredible imagination, and because it is far more than a love story – it reveals what is vital and necessary. The story shows ‘the eternal rocks beneath’ our fleeting desires. At times it might be ‘a source of little visible delight, with its difficult and challenging characters, but as Catherine says of Heathcliff, it is ‘necessary’.” (Credit: Penguin)

  1. Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853)

Bleak House, “is, among Dickens novels, uniquely original in its alternation of first-person past-tense chapters with a concurrent third-person account in present tense,” writes Benjamin Taylor, author of Proust: The Search. “Braided together and working in concert, these two strands tell the tale of Esther Summerson, Honoria Deadlock, Mr Tulkinghorn, John Jarndyce, Richard Carstone, Ada Clare, Mr Guppy, Mr Krook, Nemo the copyist, Miss Flite, Jo the crossing sweeper, Herbert Skimpole, Mr Woodcourt, Sargent George, Inspector Bucket, Mr Smallweed and dozens of others. Say the names and you are there among them.” Geoffrey O’Brien of the New York Review of Books calls Bleak House “the great book of the city of grime and fog and laws”. Malcolm Jones of The Daily Beast says it is “the only novel that has ever enthralled me so thoroughly that I skipped ahead to find out what happened to a particular character.” “It’s sobering to confront [the interminable lawsuit] Jarndyce and Jarndyce when you’re just launching your own career and thinking hardheadedly about money for the first time,” writes Barbara Hoffert of Library Journal. (Credit: Oxford World Classics)

  1. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, 1847)

“Brontë’s revolutionary 1847 Gothic romance about a young woman seeking a richer and more passionate life on her own terms still resonates with modern readers,” writes Wilda Williams (Library Journal). “Plus it’s a damn good story that one never tires of rereading.” Brontë’s novel features the orphan Jane Eyre’s search for an identity, her powerful attraction to her master at Thornfield Hall, Mr Rochester, and an intimate description of her complex moral choices and sometimes raw emotional states (“women feel just as men feel”). Mr Rochester’s wife Bertha, the “madwoman in the attic”, inspired Jean Rhys’s 1966 prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea, (ranked 53 in this BBC Culture poll), as well as a landmark 1979 book of feminist literary criticism by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Bronte’s Villette ranked 28th in this BBC Culture poll. (Credit: Barnes and Noble)

  1. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1861)

“Great Expectations might be the quintessential British novel,” writes Dawn Raffel of the San Francisco Chronicle. “I suspect that too many Americans have had the pleasure of it ruined by a tedious curriculum or have discounted it because of its popularity. To re-read Dickens’ classic as an adult is to discover its wit and brio, its influence, and its truth.” “Charles Dickens is the greatest English novelist of all time, and Great Expectations is his greatest book,” writes Laurie Hertzel of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “It has all the elements of classic Dickens – endearing, flawed characters; a plot that skewers the politics of the time (and of our time); subplots that skewer morality and culture; a love story; and a wonderful storyline. Pip, Joe, Magwitch, Estella and, God help us all, Miss Havisham are unforgettable.” (Credit: Penguin)

  1. Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925)

“If the most precious gift of the novel as a medium is the power it has to break into the prison of human consciousness, to expose the gossamer weave of thought and feeling and memory that makes up our innermost lives, then Woolf’s fourth novel stands alone at the pinnacle,” writes Lev Grossman, Time magazine book critic. “It is the greatest single account of being human in the modern era that exists anywhere.” “Ulysses gets more credit for thunderous formal innovation, but does anyone actually enjoy Ulysses?” asks Brian Hurley (The Rumpus). “Virginia Woolf made modernism live and breathe.” Virginia Woolf “so thoroughly upended our ideas of what the novel could do narratively, emotionally, that we all continue along in its long shadow,” writes Mark Sarvas (Bookforum, New York Times Book Review). (Credit: Wikipedia)

  1. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927)

“Subtle, beautiful, staggeringly intelligent and flat-out original,” writes Roxana Robinson (The New York Times Book Review). “A masterpiece of spare modernism, its stream-of-consciousness encapsulates both the fluidity of time (one day, elongated; ten years, compressed), and the struggle to make art at the existential edge,” writes Elizabeth Rosner (San Francisco Chronicle). “As I have re-read this novel over the years its richness (of language, perceptions, etc) has continued to reveal itself”, writes The New York Times’ Carmela Ciuraru. “Incomparably masterful in its treatment of time, longing, loss, artistic ambition, and the subtle yet luminous strands of consciousness that make up an inner life,” writes Carolina de Robertis (San Francisco Chronicle). “Each time I read [it] I am confronted by the shock of meeting language, by the shock of confronting existence,” writes Krys Lee (Drifting House). (Credit: Vintage)

  1. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1874)

Middlemarch won this BBC Culture poll by a landslide: 42% of the critics polled included it in their lists. Why? “The quality of its writing and its depth of insight into character and relationships,” writes Morris Dickstein (author, Dancing in the Dark). “Eliot’s ability to move from beautifully etched emotional detail to the epic sweep of social change is still breathtaking,” writes Fintan O’Toole (The Irish Times). The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sacks calls Middlemarch “the greatest social and psychological novel ever written in English.” “Middlemarch combines a massive solid structure with the most radical doubts about the very nature of that structure,” writes Michael Gorra (author, Portrait of a Novel).“A novel of great characters, it’s an even greater novel of ideas and ideals,” writes Vogue’s Megan O’Grady. To read Middlemarch is “to encounter an intelligence wholly sympathetic towards, and wholly unsurprised by, human foibles and frailties,” writes The Australian’s Geordie Williamson. “It is the heart of the hourglass, from which the grains of pre-modern England sift down to our contemporary world, each sentence ticking past the creative constrictions of Eliot’s genius.” “The last sentence is perhaps the most moving in British fiction,” writes George Scialabba (author, The Modern Predicament). (Credit: Penguin Classics)