A few years ago, when I was a bookseller, I was trying to explain to a customer what exactly Bleak House is about. It was hard. Many 19th-century novels are impossible to summarize because so much happens in them. Some of these suckers are a thousand pages long! How do you sum up a book that casually takes on fifty years of history, a war, several diseases, some orphans, a murder, and a couple of marriages and births? Judging from back covers, it’s usually something like “A sweeping examination of Victorian Britain” or “A richly detailed journey through 19th-century Russian history.”
But what if these books had more honest—and simpler—plot summaries? Here are a few ideas.
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy: An affair goes badly wrong, also featuring some thoughts on farming in 19th-century Russia.
Can You Forgive Her?, Anthony Trollope: A man takes 800 pages to decide whether or not to forgive his wife for an affair she didn’t even have.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte: His first wife was in the attic the whole time, but the heroine marries him anyway.
Middlemarch, George Eliot: People in a small English town make the wrong life choices while we watch.
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville: Some men try to find a whale and it doesn’t go well. Surprisingly funny!
Note: It can be hard to find classics by authors of colour, especially for the 19th century. This post has some great suggestions of authors of colour from all eras to add to your TBR list.