12 Essential English Novels Everyone Should Read

18 March, 2014

Image shows a woman reading in a hammock.

There’s nothing better than reading a good novel for switching off from the pressures of studying, particularly when doing so helps improve your general knowledge, deepen your cultural appreciation and sharpen your own English skills at the same time.

The classic novels on this list are my (non-exhaustive) selection of ‘must-read’ books for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of English literature. What counts as English literature spans over a thousand years, but you’ll find most of the great classics that well-educated people are often expected to have read – what’s known as the ‘canon’ – were primarily written in the 19th century or a little after, so this list focuses on that time period. Whether you’re a native English speaker or just learning, add these books to your reading list and make it your mission to read them all before the year is out.

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1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Image shows Emily Brontë in a painting by her brother, Bramwell.

Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights, in a portrait by her brother, Bramwell.

This tumultuous tale of life in a bleak farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors is a popular set text for GCSE and A-level English study, but away from the demands of the classroom it’s easier to enjoy its drama and intensity. Populated largely by characters whose inability to control their own emotions leads to violence and revenge, it’s a tale that spans two generations and two families. At the heart of the story is the mysterious ‘gypsy’, Heathcliff, adopted as a ragamuffin child into the Earnshaw family to live at Wuthering Heights. As he grows up, he becomes close to his adopted sister Cathy, falling in love with her only to be met with crushing disappointment when she marries Edgar Linton, a kind and gentle man from neighbouring Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff disappears and returns a rich, educated man bent on revenge.

2. Middlemarch by George Eliot

Image shows Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, from George Eliot's Middlemarch.

Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, from Middlemarch.

Middlemarch, subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, is the story of the inhabitants of a Midlands village in the 1830s. Masterfully weaving together several plotlines, the novel charts the fortunes of an interesting cast of characters, exploring their motivations, delusions and preoccupations. The remarkable thing about Middlemarch is the detail and realism with which George Eliot describes emotions. Feelings you thought were unique to you are described here in a way that could be describing your own thoughts. It’s one of the reasons why Middlemarch has been described the likes of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as one of the greatest English novels ever written; read it and you’ll soon find yourself agreeing with them.

 

3. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Image shows the pyramid-shaped Ministry of Justice building from 1984.

1984‘s Ministry of Justice.

Nineteen Eighty-Four makes depressing but essential reading. Published in 1949, it’s the author’s vision of a dystopian future dominated by totalitarian state surveillance, mind control and perpetual war. At the centre of the novel is Winston, whose job is to rewrite old news stories so that they toe the party line, whom we follow in his quest for rebellion against the government he works for. Its memorable opening line sets the unsettling tone for the rest of this uncomfortable novel: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” You probably already use phrases from this influential book without necessarily knowing it; “Big Brother” and “Room 101” are both references taken from this novel. As you read Nineteen Eighty-Four, ask yourself: how close do you think Orwell’s vision is to how society is today?

4. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Image shows a hobbit hole from the filming of The Lord of the Rings.

A hobbit hole, from the filming of The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand.

If you haven’t read the book, you’ll almost certainly have seen Peter Jackson’s epic three-part movie adaptation of it. Incredible though the films are, there’s inevitably a lot missing from them and it’s well worth persevering with the book’s slowish start to follow the journey of Frodo and friends more closely. If you’re not familiar with the story, The Lord of the Rings tells the story of a hobbit, Frodo, who must undertake a dangerous mission to the dark land of Mordor to destroy a powerful ring – a weapon that absolutely corrupts those who come under its power. As you’ll soon find out, that’s a highly simplified plot summary! Reading the book, you’ll be hard-pressed not to gain a deep admiration for the detail and thought Tolkien put into creating his imaginary world; languages, detailed family trees, maps, rich histories and backstories – all add to the sense of realism one feels when absorbed in Tolkien’s work. You’ll also spot some of Tolkien’s influences, such as Nordic mythology and the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (read this poem alongside Tolkien and you’ll notice where his inspiration for the Golden Hall came from). If you’re new to Tolkien, you might like to read The Hobbit beforehand; it’s a lighter read than The Lord of the Rings and it sets the backdrop for the events of the tome that follows it.

5. Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

Image shows a drawing of Charles and Lupin Pooter from Diary of a Nobody.

Charles and Lupin Pooter from Diary of a Nobody.

If you’ve ever in need of a little gentle comic relief, you can’t do much better than the delightful Diary of a Nobody. It’s the (made-up) diary of a self-important Victorian lower-middle class gentleman, Charles Pooter, in which he details the day-to-day household quandaries and social embarrassments we can all relate to. It was serialised in Punch magazine in Victorian times, and it’s a charming insight into what the Victorians found funny – but in many places, it’s still laugh-out-loud funny to the modern reader.

 

 

 

6. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman

Image shows an alethiometer from His Dark Materials.

An alethiometer, of the kind that the Master of Jordan College gives Lyra in His Dark Materials.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is comprised of three novels: Northern Lights (known in the US as The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The story is set in a fantasy world that contains numerous parallel universes, some of which bear some resemblance to real-life Oxford. Lyra, the protagonist, inhabits the fictional Jordan College, Oxford, in a world in which human beings are accompanied by animal embodiments of their souls, called daemons. The initial similarities and intriguing differences between Lyra’s world and real life will draw you in right from the start, and you’re sure to be gripped as you accompany Lyra on a journey that sees her coming of age and discovering that space and time are not what she expected. If you want to do some background reading, try Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, of which Pullman’s trilogy is a partial retelling.

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Image shows a copy of Jane Eyre next to a cup of tea.

Charlotte Brontë drew on her own experiences as a governess to write Jane Eyre.

This novel by Emily Brontë’s elder sister Charlotte has inspired numerous film adaptations, and tells the tale of a young governess, Jane Eyre, who goes to live and work in a foreboding country house with an eccentric master, Edward Rochester, who hides a dark secret in a remote wing of his sprawling home. The story focuses on Jane’s transition to adulthood, told from her perspective in the first person. Throughout the novel we observe her sense of morality, which is tested by the situations she finds herself in – first during her abusive childhood and then in her response to the passionate feelings she experiences towards Mr. Rochester.

 

 

8. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Image shows the painting, 'Dickens's dream', in which Charles Dickens sleeps in a sepia-toned room. The only colourful part is where the images from his dreams - reflecting scenes from his novels - swirl around his head.

‘Dickens’s dream’, painted by Robert William Buss, his grandson, in 1875.

Here is another coming-of-age story, and arguably one of the greatest ever told. If you think Charles Dickens is boring, or you’ve been put off him by studying him at school, please give him another chance. Like all his novels, Great Expectations is full of humour and populated by an entertaining cast of brilliantly-named characters. It tells the tale of Pip, an orphan from a poor background who learns a valuable lesson in life after his acquisition of personal wealth proves an unsatisfying experience that changes him for the worse, driving him away from the only people who’ve ever loved him. Along the way he meets the enigmatic Miss Havisham, an old lady jilted at the altar decades ago, who has frozen everything in her house at the moment at which her life was so tragically altered. The image of her wedding cake, still on the table but covered in cobwebs and mould, is one of many enduring and vivid scenes in this brilliant novel, which explores a number of moral themes including what it means to be a gentleman.

9. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Image shows a detail from the poster for the 1940 film of Rebecca.

Mr and Mrs de Winter from the poster for the Oscar-winning 1940 film of Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Even if you’re not normally into the Gothic, Rebecca is sure to have you gripped. Its nameless narrator tells the chilling tale of her experiences at Manderley, the house at the centre of the story, after marrying Maxim de Winter, its owner. Manderley proves to be haunted by memories of Maxim’s previous wife, Rebecca, who drowned the previous year; and the creepy Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, is determined to show Maxim’s new wife that she is no replacement for her beloved Rebecca. We follow the second Mrs. de Winter as she struggles to fit in at Manderley and uncovers the truth behind who Rebecca really was and what really happened to her. Its opening lines will haunt you as they’ve haunted the millions of readers who’ve enjoyed Rebecca since its publication in 1938: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”.

10. Any Jane Austen novel

Image shows a 1909 illustration of a scene from Emma.

This 1909 illustration of Emma shows Harriet, Emma and Mr Elton.

It was impossible to choose just one Jane Austen novel for this list, as they’re all absolutely brilliant and packed full of interesting and sometimes amusing characters – and heroines you can’t fail to love. As well as being entertaining stories in themselves, Jane Austen’s novels are recognised for their historical importance thanks to their social commentary on the Georgian aristocracy. Austen herself was on the outskirts of the aristocracy, well-placed to write about the people and situations she undoubtedly met with in real life. Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey; take your pick, but if forced to choose, my personal favourite is Emma, the tale of a well-meaning but headstrong young woman who makes it her mission to act as matchmaker to local villagers – with disastrous consequences both to them and to her own chances of romance.

11. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Image shows Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in the 1967 film of Far From the Madding Crowd.

Terence Stamp and Julie Christie as Sergeant Troy and Bathsheba in the 1967 film of Far From the Madding Crowd.

Thomas Hardy’s evocative novel Far from the Madding Crowd is set in ‘Wessex’, an early region of south-west England that no longer exists but is used to conjure up a sense of a place neither real nor made-up – an agricultural England that, during Hardy’s lifetime, was under threat from industrialisation. Rural life is a central theme in a story that follows the shepherd Gabriel Oak and his love for Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful and independent newcomer to the local farm she’s just inherited. Unfortunately, Oak isn’t the only one with his eye on the wilful Bathsheba, and two rivals appear on the scene in the shape of another farmer, Mr. Boldwood, and a dashing but rakish soldier, Sergeant Troy. Love and its sometimes dangerous and destructive power are explored among a number of other themes, including luck and tragedy.

 

12. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Image shows Castel Howard, often used as Brideshead in adaptations of Brideshead Revisited.

Castle Howard is has been used as Brideshead in adaptations of Brideshead Revisited.

Evelyn Waugh’s portrayal of the trials and tribulations of an aristocratic family and their friend, the narrator Charles Ryder, has been an inspiration to plenty of Oxford applicants, who hope to recreate the evocative Oxfordian scenes described in the early parts of the book – complete with Sebastian’s famous teddy bear, Aloysius. But there’s a lot more to Brideshead Revisited than idyllic Oxford life and decadent scenes involving Champagne and quail eggs. At its heart is the tale of a young man’s struggle with Roman Catholicism and with his own family, but there are many other themes running through it, including the decline of the English stately home after the two World Wars and a longing for the bygone era of the English nobility. Brideshead Revisited was adapted into a landmark television series with Jeremy Irons in the role of Charles Ryder; once you’ve read the book this makes wonderful viewing, sticking closely to the book. With Irons’ velvet tones vividly bringing to life Waugh’s words, this is one television adaptation that, in my opinion, will actually help you gain a deeper appreciation of the book.

These remarkable novels have all left their mark on popular culture and embedded themselves into the English psyche. Once you’ve read them all, you’ll have more of an idea of where your own literary tastes lie and you can make up your own list by taking from this one and adding your own. What would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments section below!






 

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Image credits: banner; Brontë; Middlemarch; 1984; hobbit hole; Diary of a Nobodyalethiometer; Jane Eyre; Dickens; Rebecca; Emma; Far From the Madding Crowd; Castle Howard

41 Responses to “12 Essential English Novels Everyone Should Read”

  1. April 06, 2015 at 4:44 am, Md. Shariful Islam said:

    Reading English Novels is my Favorite Hobby

    Reply

    • September 30, 2016 at 1:15 pm, Rebecca said:

      > I agree intensly, with all my heart

      Reply

  2. April 23, 2015 at 6:44 pm, Zuha said:

    I have read some of them but I won’t stop because I just love English literature.

    Reply

    • July 30, 2017 at 6:43 am, K h kollannavar said:

      > super works for competitive exams

      Reply

  3. June 02, 2015 at 1:16 pm, Joan King said:

    Brideshead Revisited is the most sumptuous book I have read during 60 years of loving to read. I remember absorbing it for the first time and being unable to put it down. It was Iike a sponge full of intoxicating liquid which I was unable to stop absorbing. It caused me to eliminate time and space and become enveloped within the words which painted stunning, poignant, and purposeful literary pictures.
    Re: Desert Island discs. Brideshead would be my book.

    Reply

  4. August 27, 2015 at 5:26 am, San Ra said:

    I like very much. It is crucial for English learners.

    Reply

    • June 06, 2017 at 1:12 pm, namra adnan said:

      All the novels above are very beneficial and very nice I loved it a lot i want to read them all once more they are awesome…..

      Reply

  5. October 05, 2015 at 10:40 am, Abharika said:

    Wuthering Heights is the best book I have ever read.

    Reply

    • August 16, 2016 at 9:53 am, Thomas Hardy said:

      > thats because its probably the “only” book you have read

      Reply

      • May 14, 2017 at 6:11 am, sanara said:

        > That’s just rude

        Reply

  6. October 05, 2015 at 7:17 pm, Fred said:

    I saw the TV series of Brideshead before I read the book. I’ve re-read it about 10 times since then, and every page I read I can see the scene and hear the dialogue. Best novel ever.

    Reply

  7. October 24, 2015 at 5:51 am, emad babiker Ahmed said:

    it will be wonderful to have all the beautiful books that I really love through you

    Reply

  8. November 08, 2015 at 9:25 pm, Julius A. Momo said:

    Of the 12 novels listed above, I am deeply in love with five of them, in order of interest: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Great Expectations, Far From the Madding Crowd, Rebecca, and Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights and Far From the Madding Crowd sound the same in romantic expectations, while Rebecca and Great Expectations say the same theme about a glowing hope falling opposite. Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm sing the same prophetic song about today’s world.

    Reply

  9. December 28, 2015 at 6:19 pm, Arbab Mehmood said:

    I would like to know for my knowledge the criteria for selection of twelve novels out of hundreds of outstanding English novels.

    Reply

  10. January 30, 2016 at 10:53 am, M Shabana begum said:

    Indeed a good collection

    Reply

  11. May 06, 2016 at 2:28 pm, Kendra Fennell said:

    I’m only n grade 5, and I don’t agree with these suggestions. I prefer newer books at university level. NEWER. I’ve already read all of these. Put up new ones please!!

    Reply

    • January 10, 2017 at 6:27 pm, behnam said:

      >

      Reply

  12. May 17, 2016 at 10:33 am, Andy said:

    Far From The Madding Crowd is a great book but for classic Hardy I would go with Tess which is probably my favourite book of all time.

    One book I would add to this list is Graham Swift’s Waterland. This is a beautiful account of life in the East Anglian fens and the English equivalent of American Southern Gothic.

    My second addition would be Orlando by Virginia Woolf. A third, Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. Can’t fault you for not having included every English classic in a list of just tweleve, though!

    Reply

  13. June 17, 2016 at 12:01 pm, Mohamed Moideen said:

    Mobydick,Robinson Crusoe,Moonstone,The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,A sign of Four, Pickwick Papers,Ivanhoe,Treasure Island,Mill on the Floss,Adventures of Tom Sawyer,Don Quixote,a tale of two cities,Pride and Prejudice,Pygmalion,the three musketeers,Hound of Baskervillies,Wuthering Heights,David Copperfield,Alice in Wonderland,Gulliver’s Travels,Black Beauty,Merchant ofVenice,Scarlet Pimpernel,Adventures of Huckleberry finn,Wind in the Willows,Emma,Vanity Fair,Jane Eyre,Great Expetations,Oliver Twist,One who flew over the cuckoo’s nest,to kill a mokking bird,Gone with the wind, …..is the list which i shall consider as among the top classical literature in English.

    Reply

    • December 29, 2016 at 10:59 pm, Wacker said:

      > l completely agree. The choice is endless. The old devils is a classic..

      Reply

  14. June 26, 2016 at 2:24 am, Heather Lloyd-Kemper said:

    The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oliver Wilde
    My favorite and would put in the top 10 British Novels!

    Reply

    • June 26, 2016 at 2:31 am, Heather Lloyd-Kemper said:

      I meant Oscar Wilde- I don’t know why my computer changes the name on me!

      Reply

  15. July 21, 2016 at 4:26 am, Muhsina said:

    Jane Eyre, I think, a sharp response to the patriarchal society…
    So I adore it…

    Reply

  16. July 26, 2016 at 5:36 pm, Junaid Razzaq said:

    The list is really impressive and absorbing.

    Reply

    • September 30, 2016 at 1:16 pm, Rebecca said:

      > like a sponge

      Reply

  17. August 16, 2016 at 8:40 pm, SANA BHARDWAJ said:

    Thank for this very interesting list. I have read some of the novels mentioned and I totally agree with them but I’m surprised as how a book like GONE WITH THE WIND is not added to this list.

    Reply

    • September 05, 2016 at 1:43 pm, LauraE said:

      > This is a list of great novels written by English writers – Gone with the Wind is a piece of American English literature 🙂

      Reply

  18. September 14, 2016 at 2:33 am, ShKuntala Singhal said:

    I am a retired person and I love reading good novels.I have already read five of them.

    Reply

    • September 30, 2016 at 1:15 pm, Rebecca said:

      > Me too ShKuntala Singhal, me too.

      Reply

  19. November 15, 2016 at 2:41 pm, Darshan said:

    You May Add FRANKENSTEIN

    Reply

  20. November 19, 2016 at 9:14 am, Asad Zaidi said:

    I meant Oscar Wilde- I don’t know why my computer changes the name on me!

    Reply

  21. December 03, 2016 at 11:52 am, François Masumbuko Lusamaki said:

    Thanks for giving us these classics. But do not forget that readers have their own choices. For example, I’m burning with desire to read I Am Not Friday. How can a person living in a far-forgotten dream to read such an inspiring novel.

    Reply

  22. December 03, 2016 at 11:53 am, François said:

    Thanks for giving us these classics. But do not forget that readers have their own choices. For example, I’m burning with desire to read I Am Not Friday. How can a person living in a far-forgotten dream to read such an inspiring novel.

    Reply

  23. December 13, 2016 at 11:28 pm, Andrew Fulop said:

    E M Forster’s Howards End

    Reply

  24. January 07, 2017 at 1:37 am, Bob Cocks said:

    A terrible list. Weak, mostly 3rd rate dreck. Looks like the creation of someone who hasn’t really read much or deeply. Just random stuff to signal your cool. A lot of low brow popular stuff. The Bronte’s are/were unreadable. Pullman and Grossmith?! Arghh. Austin, Waugh, Dickens…sure. Some of the rest are for filler reading on a long flight…..or in a waiting room at the dentist “Essential??!!” Hardly

    Reply

  25. January 10, 2017 at 5:23 pm, Paul Marriner said:

    > Bob Cocks,
    Interesting comment. I have no firm views as I’ve not read many in he list but would be interested to know which novels you’d have gone for.

    Reply

    • June 01, 2017 at 5:04 am, Isita said:

      > there is no full story of any novel

      Reply

  26. June 06, 2017 at 1:15 pm, namra adnan said:

    I loved this novel very much it has very interesting lines..and many more thing and thanks for this list thank u very much these English novels are very beneficial for us it’s improve our English also so thanks for this ….🤗🤗😄

    Reply

  27. October 26, 2017 at 11:33 am, Raj said:

    Always and always- Pride and Prejudice

    Reply

  28. November 07, 2017 at 8:13 pm, Elena gilbert said:

    I’ve haven’t read any of these books,but I’m looking forward to it.what can I say I’m not much of a reader.

    Reply

  29. November 17, 2017 at 1:07 pm, Will said:

    ATONEMENT deserves to be on this list

    Reply

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