Sarah Waters’s top 10 Victorian novels

Sarah Waters is the author of three thrillers set in Victorian London. Her latest, Fingersmith, is on the Orange prize longlist, and has been described as a modern Woman in White.

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Marred only by the fact that Charlotte clearly liked Mr Rochester too much; but we can forgive her that. Often given to schoolchildren to read, but you have to be a grown-up to really get it. Has to be one of the most perfectly structured novels of all time.

2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
A story of the traumas of sex and class. My favourite moment is the one where Magwitch makes his stumbling way up the shadowy staircase towards an unnerved but unsuspecting Pip: the halting but inexorable rise of the repressed ‘from the darkness beneath’.

3. Vanity Fair by WM Thackeray
Deserves its spot in the top 10 if only for the wonderful Becky Sharp.

4. New Grub Street by George Gissing
A devastating study of the late-Victorian literary industry, New Grub Street still has an unnervingly modern ring. It’s also a kind of anti-romance: Gissing was uncompromising in his analysis of gender relations and his exposé of the withering impact of economics upon love.

5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Commonly thought of as ‘romantic’, but try rereading it without being astonished by the comfortableness with which Brontë’s characters subject one another to extremes of physical and psychological violence.

6. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
The most resonant of Dickens’s novels, with an elusive moral centre and a gallery of grotesques – Jenny Wren, the dolls’ dressmaker; Mr Venus, articulator of human bones; the demented stalker Bradley Headstone; the loathsome Lammles – which, even by Dickensian standards, are really very grotesque indeed.

7. Dracula by Bram Stoker
An exercise in masculine anxiety and nationalist paranoia, Stoker’s novel is filled with scenes that are staggeringly lurid and perverse. The one in Highgate cemetery, where Arthur and Van Helsing drive a stake through the writhing body of the vampirised Lucy Westenra, is my favourite.

8. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
A heady late-Victorian tale of double-living, in which Dorian’s fatal, corruptive influence over women and men alike is left suggestively indistinct.

9. Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Another, more definitive, novel of shameful double-living. Even more so than Dorian Gray’s, Mr Hyde’s sordid and perhaps deviant excesses are rendered more suggestive through being left undescribed.

10. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The most popular novel of the 19th century, and still one of the best plots in English literature. Notable for its marvellous villains and, like all Collins’s work, for its complex, spirited and believable female characters.


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