Transitions in literary style from romanticism to realism in the late 19th century inflict finely calibrated essay agony on English students worldwide. Here at The Atlantic's Twitter book club, we settle these questions in 140 characters, with a hashtag and an Internet vote. Join us this April to read a late-19th century novel by voting below and following along at @1book140.
The last few months of our Twitter book club have focused on contemporary writers and popular genres: last year's Booker Prize winner, a classic spy thriller, a romance novel, writers with African ties. This month, the community on Twitter agrees: It's time to repress our memories of high school literature class and catch up on classics we missed in school.
Voting closes Wednesday at midnight Eastern.* Soon after, I'll announce the results and post a schedule to The Atlantic and our Twitter hashtag, #1book140. As we finish reading our March book, Open City by Teju Cole, it's still possible to join the conversation. Tweet questions and comments to #1b140_4 and #1book140.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Writers have spoken of this masterpiece in reverent tones for over a hundred years. Anthony Lane gushes in The New Yorker that "its opening chords, quiet as they are, have almost no match in English-speaking literature."
The novel follows the story of Isabel Archer, who travels to London to support a grieving friend and unexpectedly inherits a fortune, with all of the social and emotional complexities that her inheritance entails. When it first appeared in The Atlantic in 1880 (you can still read it in the archive), the serialized novel catapulted James's reputation as an "important, renowned figure, acknowledged as a 'master' of consciousness, cultural perceptions, humor, subtlety and depth."
Middlemarch by George Eliot
If I had a time machine, I would meet up for coffee with Arthur George Sedgwick, who penned this curiously grumpy adulation for Middlemarch in The Atlantic in 1873. He's clearly upset at the chore of reviewing another masterpiece by a writer whose reputation was already at the highest levels. That reputation has survived. Writing in The Times Literary Supplement in 1919, Virginia Woolf praised Middlemarch as "one of the few novels written for grown-up people." Emily Dickinson raved about it. More recently, A.S. Byatt has wondered if Middlemarch is in fact the greatest English novel.
Set in a fictitious English midlands town, the novel interweaves the experiences of an entire community: a well-off woman who throws herself into social good, a doctor who attempts to balance science and charity, a clergyman whose self importance is greater than his unfinished monograph, and many others who fall in and out of aspirations, hopes, and loves.
Germinal by Émile Zola
This novel, a masterpiece of political fiction and a watershed contribution to French literature, follows its mechanic protagonist Etienne Lantier "on a journey through the working community that brings him face to face with violence and despair, without ever destroying his belief in a better world." Writing in The Guardian, Ruth Scurr points out that this groundbreaking work also explores the relationship between the human impact of political values and our relationship to the earth itself.
Zola's novel has been turned into numerous films and plays, most notably the 1993 film by Claude Berri, starring Gerard Depardieu. After two world wars and a cold war, critics in the 1990s wondered if Zola's clearly drawn ethics still made sense in a more uncertain world. But audiences loved the film, which was one of the top 10 grossing films in French history at the time.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë
At this point, I have to admit that I stacked the deck for realism this month. But bookies on Twitter called for a Brontë novel, and a recent review by Lucy Hughes-Hallett in The Guardian has piqued my interest. Arguing that Villette is better than Jane Eyre, Lucy makes her case:
- It's an "astonishing piece of writing, a book in which phantasmagorical set pieces alternate with passages of minute psychological exploration"
- George Eliot apparently loved the book, writing that it "it is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre"
- Virginia Woolf called it Brontë's "finest novel"
- It's a "funny, penetratingly observant realist novel"
A story of romance and adventure, the novel follows 23-year-old Lucy Snowe from England to teach at a girls' school in the fictional French-speaking city of Villette.
*This post was updated on Tuesday, April 1, at 10:28 a.m. to reflect that the voting period has been extended.