Saturday, June 30, 2007

Top Ten Victorian Novel Titles

My prejudices have always lined up with the curmodgeonly conventional wisdom that the 19th century was truly the greatest age of the novel. What's less debatable, though, is that the 19th century was the greatest age of the novel title. Sure, there are 20th century gems like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Lolita, but I'll take a Victorian title over a contemporary one any day of the week.

10. Can You Forgive Her? (Anthony Trollope). Obviously, my bias is for wordiness, and sentences-as-titles are often favorites. But this one is memorable not just as a sentence, but as an interrogative. What's the best 20th century book with a question in its title? Who Moved My Cheese? Trollope's is the second best interrogative title of all time, topped only by...

9. What Will He Do With It? (Edward Bulwer-Lytton). How Awesome Is This? Points for ambiguity, long-windedness without pomposity, and comically obvious (to modern eyes) sexual double entendre. Deductions for Bulwer-Lytton being an unread and probably unreadable goliath, a kind of dorky caricature of a Victorian author.

8. The Egoist (George Meredith). Maybe it's just me, but who doesn't want to read a book about an egoist? (I haven't yet, but will soon). Meredith's title shows off the kind of terse directness that alternated with the more famous volubility of classic Victorian titles. I don't think the straightforward "The X" format is quite so popular now, but it had a terrific heyday in the 19th century.

7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte). The best place-name title in 19th century British fiction, edging out Mansfield Park and flat-out slaughtering Middlemarch. Of course Middlemarch is probably a better novel than anything on this list, but the title has a kind of dense, ungainly obscurity that surely drives away far more readers than it entices.

6. The Odd Women (George Gissing). I haven't read this, either, but I want to. "Odd" is just a great word no matter how you look at it, and this simple title allows it to take rare full billing.

5. Jude The Obscure (Thomas Hardy). Wins the character-name title award. This has such a nice ring to it that my freshman-year hallmates took to calling a preppy douchebag named Jude on the third floor "Jude The Obscure," which eventually got whittled down to just "The Obscure." The book is, of course, great as well, but actually my least favorite of the major Hardys -- not so the title.

4. Our Mutual Friend (Charles Dickens). Beats out Bleak House and Great Expectations for the best Dickens title. Not flashy or immediately evocative, but subtly intriguing... An interrogative without the question mark. Whose mutual friend? Mine? Dickens's? What's going on?

3. Dracula (Bram Stoker). According to Wikipedia, Stoker probably didn't get the word from the historical Vlad the Impaler. He just stumbled across the Romanian word dracul and decided it was pretty badass. It was: this is a very good read, but half the reason Dracula continues to occupy so much cultural space, even in the 21st century, is because Stoker didn't call the book "Count Vampyre."

2. Far From The Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy). Before the cliche, there was the book. Normally I hate gerunds (more on that, perhaps, later), but this one transcends that bias.

1. He Knew He Was Right (Anthony Trollope). Some of the greats had title-writing in their blood (or at their publisher's office); some didn't. Hardy had it; George Eliot didn't (besides Middlemarch, there is the archaically boring Mill on the Floss, the laconically boring Adam Bede, and the, uh, boringly boring Silas Marner, which, in fact, is probably the comic archetype for dull-sounding Victorian titles assigned in school).
Trollope was an absolute master of the art. Besides the two represented here, there are The Way We Live Now, Ralph The Heir, Is He Popinjoy?, and An Old Man's Love. But this one takes the cake--not only is it a full sentence, it's a brilliantly ambiguous one, a sentence that already takes place within (and yet also without) the main character's brain. It's a title that could be an opening line. This may be a completely obscure Trollope novel, number 28 of 45, or whatever it is, but I will read it just because of the title.


Drew said...

I think that no "Pudd'nhead Wilson" is a pretty major oversight. Also, Wikipedia is wrong. There are historical roots to the name "Dracula"; it's a little complex, but Stroker didn't just make it up--see Radu Florescu's In Search of Dracula, the best semi-academic pop history of Dracula out there. Still, great list.

Drew said...

Oh yes, something else to consider... the British are great at naming pubs, and in Oxford, there are several pubs named after Hardy novels--Jude, Far From, and the Mayor. No Tess, though. Also, was there a no-American rule on your list and I just didn't realize it? (I must confess I haven't heard of every author or title on the list.)

Matt K said...

I was trying to limit myself to strictly "Victorian" novelists -- i.e., Brits. Yeah, it's funny, I was actually going to put Pudd'nhead Wilson on there until I decided to make a narrower list. But from my quick reckoning, opening the field up to American competition doesn't change a lot... "Bartleby the Scrivener" is pretty cool, but that's not even really a novel. Poe has the same problem. I could see an argument for "The Scarlet Letter", but what else is there? Henry James's titles (with the exception of "What Maisie Knew") are as bad as George Eliot's.

Paul Morton said...

There are a few Conrad novels published in the few years before Queen Victoria's death that would qualify for your list:

1. "Lord Jim": Don't you love the dissonance of a high title with a commonplace name? Where the hell did that come from? It's perfect for a book meant, in part, to be a satire of the 19th-century kids novels.

2. "The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'": I can think of two words in this title that make me want to read it. Anything with the "n-word" by an old author has some un-PC risque factor for the contemporary reader. And who wouldn't want to have some weird racial factor association with narcissism. The book probably has nothing to do with either point...but damn it is tempting to pick up.

Paul Morton said...

I also have to say that all my favorite titles of British novels come out of the 20th century. Here are ten random titles, listed without commentary:
The Good Soldier, Under Western Eyes, The Quiet American, Dead Babies, Burmese Days, The Moon and Sixpence, Brave New World, Orlando, The First Men in the Moon, A Passage to India.

Each of these titles have made me at least strongly consider reading the books.

John said...

Paul, I believe the Narcissus is simply the name of the ship. Although it of course may have some symbolic significance.

I actually like some Henry James titles (and, as Henry James lived in England most of his life and has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he can perhaps count as an honorary Brit).

The Turn of the Screw, The Princess Cassamassima, and The Spoils of Poynton are all, I think, pretty good. I also have a fondness for Roderick Hudson, but I think that's just because it sounds like "Rock Hudson."

Of twentieth century British novelists, W. Somerset Maugham (the aforementioned The Moon and Sixpence, Cakes and Ale, The Razor's Edge, Of Human Bondage), E. M. Forster (the aforementioned A Passage to India, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room with a View), Evelyn Waugh (A Handful of Dust, notably), and Huxley (Eyeless in Gaza, Brave New World, and quite possibly the awesomest title of all, Ape and Essence) all had some good titles.

I'll also put a plug in for the eighteenth century titles of Tobias Smollett - Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle are among the greatest novel titles ever made up.

Fully agree that Trollope was a master. Far better than Dickens, who too often relied on just using the main character's name (although some of those are reasonably awesome - Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit come particularly to mind).

Walter Scott also has some good titles - Old Mortality The Heart of Midlothian, The Fortunes of Nigel, The Black Dwarf, Castle Dangerous; especially The Fortunes of Nigel. But he's sort of pre-Victorian.