Jane Ciabattari polled 82 book critics from outside the UK in order to put together a kind of outsiders’ list of the 100 greatest British novels for BBC Culture. You can read the article here. I’m going to put the full list here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts — on this list, on lists in general, on British fiction, on books that belong, on books that don’t belong, etc. I hope to see you here or on Twitter! For me, lists are most helpful in providing me with things to read, whether those are things on the list or, usually more interestingly, things that are not on the list but that someone thinks should be.
The BBC has put together a number of interesting articles about the list, including a more detailed look at the top 25 (here), Michael Gorra’s look at the why Middlemarch won (here), Hephzibah Anderson’s hypothesis as to why women rule this particular list (though they are not the majority) (here); and Fiona McDonald’s piece on what makes a “Great British Novel” (here).
Links are to reviews that have been posted on this site.
100. The Code of the Woosters (PG Wodehouse, 1938)
99. There but for the (Ali Smith, 2011)
98. Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry,1947)
97. The Chronicles of Narnia (CS Lewis, 1949-1954)
96. Memoirs of a Survivor (Doris Lessing, 1974)
95. The Buddha of Suburbia (Hanif Kureishi, 1990)
94. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (James Hogg, 1824)
93. Lord of the Flies (William Golding, 1954)
92. Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons, 1932)
91. The Forsyte Saga (John Galsworthy, 1922)
90. The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins, 1859)
89. The Horse’s Mouth (Joyce Cary, 1944)
88. The Death of the Heart (Elizabeth Bowen, 1938)
87. The Old Wives’ Tale (Arnold Bennett,1908)
86. A Legacy (Sybille Bedford, 1956)
85. Regeneration Trilogy (Pat Barker, 1991-1995)
84. Scoop (Evelyn Waugh, 1938)
83. Barchester Towers (Anthony Trollope, 1857)
82. The Patrick Melrose Novels (Edward St Aubyn, 1992-2012)
81. The Jewel in the Crown (Paul Scott, 1966)
80. Excellent Women (Barbara Pym, 1952)
79. His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman, 1995-2000)
78. A House for Mr Biswas (VS Naipaul, 1961)
77. Of Human Bondage (W Somerset Maugham, 1915)
76. Small Island (Andrea Levy, 2004)
75. Women in Love (DH Lawrence, 1920)
74. The Mayor of Casterbridge (Thomas Hardy, 1886)
73. The Blue Flower (Penelope Fitzgerald, 1995)
72. The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene, 1948)
71. Old Filth (Jane Gardam, 2004)
70. Daniel Deronda (George Eliot, 1876)
69. Nostromo (Joseph Conrad, 1904)
68. A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962)
67. Crash (JG Ballard, 1973)
66. Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen, 1811)
65. Orlando (Virginia Woolf, 1928)
64. The Way We Live Now (Anthony Trollope, 1875)
63. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark, 1961)
62. Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)
61. The Sea, the Sea (Iris Murdoch, 1978)
60. Sons and Lovers (DH Lawrence, 1913)
59. The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst, 2004)
58. Loving (Henry Green, 1945)
57. Parade’s End (Ford Madox Ford, 1924-1928)
56. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Jeanette Winterson, 1985)
55. Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift, 1726)
54. NW (Zadie Smith, 2012)
53. Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys, 1966)
52. New Grub Street (George Gissing, 1891)
51. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy, 1891)
50. A Passage to India (EM Forster, 1924)
49. Possession (AS Byatt, 1990)
48. Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1954)
47. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Laurence Sterne, 1759)
46. Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie, 1981)
45. The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters, 2009)
44. Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel, 2009)
43. The Swimming Pool Library (Alan Hollinghurst, 1988)
42. Brighton Rock (Graham Greene, 1938)
41. Dombey and Son (Charles Dickens, 1848)
40. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)
39. The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes, 2011)
38. The Passion (Jeanette Winterson, 1987)
37. Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh, 1928)
36. A Dance to the Music of Time (Anthony Powell, 1951-1975)
35. Remainder (Tom McCarthy, 2005)
34. Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005)
33. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame, 1908)
32. A Room with a View (EM Forster, 1908)
31. The End of the Affair (Graham Greene, 1951)
30. Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe, 1722)
29. Brick Lane (Monica Ali, 2003)
28. Villette (Charlotte Brontë, 1853)
27. Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe, 1719)
26. The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien, 1954)
25. White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000)
24. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing, 1962)
23. Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy, 1895)
22. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (Henry Fielding, 1749)
21. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899)
20. Persuasion (Jane Austen, 1817)
19. Emma (Jane Austen, 1815)
18. Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989)
17. Howards End (EM Forster, 1910)
16. The Waves (Virginia Woolf, 1931)
15. Atonement (Ian McEwan, 2001)
14. Clarissa (Samuel Richardson, 1748)
13. The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford, 1915)
12. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
11. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)
10. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848)
9. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
8. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens, 1850)
7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847)
6. Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853)
5. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, 1847)
4. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1861)
3. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925)
2. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927)
1. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1874)
BBC should release points, and ballots, like the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll does.
Also, some of those books are more than one book. Cheating, somehow.
(Predictable response:) Where’s Our Mutual Friend? Earthly Powers? The Alexandria Quartet? The Driver’s Seat? BS Johnson? Alasdair Gray? Ann Quin? Elizabeth Taylor? Why is Ali Smith’s worst book on here? Etc…always good fun, these lists.
I like your suggestion that they release the ballots, Tom. After all, there is perhaps even more to be appreciated in a list of the books that someone loved enough to put in her own top-ten but that didn’t make the final list, possibly many because they are relatively unknown. The final consensus list will always sway to the conventional . . . because many of us read books listed on such “best” lists :-) .
I also agree on the “cheating.” If, say, His Dark Materials only made it by combining all votes for The Golden Compass and the rest, then maybe none of them belong. I do wonder if that is how this happened or if people could put “The Chronicles of Narnia” on as a whole to include a series. Then again, if no individual book in, say, the Patrick Melrose novels, would be on the list, perhaps the series should not either? Or perhaps it should, if that’s really how the artistic work derives its power.
Lee, I can see the absence of several of those. I’m sure many would argue against The Driver’s Seat, for example. Others are just under-read, sadly, which is why the full ballot would be wonderful. Surely Elizabeth Taylor ended up on someone’s top ten?? She’d be on my own, I say, not having thought about what might end up on my own. I’ll do some thinking.
Looking at the series included on the list, interesting they opted to single out The Jewel of The Crown from Scott’s The Raj Quartet rather than just put The Raj Quartet . . .
Zadie Smith and Monica Ali were surprises for me. Are they better writers than Elizabeth Taylor? Some weird choices. For Durrell not to make the cut almost makes a farce out of it. I love Ali Smith but There but for the is forgettable.
If Durrell were the #11 choice of every voter, he doesn’t end up at # 11, but nowhere, with zero points.
I’m okay if an author who makes no one’s top ten doesn’t show up in the consensus top 100, but more and more I want to see the full list and the under read gems.
The highest ranking book on the list that I’ve never really glanced at before: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a copy or really heard anyone talking about it, and there it sits blinking at me in 14 spot. Perhaps I should pick it up and read . . . What!? 1534 pages? . . . never mind. Unless someone out there can tell me it really deserves its spot on this list.
The highest ranking book I’m likely to read soon, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, coming in at 28. I’ve read most of the ones that ranked higher, and those I haven’t are far down my list. Proustitute has recommended this to me on Twitter a few times, and I trust his judgment fully.
Highest ranking book I’m embarrassed I’ve never read? George Eliot’s Middlemarch, coming in at number 1! I started this years ago before crossing the country for school. It got lost in the shuffle, and I have yet to feel I have the time it needs. I love Eliot’s work that I have read, and I know I need to quit messing around and get to this one. So, let’s put it next to Villette as legitimate personal goals that have come from this list.
If Durrell is everyone’s #11 favorite, he won’t appear on the full list either!
I mention Clarissa fairly often. It’s a landmark, almost literally (cuz it’s so big!). It is simultaneously tedious and tense beyond belief, which is a good trick, and finally crushingly sad (“crushing” because you’ve been crushed by the weight of that gigantic book). It also contains one of literature’s all-time great villains.
The most fun case for the novel that I have ever seen is Judith Pascoe’s “Before I Read Clarissa I Was Nobody: Aspirational Reading and Samuel Richardson’s Great Novel” from The Hudson Review, Summer 2003, 239-53. Too bad it’s not online. I wrote a bit about it.
Villette is outstanding. Maybe I would have put it on my ballot. Most people read it like suckers, no offense.
Thanks for the link, Tom! Also, I’ll try, when reading Villette, to not do it like a sucker :-) .
Interestingly, I just had a look at Proustitute’s own favorite reads of 2015, and there I see Wreath of Roses (which I read thanks to his recommendation and included on my own favorite reads of 2015 list) and Villette! He says he reads it every year. Here’s his list.
I just mean that people read Villette as if, I don’t know, the unreliable narrator had not yet been invented? Kahn’s description of the narrator is darn good.
Gotcha! I’ve read very little about Villette, so I don’t know much about it. Sounds like a book I should fit in over the holidays.
If not one of 82 book critics picked Durrell as part of their top ten it’s an outrage! Well, not really. It’s just a list. But still! Maybe they haven’t read him…
Tom: I haven’t yet read Villette but plan to, soon. How can I avoid reading it in a sucky way? I’ll never forget falling for that Charles Kinbote character, and I’m worried the same may happen again…
Is sucker an Americanism? Sucky is a whole ‘nother thing.
The Kinbote experience will help you. Fool me once, right?
I’m so tired of being a sucker, Tom. All I want for Christmas is a copy of Villette and the ability to read it in a way you deem acceptable. What if I don’t read it in the prescribed way? Well, I’m going in prepped.
Don’t fall for the unreliable narrator mentioned in every passing comment featuring Villette!
Yeah, they told me about Kinbote – in the introduction, in every single review I read before I began reading Pale Fire…but the sucker in me fell for it completely. I just can’t take that happening again. But what if I’m part of that vague collective ‘most people’ to the core? What then?!
I picked up Villette yesterday, so I’m set!
In other news, I got an advanced copy of The Vegetarian, and that sucked me right in. Villette is shaping up to commence this weekend.
All right, whatever my intended tone, I have botched it. Apologies, Lee. I concede all points.
No worries Tom. All in a genuine spirit of jest…
And I really can’t wait to read Villette. I’m less sure I’ll get to Clarissa…
Some of these contemporary selections (White Teeth, Atonement, Remainder), albeit good books, seem ridiculously high. And some unfortunate omissions, naturally. But I think this list gets a number of things right. A big yes to the strong showing of Virginia Woolf, who I think is clearly the greatest British novelist of the 20th century. It’s also generally heartening to see female authors so well-represented.
Villette is indeed great. I think Kazuo Ishiguro has called it his favorite book, and you can really see its influence on his writing. Though, personally, my favorite novel from the Bronte clan is Wuthering Heights.
Oh, and I would also echo Tom’s thoughts on Clarissa. Many are justifiably intimidated by its length, and it is a demanding read. But it’s a masterpiece, one of the truly great British novels. The description of its mix of tedium and tension is perfectly accurate. But boy does it build to a powerful conclusion. Shattering. It’s quite modern too, displaying a sense of psychological awareness that’s worth of Henry James.
Ah, come on, Archer! You too? I was totally fine with my complacency at not reading Clarissa until you and Tom showed up :-)
“It’s also generally heartening to see female authors so well-represented.”
Yes, that’s the endearing thing about this list – it pushes the balance back in the right direction.
All told this is a pretty solid list. Three of Woolf’s in the top 17 seems a bit much and I agree that no Durrell is surprising. Though the most shocking omission is David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas is WAY more well-regarded than almost all the contemporary titles on here. I was also surprised to see no High Fidelity and no LeCarre titles. I know they’re a little more popular than literary but for just high-level writing I would’ve taken those over some a lot of the other choices on here as well.
Absolutely agree on Le Carre in particular – should be on there. And Hornby (I’d maybe put How to be Good in there) and Mitchell are certainly better, for me, than a few choices.
I think it’s important to remember that this is a consensus list, drawn by top ten lists. While a book by Le Carre or Mitchell maybe should make many top 100 lists, I can see why many people left it off their top tens and, consequently, the final list.
That’s the problem with consensus lists: most of the interesting corners are chiseled off and all the outliers are polished off, either because not as many people have read them or because, hey, I just really cannot put Cloud Atlas on my list if it means I have to leave off To the Lighthouse (or some such thing). For the record, I’d also leave Mitchell and Le Carre off my own personal top ten (but I’d also leave off many of the other contemporary titles on this list).
I’d love to poll readers of this site, though, and see what we come up with. I’d put the consensus list up, but I’d also want to post each and every top ten so that we get the individual flavors coming through all of the mixing. The problem is, I don’t know how to do something like this — and I don’t know how many people would respond as putting a list together can be quite hard work and this would be most interesting if we had several people participating. But if there’s some interest, I’d be happy to try to find a way to do something.
Thanks Trevor for offering to organize our very own Top 10 list!
Also, I had the utmost respect for the above list when I saw Jane Austen outside the Top 10!
However, there is no way “Wuthering Heights” should be outside the Top 5. This masterpiece should be in the 4th slot where “Great Expectations” currently resides. Great writers from Hemingway to Alice Munro have remarked how this brilliant novel shaped them……and let’s be honest – Dickens is overrated for mature readers.
Jane Austen is a master, Greg! You’re right about Dickens, though, and maybe even Wuthering Heights :-) . Oh boy, making our own list could get interesting . . .
I’ll see if posting a solicitation can, err, solicit some lists that I can compile. If there are others interested, hopefully they will respond! If not, it will be nice to see your list!
I’m realizing what a large gap you’re reading brain must have, Mookse, having not read The Wind in the Willows or Alice in Wonderland. The former would probably really help you in your profession.
Also, you failed to mention Atonement made the list. Made me question the whole thing.
There was a day when I might have put Atonement on the list myself. That day has passed, but I know there are many who consider it one of the greatest works of the 21st century, so its inclusion is not surprising.
And the gap in my reading brain doesn’t start or stop with those two books!
I hadn’t counted until now, but in doing so I see I’ve read only 35 of the books above. Have desire to read maybe fifteen to twenty of the remainder. Villette and Middlemarch are coming up in my personal line up — I do hope I stick with it.
To be quite honest, Nick Hornby is not a name I miss on this list. Cloud Atlas is widely beloved, but I feel that David Mitchell’s stock has generally fallen in recent years, so that might have diminished its lustre. Then again, Ian McEwan’s stock has certainly fallen since Atonement days, and that novel’s reputation has endured. I loved Atonement when I first read it, and I still think it’s great, but I maintain that placement is absurdly high. The only contemporary writer I would include on my personal ballot would be Ishiguro (maybe Penelope Fitzgerald if you want to go semi-contemporary). And I can’t abide dismissals of Dickens! He’s one of my absolute favorites.
I was just thinking what I would put on my list, and this is what I’ve come up with, very provisionally, if anyone’s interested (one mention per author, in alphabetical order):
Clarissa (Samuel Richardson)
Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell)
The Death of the Heart (Elizabeth Bowen)
Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)
Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
The Portrait of a Lady (Henry James)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark)
The Waves (Virginia Woolf)
Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
It’s hard to narrow down, and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot. I’d also want to include Emma or Mansfield Park by Austen, Jude the Obscure by Hardy, or any number of other Dickens/Bronte/Eliot novels. But I didn’t want it dominated by the 19th century. And some might consider The Portrait of a Lady cheating, but Henry James was a British citizen when he wrote it. He would have been eligible for the Booker Prize, if it’d existed then!
This poll had a rule I did not understand, where each ballot’s top pick was worth 10 points or something like that. And then the other 9 were worth 1 point each? That might have some strange effects, too. Maybe people who picked Austen rarely put her books first.
Henry James wrote Portrait over 30 years before he became a British citizen. But it should still be eligible. It is a novel with dual citizenship.
I have to side with Archer on Dickens here – I certainly don’t think his stock has fallen lately.
I don’t miss Hornby on the list particularly – but is Monica Ali a better writer?
I’d love to put Portrait of a Lady on there.
All right, let’s do this. I’ll put up a post soon that solicits top ten lists. We may not get a response that produces a great top 100 list (might not even get 100 books to list!), but I do think the best part will be seeing where we don’t agree, either because someone else is just plain wrong, or because we haven’t read the book. Or it could be both! . . . as is often the case with these things ;-) .
Oh, that’s quite right about Henry James. He didn’t become an official British citizen until the year before his death. I don’t know why I thought it was much earlier than that. I suppose that makes his eligibility a bit iffy, though I think a case could be made! Maybe it would be more apt to choose The Wings of the Dove, since, if memory serves, that’s his most “British” major work; it’s largely set in London and two of the central characters are English.