The world has said, and the best English novel of all time is Middlemarch, although hot on its heels are two novels by Virginia Woolf, who join Charles Dickens in having the most of the top 100 British novels as seen by the rest of the world.
The list was put together for BBC Culture by Jane Ciabattari, who selected 81 book critics from around the world, excluding the UK. Each was asked to list 10 British novels, naming the most important. The result was a top five in which George Eliot’s poetry was followed by Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, with Dickens’s Great Expectations and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre completing the line-up. Two Dickens titles appear in the top 10: Bleak House (sixth), and David Copperfield (eighth). Woolf’s The Waves is 16th place, and Orlando 65th.
Eclectic and interesting, the list ranges from the modern (Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, and Ali Smith’s There but for the) to the Nobel Prize-winning (William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas), from the brilliant PG Wodehouse (The Code of the Woosters, in 100th place) to classic children’s classics such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Zadie Smith was there, twice; so are Jeanette Winterson and Alan Hollinghurst.
That is, as the BBC reported, shows a strong representation from female authors. Unlike most recent lists, including the Observer’s, there are more female authors in the top 10, and books by women make up 40% of the total of 100 books on the list. Reflecting on why this is so, Hephzibah Anderson writes for the BBC that “the literary landscape of Britain has seen women do better to others than we give credit for”, and it is believed that “Many generations of women writers have known themselves. There are two things out there – depending on gender and calling – their content will please others.
Why, Middlemarch? Eliot’s novel has won “by melting”, reports BBC Culture, included by 42% of international critics in their lists. The Australian’s Geordie Williamson says that to read is to “encounter a wisdom that is dearly loved, and is blinded by human failings and weaknesses”. Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal called it “the best social and psychological novel ever written in the English language”, author George Scialabba said that his “last words may be the move on to English history”.
I love that Nineteen Eighty-Four sits next to Pride and Prejudice on this list; It ranges from The Lord of the Rings to Moll Flanders and Clarissa to The Wind in the Willows. Many of these books made my own spine, like that (Orwell, Forster, Lawrence, the Brontës, Spark). I haven’t read a lot (shame on me – I didn’t like Tess of the d’Urbervilles because I didn’t dig Hardy anymore).
Most of all, though, I like the endless joy that we have to do, and choose lists like this, as if, in the end, we will reach a line details – the 100 greatest stories, the top 10, the best story of all time.
Are we close now? Is it Middlemarch? You tell me.
50. A Journey to India (EM Forster, 1924)
49. Availability (AS Byatt, 1990)
48. Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1954)
47. The Life and Thoughts 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 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. Leftovers (Tom McCarthy, 2005)
34. Don’t 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 Relationship (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 Story of Tom Jones, a Founder (Henry Fielding, 1749)
21. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899)
20. Persuasion (Jane Austen, 1817)
19. Emma (Jane Austen, 1815)
18. Remainder 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. General Thoughts (Charles Dickens, 1861)
3. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925)
2. In the Light (Virginia Woolf, 1927)
1. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1874)