9 Contemporary Books For 19th Century Lit Lovers

by Melissa Ragsdale

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a good brain must be in want of a book. From Jane Austen to the Brontë sisters, 19th century literature churned out some powerful women writers. The only downside is that they're not around anymore to keep churning out more top-notch novels.

But don't worry, there's tons of living authors who have taken up the reigns. Jane Eyrehas been especially inspiring authors lately; so many new releases take their own colorful spins on Jane's story, all with varying degrees of darkness. And of course, Pride and Prejudice has always been a favorite for writers to play with. But even beyond blatant interpretation, it's obvious that these writers have had lasting effects on how the literary canon approaches storytelling. Intense relationships, well-crafted use of irony, and a pension for secrets are all their trademark.

Some of these books pay direct homage to the classics, while others stand completely on their own. Whether you're looking to bathe in references or find whole new worlds to explore, you'll find yourself at home here. So, all you Brontë fans and Austen-ites make yourself a cuppa and settle in for some excellent new reads.

1. The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

I shirked so many responsibilities reading this one. Set in the present day, The Madwoman Upstairs will take you on a wild literary treasure hunt, filled with homages to Victorian literature. Years after her father dies in a mysterious fire, the last heir to the Brontë sisters, Samantha Whipple, arrives for her first year at Oxford amid rumors of a secret Brontë inheritance. As she's confronted with a gorgeous professor, a mysterious clue from her father, and the challenges of Oxford University, Samantha dives into the lives and writing of the Brontës to try to untangle her own life's mysteries.

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2. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

"Reader, I murdered him." So begins this dark and captivating novel. Inspired by Jane Eyre, a young woman flees an abusive home, killing her tormentors. As she starts a new life, taking a job as a governess at Highgate House (to which she is possibly the heir), Jane gets drawn into a new world of love and secrets, all the while fearing her murderous past will be revealed. This one will have you turning the pages late into the night, for sure.

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3. Sorcery & Cecelia: Or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

This book was first described to me as "Jane Austen plus FANTASY," and I immediately started itching to get a copy. Set in 1817 England, this book is fueled by two strong heroines, Kate and Cecelia, as they navigate a world filled with suitors and magic. As Kate begins her first season in London and Cecy stays at home in the country, the two write letters back and forth, illuminating a feast for any reader. Plus, some fun trivia: It was originally written through a "letter game," in which both authors sent letters back and forth each as their own character, and it shows in the top-notch characterization. This will easily become one of your favorite books.

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4. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

So, this is set in mid-20th century Italy, but if you love the drama and intensity of Victorian lit, you'll fall hard for Ferrante. John Freeman compared her writing to being like "if Jane Austen got angry." The first in the widely-acclaimed Neopolitan series, My Brilliant Friend depicts the childhood of two young, poor girls as they grow up in a turbulent Naples, constantly comparing themselves to each other. You'll hang onto every word, and even things as seemingly innocuous as a pair of shoes will have you throwing your book at the wall.

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5. Magpie Hall by Rachael King

Victorian lit meets tattoos. If that doesn't wuther your heights, I don't know what will. Described as a Gothic novel inside a ghost story inside a Gothic novel, this book follows Rosemary Summers (lover of tattoos, vintage clothing, and taxidermy) as she returns to Magpie Hall to collect her inheritance from her recently deceased grandfather. However, when Rosemary discovers a Pandora's Box of Victorian curiosities, possibly exposing the truth about an ancestor's mysterious disappearance, she gets drawn into a new mystery. Exploring the taboo around class and tattoos in the Victorian era, the effects of obsessive collecting, and the nature of relationships (past and modern), this book will take you in fantastic directions.

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6. Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier

Some top-notch writers come together in this great anthology to give stories inspired by the famous line from Jane Eyre, "Reader, I married him." Some of my favorites contribute to this collection, including Elizabeth McCracken, Audrey Niffenegger, and Tessa Hadley. Each story has its own flair and its own degree of connection to the original.

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7. The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson

This nonfiction book dives into the real lives of two kickass Gilded Age sisters. Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin. These women didn't let anything stop them: they became the first women to open a brokerage firm, the first female publishers of a radical weekly, and the first to print Marx's Communist Manifesto in the U.S. Victoria was the first woman to run for President and the first woman to address a US Congressional committee, and Tennie ran for Congrress and became the honorary colonel of a black regiment. And on top of all these accomplishments, the two stuck it to Victorian ideals of romance, loving freely and eventually marrying the two richest men in England. You'll be saying "whoa" every time you turn the page.

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8. Austenland by Shannon Hale

It's no secret that I love Shannon Hale, and in this book, she's given us every Austen-ite's fantasies. New Yorker Jane Hayes is obsessed with Colin Firth's Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and it's ruining her love life. So,when a wealthy relative sends Jane to an English resort catered to Austen-crazed women, all of her dreams (and yours!) seem to be coming true.

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9. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

With the movie coming out soon, it's time to pick up this beloved adaptation of the Austen classic. And trust me, you'll devour it. Because let's face it, the only thing Pride and Prejudiceis missing is a horde of bloodthirsty zombies. (Unless you count the trappings of Victorian society as a horde of bloodthirsty zombies.) As Elizabeth and Darcy fight off the undead, you're in for a heaping dose of reading delight.

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Images: Focus Features