When I read the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, she kept on mentioning all the books she was reading. She was writing between about 1886 and 1940. So it’s books from that era or earlier. Eventually, I got interested and wanted to read them myself, and started keeping a list of them. Here are all the ones I caught.
I, by the way, had access to Davis Library at UNC Chapel Hill when I started reading these books, and that library system has like 8 million books. They had most of these, even though a lot of them are now unknown or not the thing that you’ll find in a regular town library. But even after moving on from Chapel Hill, I have found quite of few of these in our small town library. And I don’t usually read books online, but since a lot of these are no longer in copyright, you can find them on Project Gutenberg and places like that.
Can I just say one thing? Having written all of the below out, and seeing all the books put together like this, I am realizing that practically all the titles or authors that are unknown today are not that good. So why am I reading them? Fine, not all. There have been some gems among the rust.
The count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, 1844 — I read this before I knew that Lucy Maud Montgomery had read it. I read it a long, long time ago. But I think I liked it. Oh, except I do remember every woman in the book (and there’s a lot) is described as a perfection of beauty. Whenever I thought back to the book, it seemed like the standards for womanhood were very appearance-centered and very impossible to attain. Of course, the book was written by a man.
Midshipman Easy, Frederick Marryat, 1836 — this book was terrible. It’s an adventure story of a boy in the English navy, early 1800s. It’s an ugly, violent, misogynist book, and the hero himself, and all the “good characters”, are celebrated by the author for being nasty and brutish. And the “heroics” and “valor” of the hero are not so great, mostly it’s all coincidence and it gets so tiring and annoying.
Trilby, George du Maurier, 1894 – this was a best-seller from 1895. This book made me realize why though a book may be popular at its time, 100 years later no one has heard of it. It has some good points and some good passages. Otherwise, the very over-blown section describing Trilby’s angelic singing was not inspiring, but annoying. Trilby is depicted as a perfect saint and a perfect beauty, and as such, the ideal woman. It was all very ridiculous. Plus, the book says very nasty things about Jews. They don’t tell you in school that books like this were published in the decades preceding the Holocaust, became best-sellers, and showered anti-Semitism over everyone. Explains a lot.
Sorrows of Satan, Marie Corelli, 1895 — A best-seller from 1896. It was really, really good at the beginning. But later it bogged down. In part because the character Mavis Clare is so ridiculous – she’s very perfect, and the fact that she spends all her time telling people how perfect she is, apparently doesn’t take away from her perfection. I liked Sybil a lot more. I don’t think she deserved the end she got. What’s even more ridiculous is that Mavis Claire is supposed to be the author herself. Talk about vanity.
Kate Carnegie, Ian McLaren, 1896
A book that Tennyson’s son wrote about him, by Hallam Tennyson
The flower patch among the hills, Flora Klickmann, 1916
Tommy and Grizel, John Barrie — This is by the man who wrote Peter Pan. It had some of the funniest passages I’ve ever read: Tommy and his “broken” leg, Grizel’s handkerchief, Tommy’s conversations with the rich, stuck-up lady. But in other places, the book kind of dragged. And I don’t know what the point was in it ending the way it did.
Hypatia, Charles Kingsley — I have not read this. But I did check it out once, with every intention of reading it. It’s about a female mathematician in ancient Egypt, and it’s written as a fiction. So I’m going to try to actually read it one day. But the time I had it in my possession, the first page looked overwhelmingly boring. So I didn’t even start.
The end of the House of Alard, Sheila Kaye-Smith
The mill on the Floss, George Eliot — Lucy Maud Montgomery mentions reading this in her journals multiple times. It was my second George Eliot book – I first read Adam Bede, also on the promptings of Lucy Maud Montgomery. The first 300 pages and change are good – just a little bit plodding. You keep saying, okay, okay, and now … ? The next 200 pages and change are riveting, and will make you sit up and pay attention with a vengeance! I was very engrossed. Then there were about 50 pages left, and I was very interested to see how all the confusion was going to be wrapped up. Well! It was awful!!! Just awful. That was the worst ending to any book – it pretty much seemed like she’d gotten tired of writing (wouldn’t you?) and she just polished it off in the quickest way possible. And it’s not just me that thinks that, because I then read the introductory notes and other people have felt the same, and George Eliot in fact agreed!
Roughing it in the Bush, Mrs. Moodie
Ardath, Marie Corelli, 1889
Undine, Friedrich Foque, 1811
Penrod, Booth Tarkington, 1914
Wooden ships and iron men, Frederick William Wallace, 1925
Our sentimental garden, Agnes Egerton Castle, 1915
The heart of the ancient wood, Charles Roberts, 1900
Tish (1911) and Tish plays the field (1926), Mary Roberts Rinehart — This is a series about a main character called Tish. The one I found in the library was: Tish: the chronicle of her escapades and excursions (1916). From how Lucy Maud Montgomery described it in her journal, I was all ready for a book about a saucy and spunky 20-year-old back in the early 1900s. Well, it turned out that Tish is 50. Yet in books today, rarely will you see a spunky and saucy 50-year-old that can match Tish. Tish knows how to change a tire on a car, and lots of other things, that I don’t know how to do. The words ‘feminism’ or ‘girl power’ are never mentioned in the book, but they don’t need to be mentioned. As I read Tish, I started realizing how many books I have read whose authors lived in the 1800s and early 1900s, and how independent and capable the female characters they created were — even though we’re kind of conditioned to think of women back then as submissive and docile. The problems with this book were 1) some of the chapters were a little boring and repetitive, and sometimes the writing wasn’t clear enough to figure out what was going on and 2) the use of racial slurs and nasty comments towards immigrants. There’s a whole chapter about a young man who’s immigrated from Syria. The author tries to make him seem foolish and worthy of contempt; but it was a poor attempt, because the contempt in the author’s words were actually unable to disguise that this young immigrant was simply a person trying very hard to make a new life for himself.
Roughing it, Mark Twain, 1872
Flaming Youth, Samuel Hopkins Adams, 1923 — I haven’t read this, but Lucy Maud Montgomery hated it and shredded it into her fireplace
The woman in White, Wilkie Collins, 1859
Zanoni, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1842 – I was in love with this book. This book was a favorite of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s when she was a child, and I could see why. It was beautiful, mysterious, idealistic, romantic. It took me to all these places, and all these scenes, I’ve never gone before. I was all ready to tell everyone to drop everything and read Zanoni. But three-fourths of the way into the book, one of the characters does something very stupid and honestly, something very out-of-character for that character. The action made no sense. But I was going to forgive that, because the last fourth was exciting and swept me and my doubts away again — until the the last 3 paragraphs. They were just very stupid. But you should still probably read this book.
Beside the bonnie brier bush, Ian McLaren, 1894
The days of auld lang syne, Ian McLaren, 1895
Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope, 1858
Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope, 1861
Life of Lady Byron, Ethel Mayne, 1929
The wind in the willows, Kenneth Grahame, 1908 — I started reading this; it was very slow and boring. Mostly I got impatient with the slow descriptions of nature. But then I remembered: when I was little, I would have pitied someone who got impatient with descriptions of nature as slightly indecent. So I kept reading and it was after all a very lovely story.
The story of an African farm, Olive Schreiner, 1883
Elizabeth and her German garden, Elizabeth von Arnim, 1898 – At first, I liked it: it was kind of amazing how you could write a whole book with pretty much no action, and just talking about this lady’s garden. This was a best-seller (100 years ago). But then, towards the end of the book, the husband says the stupidest things about women, and the two women present, Elizabeth and her feisty friend whose name I can’t remember, don’t make him shut up. So it’s like the husband won. These were super offensive comments about the intelligence and capabilities of women. So I started thinking that the author must have been very stupid, but then I read about her on Wikipedia. She didn’t sound like someone who believed women are silly and nothing else. Did she make the husband say outrageous things, with no surefire pummeling in return, because the comments were outrageous enough that even 100 years ago people would have been angry, without the author needing to point it out? I don’t know. And she also made a whole awful lot of mean, unjust implications and comments about people not as rich as her.
Little Katey and Jolly Jim, Julia Matthews, 1865 — This book was published in 1865. Lucy Maud Montgomery mentions it a lot in her journals as a favorite childhood book, and I thought from the title that it must be a very jolly, fun read. Well, it was not. In fact, it was 1/3 very sweet, and 2/3 ridiculous. Like super ridiculous. This is a book that just doles out fanciful, evangelical prescriptions to poverty. It’s in fact really annoying.
Books by the Bronte sisters, c. 1847 — these are all great books.
Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1857 — this was a beautiful book. It’s a biography of my favorite author, and it’s full of her letters, which are just as beautifully written as all her books. Plus, I learned all about the old English moors from back in the day. I was just in despair because right afterwards, I found like 10 huge books with the originals of all of Charlotte Bronte’s letters, and I just won’t ever have time to read them all.
Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther, Elizabeth von Arnim, 1907
Sam Pepys’ Diary, 1660-1669
Elizabeth and Essex, Lytton Strachey, 1928
The Black Douglas, Crockett, 1899
Elsie books, Martha Finley (there’s a ton of these books), 1867-1905
The cross, Sigrid Undset, 1920-1922 — This is the third part of a trilogy. The books all together are just named after the main character, Kristen Lavransdatter. When I looked it up, I was pretty excited to read it, and I stayed excited for the first 130-ish pages. And then it was all downhill. And it’s a long downhill, because the book is 1128 pages long. It’s the most boring long book I’ve ever read. There are multiple 300-page lumps of pure boredom that you have to get through, to be rewarded with about 50 pages of some interest, before things are boring again. Because it’s basically 1000 pages of Kristen being “white-faced” and all the color draining out of her face, and not being able to breathe, but still able to speak calmly in the middle of her distress! On the inside-flap of the book, some prestigious reviewer had compared the book to The Brothers Karamozav. Are you kidding??? The Brothers K, where every sentence and every scene made you stop and breathe at either the beauty of the language, or the situation, or the thoughts being presented. No, there is no comparison between that and this Norwegian clunker. This was 1100 pages of blah blah blah. There is more profound feeling and thought in Taylor Swift’s new album Folklore. Seriously. Oh, and one more thing. The author kept confusing herself (and me) by saying things like: It was absolutely silent in the night; one heard the sound of the river and the sound of the wind in the trees and the sound of cowbells echoing around the mountain and the sound of the horses stamping their feet … are you confused? Or she’d say things like: it was a still, windless night, with great gusts of wind battering everything. I mean …
The last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper, 1757
The house of seven gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851 — This was kind of bad. When Charlotte Bronte goes on and on and on, I don’t mind because it is all beautifully written. This book was not. It could have been summed up in 20 pages. Wow, the dragging out of details was just painful. And the 15 pages devoted to unveiling that a man was dead, who we already knew was dead – well, it was a bit too much.
Adam Bede, George Eliot, 1859 — my first George Eliot book and also the first book she wrote. It’s really quite good. I didn’t like it as much as Charlotte Bronte’s Villete and Jane Eyre. It kind of dragged in some places. And the insights are not as insightful as with Charlotte. I did like the mom a lot. Hettie is silly and annoying, and the lady preacher is good and sweet. But can’t we use a little of both in life? Was Hettie supposed to be punished so harshly, or was the author criticizing the societal notion that scandal and silliness must lead to such a terrible downfall?
Farthest North, Fridtjof Nansen, 1897 — This book was a bestseller way back in 1897! It’s about a polar expedition that made it “farthest north” to the North Pole than anyone had ever been before. Nansen was the head of the expedition, and when they got back, he wrote this book. He’s Norwegian, therefore I am obligated to dislike the book. However, you could read it for sure. It takes you along through the moonlit Polar night!
Vanity Fair, Thackeray, 1848 — I know this is a classic, but it is an awful book. The only thing clear from the book is the great opinion Thackeray had of himself – he apparently thought he was the only moral person on the planet, the only one who really knew how to live an upright life. Meanwhile, he wrote before the Civil War and he thought slavery was the best thing ever. When I finally finished and picked up “Farthest North”, I felt like my soul was being washed from all the pollution and grime of Thackeray.
The Alhambra, Washington Irving, 1832 – The story of when the author took a trip to Spain, and swung by the city of Granada, and spent several weeks hanging out at the old Moorish Castle, the Alhambra. It was nice to get to walk in his shoes, see the sights with him, and read the magical and somewhat wild legends of long ago.
Rupert of Hentzau, Anthony Hope, 1898