George Eliot: what next?
If you loved Middlemarch and would like to read more George Eliot, I recommend The Mill on the Floss (1860) as your next step, followed by Adam Bede (1859) and Daniel Deronda (1876). If, after these, you still want more, you’re hard core and don’t need any further interference from me!
Which biographies of George Eliot do you recommend?
See my recommendations on the Life page of this site.
Are there any critical books on George Eliot that you’d recommend?
It depends on what you’re hoping to learn more about, as well as on what kind of books you like to read. A lot of scholarly books are very specialized and written in a dense style that can be frustrating or tedious for non-academics: this is not so much a flaw as a requirement of their genre. Among those that I think offer valuable insights in an engaging way are Alison Booth’s Greatness Engendered: George Eliot and Virginia Woolf; Gillian Beer’s George Eliot; and Rosemarie Bodenheimer’s The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans. But this is already an eclectic list, reflecting my interests more than any broader standard.
For smart, reliable overviews of critical issues related to Eliot and her fiction, an excellent place to start is The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot.
What other Victorian novels would you recommend?
You mean, besides all of them? But in fact a few do stand out as good follow-ups to Middlemarch. If you enjoyed the novel’s breadth and interest in social and political questions, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) provides both interesting connections and some striking contrasts, as does her later Wives and Daughters. Anthony Trollope’s two great series, the Chronicles of Barchester and the Palliser novels, cumulatively give a vast panoramic view of Victorian society but never lose their human warmth and charm; Trollope’s narrator is as intrusive as Eliot’s, but has his own delightfully chummy personality. While Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is the most famous Victorian novel chafing against women’s limited roles, her sister Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is in some ways more formally innovative and it’s just as dramatic. And while it’s hard to imagine two writers with less in common stylistically than Eliot and Dickens, there’s no doubt in my mind that Bleak House is the other greatest novel of the period. Oh, and also Vanity Fair. And … well, by this point, again, you don’t need any more suggestions from me.
Contemporary Novels for the Lover of 19th-Century Fiction
There is an entire category of novels today classed as “Neo-Victorian” — meaning novels that one way or another recreate 19th-century contexts or styles. Here’s a list at GoodReads that covers all the ones I can think of and many more; here’s some information from the Victorian Web as well. I personally am not an avid reader of neo-Victorian novels, but one novelist I can’t recommend too highly is Sarah Waters, and particularly Fingersmith, which is an engrossing and superbly artful recreation of Victorian sensation fiction.
There are also contemporary novels that we might consider Victorian in spirit, though they do not purport to recreate anything explicitly Victorian. For me that doesn’t necessarily mean the array of novels labelled “Dickensian” because they have a lot of (quirky) characters (such as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth). I’m thinking more of books like A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which is unafraid of thoughtful, even demanding, exposition and combines intensely human storytelling with a broader vision of history and society. But given the immense variety of Victorian fiction, trying to pinpoint “Victorian” qualities in later novels would inevitably be reductive. Instead, let’s just dedicate ourselves to ignoring critics who think “Victorian” (or “realist”) means “dull and old-fashioned.”