Most centuries-old “classics” we read today carry some lasting beauty; a deep human truth that transpires age. And many of them are painfully dry—you only read them because you want to be able to say, “I felt Hugo expressed more pathos for the French underclasses in Les Miserables than in The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at parties. (And you will remember to pronounce “Dame” as “Dahm.”)
But don’t forget, people who lived 100 years ago wanted entertaining tales, too. Mysteries, thrillers, romances, and fantasy abounded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We’ve just forgotten about them because not enough English professors write dissertations about the crime-fighting ladies of the Edwardian Age.
Not only are these six stories available for free online, they’re also mostly free of the bloated language and conventions that spoil old fiction for so many readers.
1. The Lamplighter, 1854 // Genre: Chick-Lit Romance
If you’re in the mood for pure heart-rending/warming sentiment, meet little Gertie Flint. She’s a poor orphan, mistreated by the world, until she is rescued by a kindly lamplighter. His fatherly love changes the course of her life. The rest of Maria Susanna Cummins’s bestselling novel is a chance for Flint to show us how bright, hard-working, and good a young woman can be.
2. The Hannay Series, 1915 // Genre: Espionage Thrillers
You’ve probably heard of the movie(s) The 39 Steps, as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock were two of the many talented people who have brought versions of this tale to radio and screen. The original The Thirty-nine Steps is the first book in a five-book series of thrillers starring the intrepid Richard Hannay, a solider and spy in The Great War. Scottish novelist (and Baron, Elected Member of Parliament, and Governor General of Canada) John Buchan wrote the books. They chronicle Hannay’s life of adventure and espionage throughout World War I, as well as the mysteries he solves in the postwar years.
3. The Marriage of William Ashe, 1905 // Genre: Scandal and Romance
William Ashe, a dashing Earl and successful politician, is enchanted with the beauty and charm of 18-year-old Lady Kitty. He proposes after only knowing her three weeks, and is too infatuated with her to take note of all the gossip regarding her character. What could possibly go wrong? Enter a lover or two, some unladylike behavior, a desperate episode of grief, some very wrong choices, and you have yourself a spellbinding beach read by Mrs. Humphrey Ward.
4. Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective, 1914 // Genre: Ladies Solving Crimes
Long before spunky modern heroines began solving mysteries with their cats and knitting societies, even before Miss Marple tottered onto the scene, there was Miss Madelyn Mack. She and her trusty companion, reporter Nora Noraker, take on five mysteries in the book. Miss Mack believes a woman’s observant character makes her a better mystery solver than a man. Hugh Cosgro Weir’s tale is a bit of a Sherlock Holmes rip-off, to be sure, but then again what mystery solving duo isn’t?
5. Carmilla: a Vampyre Tale, 1872 // Genre: Vampires
Predating Dracula by about 25 years, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla is the story of a lonely girl named Laura who lives in her father’s lonely European castle. One day, a carriage rolls out of the mist, and an anxious lady begs to leave her ill daughter with Laura while she tends to a far-away emergency. This girl is Carmilla, and soon she and Laura form an intense friendship. Carmilla has peculiar ways, and an undefinable sickness. Her ailments are not surprising, as people all over town seem to be dying of some strange illness.
6. You Know Me, Al, 1916 // Genre: Humor
Firstly, finding any unique humor from the 19th and early 20th centuries is difficult. You can basically choose from the rambling knee slappers of Mark Twain, or the jaunty verbal gymnastics that come from Jerome K. Jerome and the future members of the Algonquin Round Table. But You Know Me, Al, written by sportswriter Ring Lardner, reads altogether different. It’s a series of letters written to “Al” (in a vernacular that is nearly recognizable English) by Jack Keefe, a remarkably dumb and narcissistic baseball player who continually sabotages or lets others sabotage his journey to and from fame. Throw in some disastrous dames and a couple of no good scoundrels all filtered through Keefe’s amazing doltishness, and you’ve found yourself an easy fun time there, pal.