Most of the old books that you encounter today are official “classics,” meaning that though they were written centuries ago, they carry some lasting beauty, some 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 of 100 years ago didn’t like to be bored any more than you do! They might have had longer attention spans, but they still liked to devote those attention spans to something fun. 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 crime-fighting ladies of the Edwardian Age.
So here we present some forgotten, fun reads of the past. Not only are they free on Google Books (except the naughty ones at the bottom!), they’re also mostly free of the bloated language and conventions that put so many readers off old fiction.
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’ bestselling novel is a chance for Gertie to show us how bright, hard-working, and good a young woman can be; and the sweet romantic rewards that await a girl of such virtue.
2. The Hannay Series, 1915
Genre: Espionage Thrillers
You’ve probably heard of the movie(s) The Thirty-nine Steps, as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock were two of many talented people who’ve brought versions of it to radio and screen. What you may not have known is that it is the first book in a five book series of thrillers staring the intrepid Richard Hannay, solider and spy of The Great War. The books were written by Scottish novelist (and Baron, Elected Member of Parliament, and Governor General of Canada) John Buchan. They chronicle Hannay’s life of adventure and espionage throughout WWI, as well as much mystery-solving after it.
3. The Marriage of William Ashe, 1905
Genre: Scandal and Romance
William Ashe, the 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, which reads surprisingly non-sexist for the day (and they were written by a man, Hugh Cosgro Weir). Miss Mack believes that a woman’s observant character makes her a better mystery solver than a man. It’s 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
Predating Dracula by about 25 years, Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 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 have formed an intense friendship. Carmilla has peculiar ways, and an undefinable sickness. Not surprising, since people all over town seem to be dying of some strange illness. I bet you can guess what it is. But in 1872, it would have been quite a shock.
6. You Know Me, Al, 1914
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 coupla no good scoundrels all filtered through Jack’s amazing doltishness, and you’ve found yourself an easy fun time there, pal.
Bonus: 50 Shades of Goodness Gracious!
Erotica has been publicized for as long as man could transfer thought to page or stone. The erotic novel, as we know it today, (slightly more lady-friendly and plot heavy than average pornography) began in the 18th century with the publication of The Memoirs of Fanny Hill. The art form progressed, and by the end of the 19th century readers were enjoying such discreetly wrapped and erotic titles as Lady Bumtickler's Revels, The Autobiography of a Flea, and Venus in India. All books are available on Kindle for remarkably reasonable prices, and will be sure to add a little ribaldry to your summer.