The word “fantasy” wasn’t used to describe a literary genre until the mid 20th Century, when fantasy books were distinguished from other kinds (particularly from children’s literature) and gained popularity. However, many novels of the 18th and 19th Centuries had all the hallmarks of what we’d now call fantasy, or influenced later fantasy writers.
Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most significant of these works published before 1900. I’ve tried to use their original covers, or failing that, their title pages:
(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)
Some of these books are now widely accepted as originators or important early examples of related genres and sub-genres – e.g. Le Morte d’Arthur for Arthurian Fantasy, She: A History of Adventure and other works by H. Rider Haggard for the Lost World sub-genre (a genre that often blurs the lines between fantasy and science fiction), The Vampyre for Vampire Fiction, The Castle of Otranto for Gothic fiction, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court for Time Travel Fantasy.
Gothic and horror fiction thrived in the 1800s, and had a strong influence on fantasy, particularly paranormal and urban fantasy. In fact, the genres are so intertwined it’s difficult to divide the two.
Science Fiction also has its early roots in the 19th Century. While not included above, I’ve mentioned some key science fiction works below that undoubtedly played a role in the rise of speculative fiction as a whole.
A Few Interesting Facts
- There were so many ‘Alice copies’ (books heavily inspired by or based on Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass – e.g. Alice in Blunderland) in the years following the publication of his famous work that Carroll even started his own collection of them.
- George MacDonald was a mentor to Lewis Carroll and encouraged him to publish Alice in Wonderland.
- Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien cite George MacDonald as an inspiration.
- Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while in prison.
- Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe met, and Dickens’s pet raven is said to have inspired Poe’s famous poem “The Raven”.
Other 19th Century Works and Authors
There are some works that didn’t make it into the list above for various reasons (either because they were more works of science fiction, adventure novels or short fairy tales than fantasy, or were an assortment of short stories, or simply weren’t as prominent as others), that are none-the-less worth mentioning too:
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
- The Voyages Extraordinaires novels by Jules Verne (1863 -1905)
- The works of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1949)
- The works of H.G. Wells (1866-1946)
- The works of Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902)
- Phantasmion by Sara Coleridge (1837)
- Phantastes by George MacDonald (1858) [this vied with The Princess and the Goblin for a place in the above list]
- Erewhon by Samuel Butler (1872)
- The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1883)
- King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1885) [his more famous work, but I included She instead as it has more overtly fantasy elements]
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
- A Houseboat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs (1895) [inspirer of the Bangsian fantasy sub-genre]
- The Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit (1899)
- Collectors and writers of fairy tales such as Andrew Lang, Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.
Are any of these books a favourite? Or do you think I’ve overlooked an important novel? Feel free to give it a mention in the comments.