Quite a few of my favorite authors are pre-1900s. But when talking about Regency, Georgian or Victorian literature, there's only a handful of big names that get repeated over and over. And while there's certainly a reason they are still around and being read after all this time and some of those authors like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott or Charlotte Bronte are among my favorites, I thought I'd focus a two-parter post on some of my favorite lesser known authors from these time periods.
Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown--One of the first novels published in the United States, it features an intrepid heroine trying to figure out why everyone around her is hearing voices, and why her brother is acting so erratically . There's spontaneous human combustion, mass murder, and other gothic goodies. Brown was a early advocate of women's rights and follower of Mary Wollstonecraft's and William Godwin's, although he was more conscious of race and class than either of them, and most of his novels and writings deal with these themes.
Frances "Fanny" Burney--Burney wrote 4 novels, and several plays. For a while, she served as a lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte. If you've seen the movie the Madness of King George, there's a scene where King George is chasing after a lady in waiting and she's running away as they've been given orders not to talk to the king when he's not in his right mind...that was Fanny Burney. For some unknown reason though, they didn't name her in the film. (Burney also gives us one of the earliest accounts of a mastectomy in her published journals, also worth a read...it was her own mastectomy from cancer, in the days before anesthetics, she was conscious during nearly the whole operation!) Anyway, Burney was a large influence on Jane Austen--many people hear that and read Burney expecting the same sort of overt sparkling humor or satire. And while Burney was definitely satirizing Georgian society, she was far gentler and subtler about it. She is also more typical of Georgian authors like Samuel Richardson in length--her novels are often well over 600 pages or more. The only one of her 4 books I didn't like was Camilla, so that one is not recommended.
Evelina--Probably my favorite of Burney's novels, a legitimate but unacknowledged young woman of an aristocrat who's spent her life in the country comes to London for her first season and makes one faux pas after another based on her naivete.
The Wanderer--A woman fleeing the French Revolution comes to England and tries several jobs to support herself. Unusual in that it deals sympathetically with a working class protagonist, and also a scathing criticism of England's treatment of foreigners (which accounted for very poor reviews and sales during Burney's life).
Cecilia--An heiress has an unusual condition to her inheritance in that her future husband has to take her last name or the inheritance reverts to another heir. She also has to deal with three guardians till she's of age--one who wants to try spend her fortune on his own family, one who is an extreme miser and won't let her touch any money, and one who is a pompous prig who thinks she's after his son for his fortune. Also rare in that it's one of the few Georgian novels that a young single woman lives in her own estate for a while (with a chaperone of course)--most other books of the period, even if the heiress has a perfectly suitable estate, she must go to live with with relatives.
Belinda by Maria Edgeworth--Another tale of a young woman making her way in society, who's interested in two men, one may be attached to another woman, another seems to have his own secret. Features a duel between two women, and controversial in its day for themes of interracial marriage.
Roxana by Daniel Defoe--This is a pretty uneven novel, so I hesitant recommending it, but for the first half, I loved it, and in some ways thought it was better than Moll Flanders (which I greatly enjoy, but am not reviewing since it's widely considered such a classic). However, it ends very abruptly, as if Defoe ran out of time, and there is a character that enters about halfway or two-thirds through the novel that annoys me to no end, and when she she meets an ill fate, I almost cheered....which I think was probably the opposite of what Defoe intended, and I've never been so annoyed by a character that I've actually been relieved by their demise. So all that being out of the way, the novel follows the rise and fall of a courtesan from entry into the courtesan life after being a proper virtuous wife, to later catching the eye of the prince and so on.
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss--So, although countless movie adaptations have been made of this, but I'm not sure how much it actually gets read anymore. The story is surely known to everyone, but a family emigrating to Indonesia gets shipwrecked by themselves and survives for several years on a tropical deserted island. And the Disney movie totally did a disservice to Jenny's character (well, her whole storyline was butchered to make her a damsel in distress and have the boys fight over her), but she actually had survived by herself on another island for 3 years thank you very much and had built her own tree house and everything.
And I know I said I wouldn't be dealing with the big names, but if you're a Jane Austen fan and haven't read her short stories (generally published together as Lesser or Minor Works, sometimes with Northanger Abbey or Lady Susan, the last novel she was working on and didn't finish), you are missing out. These are stories, poems and novel fragments she wrote when she was younger, and they are absolutely hilarious.
For further reading, Mothers of the Novel by Dale Spender is a great resource on European women authors who originated the novel form. She focuses on 100 that were writing before Austen. It's out of print right now, but pretty easy to find through inter-library loan or selling very cheaply on Amazon.