From Dickens to Sherlock: Exploring Victorian England

by Sonja Cole

Upper elementary school through high school

Queen Victoria reigned in England from 1837 until her death in 1901. The time of her rule was marked by great social change in England. The rise of industrialization and urbanization magnified the class stratification that existed in large cities. London, in particular, suffered a host of social problems due to unregulated wages, poor working conditions, and overcrowding.

The social class system and its effects on both the rich and poor is a common theme among novels set in Victorian England. Charles Dickens’ novels depict poor orphans, workers, social climbers, and women of all classes trapped in restrictive gender roles.

Many of the problems that plagued Victorian England exist in the United States today—poverty, injustice, and an ever-widening gulf between the classes. Children reading stories about Victorian times will recognize and relate to the struggles of these historical characters. These stories also reinforce the principles of equality for all people regardless of class or background; the rights of the poor to decent housing, health care, and education; the need for society to care for children whose parents are unable to do so; and the responsibility of government and individuals to promote the dignity of all people.

The books listed here vividly bring Victorian England to life, allowing students to become immersed in this setting and personally identify with the struggles of the characters.

Picture Books

Greenaway, Kate.
Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose. 2006. 52p. University of California/Huntington Library, $14.95 (9780873282161).

Preschool–Gr. 3. First published in 1881, this new edition reproduces Greenaway’s enchanting illustrations of rural childhood in Victorian England and includes an introduction by James Thorpe.

Kerley, Barbara.
The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins: An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, Artist and Lecturer. Illus. by Brian Selznick. 2001. 48p. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $16.95 (9780439114943).

Gr. 3–5. This Caldecott Honor Book tells the true story of Victorian artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who built life-size models of dinosaurs to educate the world about these awe-­inspiring ancient animals. Many of Selznick’s richly evocative paintings are based on Hawkins’ original sketches.

Spirin, Gennady.
A Apple Pie. 2005. 32p. Philomel, $16.99 (9780399239816).

Preschool–Gr. 2. Spirin’s engaging re-creation of a traditional English nursery rhyme is filled with exquisite Victorian details in watercolors that show exuberant children following the fortunes of a gigantic apple pie.

Fiction for Middle Grades

Aiken, Joan.
Midnight Is a Place. 1974; reissued 2002. 292p. Houghton, $16 (9780618196265); paper, $5.95 (9780618196258).

Gr. 4–8. A sudden reversal of fortune forces orphans Lucas and Anna Marie to learn to survive in the unfriendly streets of Victorian England.

Aiken, Joan.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. 1963; reissued 1987. 192p. Yearling, paper, $5.99 (9780440496038).

Gr. 4–8. In this first installment of the Wolves Chronicles, Bonnie is left in the care of a greedy governess who plots to kill Bonnie’s parents and siphon her inheritance. Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia are sent away to a cruel and dismal boarding school, where they expose the plot and escape with the help of a resourceful orphan named Simon.

Beyond the Western Sea: Escape from Home. 1996. 304p. HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (9780380728756). Also available in an audio edition from Recorded Books.

Gr. 4–8. In this first book of a trilogy, teenage peasants Maura and Patrick seek to escape their poor fortune in Ireland. Meanwhile, the 11-year-old son of an English lord runs away from his fate in England. The three all start their journey to America at the Liverpool seaport. Inspired by Victorian novels published in serial form, Avi ends every chapter of the book with a cliffhanger.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson.
A Little Princess. Illus. by Tasha Tudor. 1905; reissued 1998. 336p. HarperCollins, $17.99 (9780397306930); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (9780064401876). Also available in an audio edition from Recorded Books.

Gr. 4–8. Tudor’s delicate illustrations enliven this beloved story of a young girl who is suddenly thrust from a life of privileged luxury to hard-toiling servitude when her father dies, leaving her penniless. Also see Burnett’s
Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Dickens, Charles.
A Christmas Carol. Illus. by P. J. Lynch. 2006. 160p. Candlewick, $19.99 (9780763631208).

Gr. 4–up. This title provides the complete text of Dickens’ story with lavish full spreads of watercolor art. For slightly younger readers, see Jane Parker Resnick’s abridged version of this classic tale,
A Christmas Carol: A Young Reader’s Edition of the Classic Holiday Tale (Running Press, 2000).

Dickens, Charles.
Great Expectations. Retold by James Riordan. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. 2002. 96p. Oxford, $19.95 (9780192741905).

Gr. 4–7. This easy-to-read abridged retelling of Dickens’ classic story includes illustrations that humanize the characters and bring the tale to life.

Kirwan, Anna.
Victoria: May Blossom of Britannia, England 1829. 2001. 224p. Scholastic, $10.95 (9780439215985).

Gr. 4–8. Part of the Royal Diaries series, this book is a fictionalized journal kept by Queen Victoria as a 10-year-old princess and describes her daily life in Kensington Palace.

Mack, Tracy, and Michael Citrin. The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas. Illus. by Greg Ruth. 2006. 272p. Orchard, $16.99 (9780439828369).

Gr. 3–7. This debut installment in the Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars series introduces a band of boys who help the master detective investigate a suspicious death. The book features illustrations, a dictionary of cockney slang, maps, and other Victorian background information. For more of the series, see
The Mystery of the Conjured Man (Orchard, 2006).

Pullman, Philip.
Spring-Heeled Jack: A Story of Bravery and Evil. Illus. by David Mostyn. 1991. 112p. Knopf, $9.95 (9780375816017); Yearling, paper, $5.99 (9780440418818).

Gr. 4–8. Three children make their escape from a London orphanage and are reunited with their father through the efforts of the legendary Spring-Heeled Jack.

Simmons, Alex, and Bill McCay.
The Raven League: Sherlock Holmes Is Missing! 2006. 192p. Razorbill/Sleuth, $10.99 (9781595140722).

Gr. 4–6. Sherlock Holmes is missing, and it’s up to young Archie Wiggins, kicked out of the Baker Street Irregulars, to save the great detective, redeem himself, and, incidentally, help foil a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria. For more of the series, see
Buffalo Bill Wanted! (Razorbill/Sleuth, 2007).

Springer, Nancy.
The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery. 2006. 224p. Philomel/Sleuth, $10.99 (9780399243042).

Gr. 5–8. When Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister, 14-year-old Enola Holmes, travels to London to investigate her mother’s disappearance, she becomes caught up in yet another disappearance—that of a young marquess who appears to have been kidnapped. For more of the series, see
The Case of the Left-Handed Lady (Philomel/Sleuth, 2007).

Umansky, Kaye.
The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow. 2005. 304p. Candlewick, $14.99 (9780763627928). Also available in an audio edition from Recorded Books.

Gr. 4–7. Humorous plot twists abound in this story about 10-year-old foundling Solly, who sets off to find his true parents with only one clue as to their identities—the silver spoon they left with him as a baby.

Williams, Marcia.
Charles Dickens and Friends: Five Lively Retellings. 2002. 48p. Candlewick, paper, $7.99 (9780763631987).

Gr. 3–6. Five tales by Charles Dickens—
Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and
A Christmas Carol—are retold in a spirited graphic novel form. This recap of Dickens’ classics is best for an audience already familiar with the stories.

Fiction for Older Grades

Bray, Libba.
A Great and Terrible Beauty. 2003. 416p. Delacorte, $16.95 (9780385730280); paper, $8.95 (9780385732314). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.

Gr. 7–12. After her mother’s death, 16-year-old Gemma is sent to London to be groomed for life as a rich man’s wife. While there, she uncovers the dark history of a group involved with the supernatural and discovers that she has the power to communicate with the dead. Also see the sequel,
Rebel Angels (Delacorte, 2005).

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan.
The Hound of the Baskervilles. 2000. 256p. Simon & Schuster/Aladdin, paper, $4.99 (9780689835711). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.

Gr. 7–up. The cursed Baskerville family fear that a deadly hound lurking in the moors outside their estate is hunting them. When Sir Charles Baskerville mysteriously dies, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson must solve the mystery before the next Baskerville is killed.

Lawrence, Iain.
The Convicts. 2005. 224p. Delacorte, $15.95 (9780385730877); Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.99 (9780440419327). Also available in an audio edition from Recorded Books.

Gr. 7–9. Fourteen-year-old Tom Tin struggles against the injustice of the juvenile penal system when he is wrongly convicted of murder and sent to Australia on a convict transport ship. For more of Tom Tin’s adventures, see the sequel,
The Cannibals (Delacorte, 2005).

Levithan, David.
Marly’s Ghost. 2006. 176p. Dial, $14.99 (9780803730632).

Gr. 7–10. In this modern-day reworking of Dickens’
A Christmas Carol, Ben’s deceased girlfriend, Marly, and several other ghosts come back to haunt him on Valentine’s Day. Ben takes a painful journey through Valentine’s Days past, present, and future, and he is forced to acknowledge that his current emotional state is not only distancing him from his friends but dishonoring the memory of Marly.

Livi, Michael.
The Whispering Road. 2005. 336p. Putnam, $17.99 (9780399243578); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (9780142407240).

Gr. 5–10. Two poor orphans search for the mother who abandoned them, and along the way meet an odd assortment of characters and experience the cruel hardships of life for needy Victorian children.

Pullman, Philip.
The Ruby in the Smoke. 1985. 240p. Laurel-Leaf, paper, $6.50 (9780394895895). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.

Gr. 7–12. Searching London for clues about her father’s mysterious death in the East Indies, 16-year-old Sally doesn’t realize that others are pursuing her to find clues to the whereabouts of an enormously valuable stolen ruby. Also see the sequels,
The Shadow in the North (Knopf, 1988) and
The Tiger in the Well (Knopf, 1990).

Richards, Justin.
The Death Collector. 2006. 336p. Bloomsbury, $16.95 (9781582347219). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.

Gr. 7–9. An evil factory owner has reanimated a dead human and a dinosaur and unleashed them on the streets of Victorian London. Three teens—a pickpocket, an assistant at the British Museum, and a nosy girl—are united in their attempt to stop the madman’s monsters.

Updale, Eleanor.
Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? 2004. 240p. Orchard, $16.95 (9780439580359); Scholastic, paper, $5.99 (9780439580366). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.

Gr. 7–9. Petty thief Scarper seeks to transform his life by pretending to be a gentleman by day, while robbing rich houses by night. Also see the sequels,
Montmorency on the Rocks: Doctor, Aristocrat, Murderer? (Orchard, 2005) and
Montmorency and the Assassins (Orchard, 2006).

Wooding, Chris.
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray. 2004. 304p. Orchard, $16.95 (9780439546560); Scholastic, paper, $7.99 (9780439598514).

Gr. 7–12. As Thaniel, a wych-hunter, and Cathaline, his friend and mentor, try to rid London’s Old Quarter of the terrible creatures that infest it, their lives become entwined with that of a woman who may be either mad or possessed. This scary supernatural fantasy is set in an alternate Victorian London.

Informational Titles

Ashby, Ruth.
Victorian England. 2003. 80p. Marshall Cavendish, $29.93 (9780761414933).

Gr. 4–8. Part of the Cultures of the Past series, this book examines the political and cultural history of the Victorian era and includes a glossary, index, and bibliography.

Carpenter, Angelica Shirley.
Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass. 2003. 128p. Lerner/Twenty-First Century, $27.93 (9780822500735).

Gr. 6–9. This Lerner Biography profiles Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the author of
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and
Through the Looking Glass, from his childhood to his career at Oxford to his controversial friendship with young Alice Liddell. Besides Dodgson’s own photographs and reproductions of the original Alice illustrations, a selected bibliography and an index are included. Also see the author’s
Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden, cowritten with Jean Shirley (Lerner/Twenty-First Century, 1990).

Price-Groff, Claire.
Queen Victoria and Nineteenth-Century England. 2003. 80p. Marshall Cavendish, $29.93 (9780761414889).

Gr. 6–10. Part of the Rulers and Their Times series, this title, which includes a glossary and bibliography, blends the culture and everyday life of Victorian England with a biographical portrait of its ruler, Queen Victoria.

Rosen, Michael.
Dickens: His Work and His World. Illus. by Robert Ingpen. 2005. 96p. Candlewick, $19.99 (9780763627522).

Gr. 4–7. This book re-creates Dickens’ world, from the author’s childhood in London to his early career, his performances, and the social and political upheavals of the time that inspired so much of his work. Accompanied by Ingpen’s lavish paintings, this book also provides concise retellings of some of Dickens’ best-known works.

Stanley, Diane, and Peter Vennema.
Charles Dickens: The Man Who Had Great Expectations. Illus. by Diane Stanley. 1993. 48p. HarperCollins, $17.99 (9780688091101).

Gr. 2–6. This illustrated biography of Dickens, which includes a bibliography of the author’s works, describes how events in the author’s life inspired the plots and characters of his stories. Stanley’s illustrations offer accurate portrayals of Victorian life.

Thomson, John.
Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs. 1994. 160p. Dover, paper, $13.95 (9780486281216).

Gr. 7–12. Originally published in 1877, this book contains historic photos and articles on such Victorian occupations as the Covent Garden flower women, London cabmen, flying dustmen, and others.

Yancey, Diane.
Life in Charles Dickens’s England. 1999. 112p. Lucent, $28.70 (9781560060987).

Gr. 7–10. Part of the Way People Live series, this book explores the social context of Dickens’ novels and describes the work, education, and living conditions of the different classes in Victorian England.

Media Connections

The videos and DVDs below represent a selection of Charles Dickens’ novels that have been successfully adapted into full-length features.

Bleak House. 2005. BBC Warner. 3 DVDs (8 hrs.), $39.98 (794051250827).

Gr. 7–up. Dark and gritty, this suspenseful Masterpiece Theatre miniseries adaptation will keep viewers on the edge of their seats as the mystery behind Lady Dedlock (played by Gillian Anderson), Ester Summerson, and the evil Mr. Tulkinghorn unfolds.

David Copperfield. 2000. WGBH Boston. 2 VHS (3 hrs.), $29.95 (783421337138); 1 DVD, $19.95 (783421365094).

Gr. 7–up. Young David is played by Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, in this Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Dickens’ most autobiographical work.

Great Expectations. 1999. WGBH Boston. 2 VHS (3 hrs.), $29.95 (783421337534); 1 DVD, $29.95 (783421337596).

Gr. 7–up. A faithfulness to Dickens’ original story makes this Masterpiece Theatre adaptation stand out among other movie versions of the book.

Nicholas Nickleby. 2002. MGM. 1 VHS (2 hrs.), $39.99 (027616885715); 1 DVD, $14.94 (027616885722).

Gr. 7–up. This adaptation glosses over some of the more offensive sexual themes and minimizes the horror of the school brutality in this novel. The film is rated PG for “thematic material involving some violent action and a childbirth scene.”

Oliver! 1968. Sony Pictures. 1 DVD (2½ hrs.), $19.94 (043396021372).

Gr. 4–up. This charming musical adaptation of
Oliver Twist by Lionel Bart won six Academy Awards in 1968, including Best Picture.

Sonja Cole, a former school library media specialist, is now the host of, a video booktalk Web site for kids.