The Best English-Language Fiction of the Twentieth Century
A Composite List and Ranking
by Brian Kunde


<- James, Henry, 1843-1916.
         A major American author of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lived much of his adult life in England and ultimately became a naturalized British citizen. Noted for his command of character, realism, and somewhat difficult style, James is best known for his novels illustrating the cultural clashes experienced by Americans, and such extraordinary short stories as “Daisy Miller” and “The Turn of the Screw.”
  • <- The Ambassadors. 1903.
             A dark comedy, considered by James his most perfect work. Lambert Strether travels to Europe to extricate Chad Newsome, the son of his fiancée, from a romantic entanglement. He finds his view of the matter challenged by the actual situation and his own horizons expanding in his new environment. Ultimately he advises Chad to remain with his lover and not return to America, though he himself does go back. Meanwhile, Chad’s mother has sent out other “ambassadors” to take up the mission Strether has failed to fulfill. Adapted to the musical theater in 1971, and to television in 1977.
  • <- The Bostonians. 1886.
             Conservative lawyer Basil Ransom, visiting his feminist cousin Olive Chancellor in Boston, attend a political meeting, where both fascinated by talented speaker Verena Tarrant. Olive persuades Verena to move in with her and grooms her for a career in the feminist movement, while Basil courts her in a more conventional sense. The sympathy of the author, and hence the reader, gradually shift from Basil to Olive as the narrative progresses. Basil eventually persuades Verena to elope with him just before she is due to speak at the Boston Music Hall. It is implied that their marriage will not be happy. Adapted to film by Merchant Ivory in 1984, and again (loosely) as The Californians in 2005.
  • <- The Golden Bowl. 1904.
             James’s last major novel, an exploration of marriage and adultery, with a pivotal development of the plot turning on the golden bowl of the title. American Maggie Verver weds the Italian prince Amerigo, while persuading her widowed father Adam to marry Charlotte Stant, who unknown to her was Amerigo’s former mistress. The two families are constantly together, and Amerigo and Charlotte inevitably renew their amore. When Maggie tumbles to what’s going on she delicately works to end the affair by persuading Adam and Charlotte to return to America, impressing her husband, who had formerly taken a dim view of her capabilities. Adapted to television in 1972, and to film by Merchant Ivory in 2000. The television version is better than the movie.
  • <- The Portrait of a Lady. 1881.
             Considered the best of James’s early novels. Valuing her independence, New Yorker Isabel Archer rejects the marriage proposals of Englishman Lord Warburton and Bostonian Caspar Goodwood. Her English cousin Ralph Touchett secures her a large inheritance, enabling her to travel. In Italy she weds American expatriate Gilbert Osmond, but his selfishness sours their life together. Isabel grows fond of her stepdaughter Pansy. The Osmonds fall out over the girl's marriage prospects, Isabel supporting Pansy's choice and Gilbert favoring Lord Warburton. Isabel leaves her husband to attend the dying Ralph Touchett in England. There Goodwood renews his bid for her affections, but she refuses him and goes back to Italy. It unclear whether she means to return to Gilbert or liberate Pansy from his tyrany. Adapted to television in 1968, and to film in 1996.
  • <- The Wings of the Dove. 1902.
             Britons Kate Croy and Merton Densher are unable to marry due to poverty. The visit of American heiress Milly Theale to Kate’s aunt seems to present a way out. Milly is both attracted to Merton and dying of an incurable disease, and Kate schemes to have the two marry so that Merton can inherit Milly’s fortune. Merton agrees, but Milly learns of the plot, and it hastens her death. She leaves him a substantial sum anyway. Remorseful, Merton declines it, but uses the bequest to test Kate. Should she join him in the renunciation, he will wed her; should she refuse to do so she can have the money–but not him. The story ends on a point of ambiguity. The character of Milly is based on James’s cousin Minny Temple, who died young of tuberculosis. Adapted to the stage in 1963, and to film in 1997.

Posted Jun. 27, 2008, and last updated May 14, 2013.
Please report any errors to the compiler.
Published by Fleabonnet Press.
The source list data is public domain.
Additional material © 1999-2013 by Brian Kunde.