If I were teaching, I would not assign Bleak House to beginners. It is my favorite Dickens, too (as I think you know), but it's so long. Hard Times (which I have yet to read) is definitely the shortest of his most highly regarded novels, but I might go with Great Expectations. Easily one of the finest and half the length of BH.
I'd probably go with The Mayor of Casterbridge over Tess, but to be honest, it has been a long time since I read any Hardy. Mrs. Dalloway is pretty tough. If you think they're going to be up to that, I would consider A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. The Dead is a great, great novella, but APOTAAAYM gives a much better view of Joyce without asking anyone to tackle Ulysses.
The 18th century novel is tough. My favorite, of course, is Tom Jones, but it is indeed very long. Of the shorter ones you might consider two novels that we read here, The Vicar of Wakefield or Humphrey Clinker. I'm not sure either is of the first rank, though. I need to read Joseph Andrews sometime. That might be an acceptable shorter taste of Fielding. Just the Lilliput section of Gulliver's Travels might be a thought. Many, of course, would include Defoe. I'm not one of them.
Vanity Fair? Conrad? Personally, I would definitely include The Good Soldier as we proceed into the early 20th century. The only Forster I've read (as I recall) is A Passage to India. I was pretty underwhelmed at the time, but maybe I should give him another try.
To change the subject, I must confess that I recommend Gilead with reservations. I absolutely loved it, but it does contain a lot of talk about faith, religion, and spirituality. It is certainly faith of a loving, inclusive sort, far from the rigid fundamentalism indigenous to Mississippi and Alabama. It isn't all about such things, of course. There are strong characterizations, beautiful prose, and even an interesting plot. (The latter creeps up on the reader such that you barely notice how cleverly the novel is constructed.) But it is very much an elderly Protestant minister's story.
: Choosing books isn't so hard. It'll be the
: usual suspects mostly: P&P, Wuthering
: Heights, Jane Eyre, Bleak House,
: Middlemarch, Tess of D'urbervilles, Women in
: Love, Mrs. Dalloway, maybe some Forster, The
: Dead. I'd like to start with Tom Jones, but
: it's long and I read it shortly before
: coming here. I'd have used the much shorter
: Hard Times instead of BH, but I was ready to
: reread BH. I'm taking the novella length
: Joyce story because I don't feel like
: rereading any of the other now. Filling out
: the 20th century may be a bit tricky. I'd
: like to come pretty close to the present. I
: might end with Brick Lane which I read
: recently. And the penultimate book might be
: Possession. All this if I actually carry out
: the plan, and if there is enough interest in
: I didn't read Housekeeping with you all
: here, but read it a couple years ago and
: liked it quite well. I have avoided Gilead
: for the same reasons as you, but I'll read
: it now on your recommendation.
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