19th Century Fiction
In fact, I found Austen, Dickens, and Twain to be among the saving graces of the novel of the Great Tradition (as we were taught to think of it), but Hardy and James were hard (and often incomplete) slogs for me, and I even ran out of gas with George Eliot. (Middlemarch: the 19th century in real time.)
I think I would agree with this. As the century progresses, the novels become more inward and possibly more realistic, though heaven knows Austen is realistic. But how about many of the other great 19th century novelists? Moby-Dick is full of the minutia of everyday life on a whaler. But is that whale realistic? How about Ahab? Huckleberry Finn draws on Twain's deep knowledge of the Mississippi and life on the Missouri frontier. Again, is the novel really realistic? It's an epic quest for freedom, set on a magical river. The white Americans along the river -- "the common clay of the new west," to quote Blazing Saddles -- are for the most part grotesque, stupid and mean. So we have a flight to freedom along a magical river, the banks of which are populated by orcs. Dickens' Bleak House begins with "it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill." Granted, Dickens does not say the Megalosaurus is actually there. But we are left with the vivid image: London, the winter mud, the giant lizard. How about Jane Eyre, the ultimate gothic novel? Realism is mingled with wild romance and genuine weirdness.
There is a strong realism in the classic bourgeois novel, but it's often combined with exoticism -- think Robinson Crusoe or the mad, West Indian wife in Jane Eyre -- and the gothic. But all this neat stuff gets gradually leached out, until we are left with the internal lives of the late 19th century European and American middle classes. Austen, for all her realism, is not interested in inwardness. Her topics are money and right behavior.
(I know Robinson Crusoe is an early 18th century novel. But it does combine realism -- in its first edition, it claimed to be a true narrative by Mr. Crusoe -- with the exotic and is in the line of descent of the bourgeois novel. Plus it's a neat read, and the N. C. Wyath illustrations are awesome.)
(And I can't speak about the Russians. I haven't read them, except for Chekov, who is wonderful. My brother got through War and Peace by taking it on a six-week ocean-sailing trip. He had nothig else to read. I am not planning a comparable trip.)
I am sure there is more going on in realstic fiction at the end of the 19th century. But is it enough to make up for the loss of desert islands, white whales in the Pacific, magical rivers, Megalosauruses, and all the splendid oddities that populate Dickens, not to mention the dark, dense, almost alive city of London?