Victorian literature

Victorian literature

Victorian literature is the literature produced during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and corresponds to the Victorian era. It forms a link and transition between the writers of the romantic period and the very different literature of the 20th century.

The 19th century saw the novel become the leading form of literature in English. The works by pre-Victorian writers such as Jane Austen and Walter Scott had perfected both closely-observed social satire and adventure stories. Popular works opened a market for the novel amongst a reading public. The 19th century is often regarded as a high point in British literature as well as in other countries such as France, the United States of America and Russia. Books, and novels in particular, became ubiquitous, and the "Victorian novelist" created legacy works with continuing appeal.

Significant Victorian novelists and poets include: the Brontë sisters, (Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë), Christina Rossetti, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Lewis Carroll, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, George Meredith, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Gissing, Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Philip Meadows Taylor, Lord Alfred Tennyson, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, George MacDonald, G.M. Hopkins, Oscar Wilde and Beatrix Potter.

Novelists

Charles Dickens arguably exemplifies the Victorian novelist better than any other writer. Extraordinarily popular in his day with his characters taking on a life of their own beyond the page, Dickens is still the most popular and read author of the time. His first real novel, "The Pickwick Papers", written at only twenty-five, was an overnight success, and all his subsequent works sold extremely well. He was in effect a self-made man who worked diligently and prolifically to produce exactly what the public wanted; often reacting to the public taste and changing the plot direction of his stories between monthly numbers. The comedy of his first novel has a satirical edge which pervades his writings. These deal with the plight of the poor and oppressed and end with a ghost story cut short by his death. The slow trend in his fiction towards darker themes is mirrored in much of the writing of the century, and literature after his death in 1870 is notably different from that at the start of the era.

William Thackeray was Dickens's great rival at the time. With a similar style but a slightly more detached, acerbic and barbed satirical view of his characters, he also tended to depict situations of a more middle class flavour than Dickens. He is best known for his novel "Vanity Fair", subtitled "A Novel without a Hero", which is also an example of a form popular in Victorian literature: the historical novel, in which very recent history is depicted. Anthony Trollope tended to write about a slightly different part of the structure, namely the landowning and professional classes.

Away from the big cities and the literary society, Haworth in West Yorkshire held a powerhouse of novel writing: the home of the Brontë family. Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë had time in their short lives to produce masterpieces of fiction although these were not immediately appreciated by Victorian critics. "Wuthering Heights", Emily's only work, in particular has violence, passion, the supernatural, heightened emotion and emotional distance, an unusual mix for any novel but particularly at this time. It is a prime example of Gothic Romanticism from a woman's point of view during this period of time, examining class, myth, and gender. Another important writer of the period was George Eliot, a pseudonym which concealed a woman, Mary Ann Evans, who wished to write novels which would be taken seriously rather than the romances which women of the time were supposed to write.

The style of the Victorian novel

Virginia Woolf in her series of essays "The Common Reader" called George Eliot's "Middlemarch" "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people". This criticism, although rather broadly covering as it does all English literature, is rather a fair comment on much of the fiction of the Victorian Era. Influenced as they were by the large sprawling novels of sensibility of the preceding age they tended to be idealized portraits of difficult lives in which hard work, perseverance, love and luck win out in the end; virtue would be rewarded and wrong-doers are suitably punished. They tended to be of an improving nature with a central moral lesson at heart, informing the reader how to be a good Victorian. This formula was the basis for much of earlier Victorian fiction but as the century progressed the plot thickened.

Eliot in particular strove for realism in her fiction and tried to banish the picturesque and the burlesque from her work. Another woman writer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote even grimmer, grittier books about the poor in the north of England but even these usually had happy endings. After the death of Dickens in 1870 happy endings became less common. Such a major literary figure as Charles Dickens tended to dictate the direction of all literature of the era, not least because he edited "All the Year Round", a literary journal of the time. His fondness for a happy ending with all the loose ends neatly tied up is clear and although he is well known for writing about the lives of the poor they are sentimentalized portraits, made acceptable for people of character to read; to be shocked but not disgusted. The more unpleasant underworld of Victorian city life was revealed by Henry Mayhew in his articles and book "London Labour and the London Poor".

This change in style in Victorian fiction was slow coming but clear by the end of the century, with the books in the 1880s and 90s more realistic and often grimmer. Even writers of the high Victorian age were censured for their plots attacking the conventions of the day with "Adam Bede" being called "the vile outpourings of a lewd woman's mind" and "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" "utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls". The disgust of the reading audience perhaps reached a peak with Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" which was reportedly burnt by an outraged bishop of Wakefield. The cause of such fury was Hardy's frank treatment of sex, religion and his disregard for the subject of marriage; a subject close to the Victorians' heart, with the prevailing plot of the Victorian novel sometimes being described as a search for a correct marriage.

Hardy had started his career as seemingly a rather safe novelist writing bucolic scenes of rural life but his disaffection with some of the institutions of Victorian Britain was present as well as an underlying sorrow for the changing nature of the English countryside. The hostile reception to "Jude" in 1895 meant that it was his last novel but he continued writing poetry into the mid 1920s. Other authors such as Samuel Butler and George Gissing confronted their antipathies to certain aspects of marriage, religion or Victorian morality and peppered their fiction with controversial anti-heros. Butler's "Erewhon", for one, is a utopian novel satirising many aspects of Victorian society with Butler's particular dislike of the religious hypocrisy attracting scorn and being depicted as "Musical Banks".

Whilst many great writers were at work at the time, the large numbers of voracious but uncritical readers meant that poor writers, producing salacious and lurid novels or accounts, found eager audiences. Many of the faults common to much better writers were used abundantly by writers now mostly forgotten: over-sentimentality, unrealistic plots and moralising obscuring the story. Although immensely popular in his day, Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now held up as an example of the very worst of Victorian literature with his sensationalist story-lines and his over-boiled style of prose. Other writers popular at the time but largely forgotten now are: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charlotte Mary Yonge, Charles Kingsley, and R. D. Blackmore.

Other Literature

Children's literature

The Victorians are sometimes credited with 'inventing childhood', partly via their efforts to stop child labour and the introduction of compulsory education. As children began to be able to read, literature for young people became a growth industry, with not only established writers producing works for children (such as Dickens' "A Child's History of England") but also a new group of dedicated children's authors. Writers like Lewis Carroll, R. M. Ballantyne and Anna Sewell wrote mainly for children, although they had an adult following. Other authors such as Anthony Hope and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote mainly for adults, but their adventure novels are now generally classified as for children. Other genres include nonsense verse, poetry which required a child-like interest (e.g. Lewis Carroll). School stories flourished: Thomas Hughes' "Tom Brown's Schooldays" and Kipling's "Stalky and Co." are classics.

Poetry and drama

Poetry in a sense settled down from the upheavals of the romantic era and much of the work of the time is seen as a bridge between this earlier era and the modernist poetry of the next century. Alfred Lord Tennyson held the poet laureateship for over forty years and his verse became rather stale by the end but his early work is rightly praised. Some of the poetry highly regarded at the time such as "Invictus" and "If— " are now seen as jingoistic and bombastic but Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade was a fierce criticism of a famous military blunder; a pillar of the establishment not failing to attack the establishment. Comic verse abounded in the Victorian era. Magazines such as "Punch magazine" and "Fun magazine" teemed with humorous invention [ [http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/23881 Spielmann, M. H. "The History of "Punch"] , from Project Gutenberg] and were aimed at a well-educated readership. [Vann, J. Don. "Comic Periodicals," "Victorian Periodicals & Victorian Society" (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1994)] The most famous collection of Victorian comic verse is the Bab Ballads.Stedman, Jane W. (1996). "W. S. Gilbert, A Classic Victorian & His Theatre", pp. 26–29. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816174-3]

The husband and wife poetry team of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning conducted their love affair through verse and produced many tender and passionate poems. Both Matthew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote poems which sit somewhere in between the exultation of nature of the romantic Poetry and the Georgian Poetry of the early 20th century. Arnold's works hearken forward to some of the themes of these later poets while Hopkins drew for inspiration on verse forms from Old English poetry such as "Beowulf".

The reclaiming of the past was a major part of Victorian literature with an interest in both classical literature but also the medieval literature of England. The Victorians loved the heroic, chivalrous stories of knights of old and they hoped to regain some of that noble, courtly behaviour and impress it upon the people both at home and in the wider empire. The best example of this is Alfred Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" which blended the stories of King Arthur, particularly those by Thomas Malory, with contemporary concerns and ideas. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood also drew on myth and folklore for their art with Dante Gabriel Rossetti contemporaneously regarded as the chief poet amongst them, although his sister Christina is now held by scholars to be a stronger poet.

In drama, farces, musical burlesques, extravaganzas and comic operas competed with Shakespeare productions and serious drama by the likes of James Planché and Thomas William Robertson. In 1855, the German Reed Entertainments began a process of elevating the level of (formerly risqué) musical theatre in Britain that culminated in the famous series of comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan and were followed by the 1890s with the first Edwardian musical comedies. The first play to achieve 500 consecutive performances was the London comedy "Our Boys" by H. J. Byron, opening in 1875. Its astonishing new record of 1,362 performances was bested in 1892 by "Charley's Aunt" by Brandon Thomas. [ [http://www.dgillan.screaming.net/stage/th-longr.html Article on long-runs in the theatre before 1920] ] After W. S. Gilbert, Oscar Wilde became the leading poet and dramatist of the late Victorian period. Wilde's plays, in particular, stand apart from the many now forgotten plays of Victorian times and have a much closer relationship to those of the Edwardian dramatists such as George Bernard Shaw, many of whose most important works were written in the 20th century.

The influence of Empire

The interest in older works of literature led the Victorians much further afield to find new old works with a great interest in translating of literature from the farthest flung corners of their new empire and beyond. Arabic and Sanskrit literature were some of the richest bodies of work to be discovered and translated for popular consumption. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is one of the best of these works, translated by Edward FitzGerald who introduced much of his own poetic skill into a rather free adaptation of the 11th century work. The explorer Richard Francis Burton also translated many exotic works from beyond Europe including "The Perfumed Garden", "The Arabian Nights" and the "Kama Sutra".

cience, philosophy and discovery

The Victorian era was an important time for the development of science and the Victorians had a mission to describe and classify the entire natural world. Much of this writing does not rise to the level of being regarded as literature but one book in particular, Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species", remains famous. The theory of evolution contained within the work shook many of the ideas the Victorians had about themselves and their place in the world and although it took a long time to be widely accepted it would change, dramatically, subsequent thought and literature.

Other important non-fiction works of the time are the philosophical writings of John Stuart Mill covering logic, economics, liberty and utilitarianism. The large and influential histories of Thomas Carlyle: "The French Revolution, A History", "On Heroes and Hero Worship" and Thomas Babington Macaulay: "The History of England from the Accession of James II". The greater number of novels that contained overt criticism of religion did not stifle a vigorous list of publications on the subject of religion. Two of the most important of these are John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Cardinal Manning who both wished to revitalise Anglicanism with a return to the Roman Catholic Church. In a somewhat opposite direction, the ideas of socialism were permeating political thought at the time with Friedrich Engels writing his "Condition of the Working Classes in England" and William Morris writing the early socialist utopian novel "News from Nowhere". One other important and monumental work begun in this era was the "Oxford English Dictionary" which would eventually become the most important historical dictionary of the English language.

upernatural and fantastic literature

The old Gothic tales that came out of the late nineteenth century are the first examples of the genre of fantastic fiction. These tales often centered on larger-than-life characters such as Sherlock Holmes, famous detective of the times, Barry Lee, big time gang leader, Sexton Blake, Phileas Fogg, and other fictional characters of the era, such as Dracula, Edward Hyde, The Invisible Man, and many other fictional characters who often had exotic enemies to foil.Spanning the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was a particular type of story-writing known as gothic. Gothic literature combines romance and horror in attempt to thrill and terrify the reader. Possible features in a gothic novel are foreign monsters, ghosts, curses, hidden rooms and witchcraft. Gothic tales usually take place in locations such as castles, monasteries, and cemeteries, although the gothic monsters sometimes cross over into the real world, making appearances in cities such as London and France.

The influence of Victorian literature

Writers from the former colony of The United States of America and the remaining colonies of Australia, New Zealand and Canada could not avoid being influenced by the literature of Britain and they are often classed as a part of Victorian literature although they were gradually developing their own distinctive voices. Victorian writers of Canadian literature include Grant Allen, Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill. Australian literature has the poets Adam Lindsay Gordon and Banjo Paterson, who wrote "Waltzing Matilda" and New Zealand literature includes Thomas Bracken and Frederick Edward Maning. From the sphere of literature of the United States during this time are some of the country's greats including: Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Henry James, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.

The problem with the classification of Victorian literature is great difference between the early works of the period and the later works which had more in common with the writers of the Edwardian period and many writers straddle this divide. People such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, H. Rider Haggard, Jerome K. Jerome and Joseph Conrad all wrote some of their important works during Victoria's reign but the sensibility of their writing is frequently regarded as Edwardian.

Notes

External links

* [http://www.victorianweb.org/index.html The Victorian Web]
* [http://www.indiana.edu/%7Eletrs/vwwp/ Victorian Women Writers Project]
* [http://www.letrs.indiana.edu/web/v/victbib/ Victorian Studies Bibliography]
* [http://www.sylviamilne.co.uk/vic.htm Victorian Links]


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