Victorian literature is the body of poetry, fiction, essays, and letters produced during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) and during the era which bears her name. It forms a link and transition between the writers of the romantic period and the modernist literature of the twentieth century.
During the nineteenth century 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 historical fiction. Serialized popular novels won unprecedented readership and led to increasing artistic sophistication. The nineteenth century is often regarded as a high point in European literature and Victorian literature, including the works of Emily and Charlotte Brontë), Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lewis Carroll, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and Oscar Wilde remain widely popular and part of the core curricula in most universities and secondary schools.
Charles Dickens 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. The nineteenth century saw the rise of numerous literary journals that carried serial installments that were eagerly anticipated and widely read. His first real novel, The Pickwick Papers, written when he was only 25, 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 installments. 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 Makepeace Thackeray was Dickens' 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 flavor 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 was the site of some of the era's most important 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 silly romances which all 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 tone grew darker.
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 1890s having a more realistic and often grimmer cast. Even writers of the high Victorian age were censured for their plots attacking the conventions of the day; Adam Bede was 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. The prevailing plot of the Victorian novel is sometimes 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. He responded to the hostile reception to Jude in 1895 by giving up his novel writing, 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 satirizing many aspects of Victorian society with Butler's particular dislike of the religious hypocrisy the focus of his greatest scorn in the depiction of "Musical Banks."
While 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 moralizing that obscured 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, R. D. Blackmore, and even Benjamin Disraeli, a future Prime Minister.
The Victorians are sometimes credited with 'inventing childhood', partly via their efforts to stop child labor 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, adult novelists producing works for children such as Dickens' A Child's History of England but also dedicated children's authors. Writers like Lewis Carroll, R. M. Ballantyne, and Anna Sewell wrote mainly for children, although they had an adult following, and nonsense verse, poetry which required a child-like interest, was produced by Edward Lear among others. The subject of school also became a rich area for books with Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays just one of the most popular examples.
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 40 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.
It seems wrong to classify Oscar Wilde as a Victorian writer as his plays and poems seem to belong to the later age of Edwardian literature, but as he died in 1900, he was most definitely Victorian. His plays stand apart from the many now forgotten plays of Victorian times and have a much closer relationship to those of George Bernard Shaw's, many of whose most important works were written in the twentieth century.
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 twentieth century. Arnold's works harks 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 behavior 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 contemperaneously regarded as the chief poet amongst them, although his sister Christina is now held by scholars to be a stronger poet.
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 eleventh 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.
Science, 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 revitalize 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.
Supernatural and fantastic literature
A new form of supernatural, mystery and fantastic literature during this period, often centered on larger-than-life characters such as Sherlock Holmes famous detective of the times, Barry Lee big time gang leader of the Victorian Times, Sexton Blakes, Phileas Foggs, Frankenstein fictional characters of the era, Dracula, Edward Hyde, The Invisible Man, and many other fictional characters who often had exotic enemies to foil.
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.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Chesteron, G. K. The Victorian Age in Literature. Harleston: Edgeways, 2001. ISBN 9780907839651
- Kumar, Shiv Kumar. British Victorian literature; recent revaluations. New York University Press, 1969. OCLC 46407
- Tillotson, Geoffrey. A View of Victorian Literature. Clarendon Press, 1978. ISBN 9780198120445
All links retrieved May 8, 2020.
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