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The Victorian Period

Special thanks to Mary Bowden of Indiana University for writing this introduction!

The Victorian period of literature roughly coincides with the years that Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain and its Empire (1837-1901). During this era, Britain was transformed from a predominantly rural, agricultural society into an urban, industrial one. New technologies like railroads and the steam printing press united Britons both physically and intellectually. Although now the period is popularly known as a time of prim, conservative moral values, the Victorians perceived their world as rapidly changing. Religious faith was splintering into evangelical and even atheist beliefs. The working class, women, and people of color were agitating for the right to vote and rule themselves. Reformers fought for safe workplaces, sanitary reforms, and universal education. Victorian literature reflects these values, debates, and cultural concerns. Victorian literature differs from that of the eighteenth century and Romantic period most significantly because it was not aimed at a specialist or elite audience; rather, because the steam printing press made the production of texts much cheaper and because railroads could distribute texts quickly and easily, the Victorian period was a time when new genres appealed to newly mass audiences.

POETRY

Poetry was one of the most popular genres of the Victorian period. The Romantic poets, particularly William Wordsworth (who lived through the beginning of the period, dying in 1850) were revered and widely quoted. The Victorians experimented with narrative poetry, which tells a story to its audience, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), an entire novel written in verse. The poem tells the story of Aurora Leigh, a woman who seeks a career as a poet after rejecting an inheritance and a male suitor, and so tells, in part, the story of Barrett Browning’s own struggles to make her poetic way in the world. Narrative poetry could also be much shorter, like Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (1862), which recounts how a woman is seduced into eating beautiful fruit sold by goblins and how her sister saves her after she sickens.

Victorian poets also developed a new form called the dramatic monologue, in which a speaker recites the substance of the poem to an audience within the poem itself. Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” (1842), in which the Duke of Ferrara describes how he (probably) killed his last wife to the man who is arranging his next marriage, is one of the most famous examples of a dramatic monologue. Alfred, Lord Tennyson also used the form in “Ulysses” (1842), in which Ulysses recounts his reasons for setting out on a last voyage to the men with whom he will sail.

Tennyson also wrote lyric, or non-narrative poetry, including what is perhaps the most famous poem of the Victorian era, In Memoriam A. H. H. (1849). Tennyson wrote this book-length sequence of verses to commemorate the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The poem contains some of the most famous lines in literature, including “’Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all,” and was widely quoted in the Victorian period.

Poets like Tennyson, the Brownings, and Rossetti frequently wrote poetry in order to create a powerful emotional effect on the reader, but some Victorian poets also wrote simply to entertain. Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear wrote nonsense or light verse, a genre that plays with sounds and rhythm in melodious ways. Famous examples include Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (1871), a poem that uses many invented words to narrate the killing of a monster called the Jabberwock, and Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1871), which describes the adventures of the title characters.

THE GOTHIC, SENSATION FICTION, AND MELODRAMA

Although different kinds of realism (see below) dominated the novel in the Victorian period, the eighteenth-century tradition of the Gothic lived on, particularly in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Jane Eyre uses many Gothic conventions: a young, pure female heroine; a sinister house filled with mysteries; and a handsome, brooding older man – but within a Victorian frame. Jane Eyre must make her own way in the world as a governess, and must also pursue what is right for her despite Victorian gender and class conventions.

Jane Eyre uses some Gothic tropes, but sensation fiction (so named because its suspenseful plots inspired dangerous “sensations” in readers) more fully embraced the surprise and horror typical of the Gothic. Sensation fiction typically centers on deception and bigamy, in which men or women are lured into fake marriages – and worse. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), which tells the story of two women who look strangely alike and are substituted for each other at various points, is perhaps the most famous example. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), in which a supposedly deranged woman tries to kill her husband after he realizes that she has married another man, also shocked Victorian readers.

One of the aims of sensation fiction was to surprise and trouble readers by challenging social conventions, but another Victorian genre, melodrama, achieved popularity by upholding popular values. Melodramas divide characters starkly into those who are vicious and those who are virtuous. They evoke emotion in readers and viewers by making virtuous characters the subject of vicious plots. These were some of the most popular theatrical productions of the period.

NOVELS AND DIFFERENT KINDS OF REALISM

Although poetry and plays were important in Victorian cultural life, the period is known as the great age of the novel. The serial form of publishing, in which installments of a novel were released at regular intervals, encouraged engaged audiences. Victorian books are also famously long. In part, this was because improvements in papermaking and printing technology made printing books much cheaper. The rise of lending libraries, which would individually lend out volumes of a book (a book like Jane Eyre was a “tripledecker,” or had three volumes) also contributed to the great length of Victorian novels. A three-volume book could be read by three readers at the same time, while a one-volume book could only be read by one. Lending libraries made more money on tripledeckers, and their encouragement helped that form become dominant in the Victorian marketplace.

Realism, which aims to portray realistic events happening to realistic people in a realistic way, was the dominant narrative mode of the Victorian novel – but it had many variants.

Satirical realism

William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-48) best exemplifies satirical realism, a mode that emphasizes the worst qualities of each character and suggests that the world, or “Vanity Fair,” is a dark and unfair place. The novel follows the adventures of Becky Sharpe, a scheming and amoral heroine who manipulates all those around her (and does very well for herself), in contrast to Amelia Sedley, a trusting and virtuous young woman who struggles to find happiness.

Psychological realism

Psychological realism emphasizes portraying the rich inner life of characters – their thoughts, feelings, motivations, anxieties, etc. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72) for instance, she portrays the progress of several marriages in a small provincial town. Dorothea Brooke, the heroine, is an idealist who marries an elderly scholar, Casaubon, in the hopes of helping him with his work. But she becomes disillusioned and finds herself attracted to his nephew Will Ladislaw.

Social realism

Social realism focuses on the foibles, eccentricities, and remarkable characteristics of people, who are frequently caricatured. Often comic (and sometimes tragicomic), it is best exemplified by the work of Charles Dickens. In novels like Oliver Twist (1837-39) in which Dickens uses the plight of the orphan Oliver to critique a heartless orphanage overseen by eccentric bumblers, Dickens both criticized the social system and created a vibrant world of memorable characters. In his masterpiece Bleak House (1852-53) Dickens takes aim at the bureaucratic excesses of the court system as seen in the never-ending court case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.

Industrial novels

The rapid transformation of Britain into an industrial society prompted some writers to write novels which exposed the difficult plight of the working class. In Dickens’ Hard Times (1854), the millworker hero, Stephen Blackpool, faces ostracism after his refusal to join the millworkers’ union. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) uses the viewpoint of Margaret Hale, an emigrant from southern England to a northern industrial city, to address the plight of millworkers.

The novel and empire

As Dickens and Gaskell focused on important domestic issues, other writers turned their attention to Britain’s rapidly-expanding empire, which they took as a subject for novels and poetry. Rudyard Kipling celebrated British rule in India with his novel Kim (1901), in which the young Kim becomes a British spy in India. Joseph Conrad took a more skeptical stance toward imperialism in Heart of Darkness (1899), in which the sailor Marlow journeys through the Belgian Congo. Although ostensibly about the Belgian rather than the British Empire, Marlow informs his fellow sailors that his tale applies to Britain as well.

JOURNALISM AND PERIODICAL WRITING

With the cheaper price of printing, British journalism and periodical writing flourished and formed a significant part of Victorian literary production. Essayists like John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Babington Macauley, John Stuart Mill, and Matthew Arnold all wrote famous works of nonfiction prose that analyzed British history and critiqued current trends in British society. Professional female journalists like Harriet Martineau and prominent reformers like Florence Nightingale also used the periodical press to raise awareness about important issues in British society. Finally, important figures in British literature were also frequent contributors to the periodical press. Dickens ran a literary magazine called Household Words, while Eliot edited the Westminster Review for several years.

CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

The nineteenth century is frequently seen as the golden age of children’s literature. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) narrate the story of Alice, who finds herself in a place called “Wonderland” populated by grinning cats, mad hatters, and an evil queen. J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911) similarly imagines a fantastical place of mermaid lagoons, evil pirates, and fairy magic.

THE FIN DE SIÈCLE

The last part of the Victorian period, roughly 1880-1900, is referred to as the “fin de siècle,” a French term that means “end of the century.” Novels from this period tend to be more melancholy and bleak than earlier Victorian works, which conventionally had happy endings. Thomas Hardy’s famously depressing novels Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892) and Jude the Obscure (1895), for instance, describe how their protagonists’ lives are ruined by social forces. Tess gives birth to a child out of wedlock, which causes the husband she later marries to shun her when he finds out. Jude Fawley’s dreams of becoming a student at an elite university are destroyed both by his low social status as a stoneworker and by a disastrous early marriage.

Fin de siècle literature is also characterized by a move away from the forms of realism that had dominated the earlier part of the century and into genre fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, made his first appearance in 1886. Science fiction also became popular in the fin de siècle, as H. G. Wells imagined future worlds in The Time Machine (1895) and an alien invasion in The War of the Worlds (1897).

At the same time that Hardy envisioned bleak outcomes of human striving and Doyle and Wells developed new genres, Oscar Wilde wrote hilariously witty plays like The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) which describes the comic endeavors of two men who are trying to marry two women, both of whom are determined to marry men named Ernest. Although Wilde was the toast of the literary town at the time of the play’s production, he was soon prosecuted for sodomy and thrown into jail. His “Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1897) is a mournful evocation of prison life and the death of dreams, as the refrain reiterates: “all men kill the thing they love.”

I used the following sources to prepare this introduction to Victorian literature:

Adams, James Eli. A History of Victorian Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2012.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. Ed. Carol T. Christ and Catherine Robson. New York: Norton, 2006.