Victorian Literary Impact on Victorian People

-----The Victorian Era held a background fascination with death. Queen Victoria mourned for her husband for 40 years and people would carry with them everywhere broaches containing hair of a late loved one. The obsession with death can be seen today, by one of London's most popular tourist attractions, the Highgate Cementary. Another interest, that can be clearly seen in Victorian Literature, is lingering disease and suffering, such as deathbeds, sudden fatalities, brain fevers, unexplainable deaths where people waste away, madness and obsession. Death and disease are the raw materials that Victorian writers shape into narrative and poetic form. Thus Victorian literature and culture are both marked by a preoccupation with death, disease, and other disturbing subjects that are undeniably morbid and are characterized by excessive gloom and unwholesome brooding. In Victorian literary circles the accusation of morbidity was leveled at works ranging from sonnets to sensation fiction, from literary biography to lyric poetry. Victorian Era writings have been considered "mordbid phenomena of literature" and are "indications of a widespread corruption" that threatened English literature itself.
-----Although Victorians basked in morbidity in their daily lives, they simultaneously condemned morbidity as literary anathema. Morbidity in Victorian literature is not just about death, disease, and a horrifiying fascination with the pleasures and pains of the flesh; it was a fascination with literary form as well as the flesh. Morbid works of art and literature inspire or portray discomfort of the writer and/or reader. The sick body exists in a liminal state between life and death, precariously balanced between a potential return to health and a descent into death. The cultural reception of these types of works illuminates the emergence of morbidity as a formal and thematic concern in Victorian literature.
-----In reply, she said, "You say that she may be thought morbid and weak, unless the history of her life be more fully given. I consider that she is both morbid and weak; her character sets up no pretensions to unmixed strength, and anybody living her life would necessarily become morbid."
-----Victorian novels often excited physical responses in their readers, creating nervous excitations that were thought to lead to illness. These physical responses were the embodied reaction to a newly sensational experience of modernity created by the transition to an industrial economy and the proliferation of factories, the concomitant movement of large numbers of people to major cities, the advent of an extensive network of railways, and the accelerating circulation of newpapers depicting lurid or criminal incidents in word and image.
-----"When critics self-consciously referred to the 1860s as the 'age of sensation,' they meant... that the word encapsulated the experience of modernity itself - the sense of continuous and rapid change, of shocks, thrills, intensity, excitement" - Jenny Bourne Taylor
-----The shocking events that characterize sensation plots - murder, bigamy, the return of the living dead - were a formal requirement of the genre that offered readers a distilled and displaced version of their own experience as uneasy inhabitants of a newly modern world. Although the sensation novel lacks the cultural cahet of poetry, it also engages in teh self-reflexive and thus morbid interrogation of form's relation to content. The novel that started the craze for sensation was Wilkie Collins' //The Woman in White//published in 1860.

Facts of Victorian Literary Era:
  • Early Victorian writers, responding to the social changes due to the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society and the decline of traditional religious beliefs, adopted a moral aesthetic and maintained that literature should provide fresh values and an understanding of the newly emerging society. Novelists such as Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot examined complications of forming a personal identity in a world in which traditional social structures were breaking down. Social mores were their subject and realism their form of expression.
  • By the 1870s, opposing what by now was perceived as a repressive aesthetic, writers began to reject any obligation to produce moral art, as exemplified in the theoretical works of Walter Pater, such as Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). In fiction, this impulse took various forms, among them a return to prose fantasy as displayed in the works of Robert Lewis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886) and Lewis Carroll (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865). In his dystopian novel Erewhon, or, Over the Range (1872), Samuel Butler criticized the stringent morals of his time. The late Victorian period also saw a more searching realism, accompanied by the emergence of the so-called 'problem novel' in which the institution of marriage and traditional relations between the sexes were re-examined. In the words of the novelist George Gissing, it was an era of "sexual anarchy"; an era in which the laws governing sexual identity and behavior were no longer valid. The 'fallen woman' was replaced by the 'new woman.' Once the door closed behind Ibsen's Nora, social structures oppressing women became the theme of plays by Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and novels by George Moore and Thomas Hardy.
  • The influence of Charles Darwin's recently published Origin of Species (1859) on his thought, and his subsequent loss of orthodox religious faith affected all of his writings. Although his novels were uneven in skill, when he stayed in the rural settings of his youth and focused on relations between the sexes, they took on a tragic power rarely equaled by other English novelists. He is credited with introducing fatalism into Victorian literature -- a pessimistic assessment of humanity's ability to cope with a changing social environment.
  • In two of Hardy's final novels, Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1896), his bleak and open treatment of sexuality and marriage caused such an outrage among the puritanical Victorian public that he was deeply disillusioned.
  • At about the time Hardy was active as a novelist, the French writer Emile Zola formulated a branch of literary realism called naturalism, which reflected many of Hardy's concerns as a novelist. The terms naturalism and realism are often used almost interchangeably, but there is a significant distinction between them: while naturalists supported the realists' aim of careful observation and mimetic depiction of the outer world, their view of the human condition and specific method of writing was strongly indebted to advances in the natural sciences.
  • A rebel Victorian novelist who was strongly influenced by naturalism was George Gissing. Gissing's work marks a transition from Victorian realism to a grimmer realistic mode.
  • Another form which the reaction against Victorianism took was the literary movement known as 'decadence.' An early influence on the movement was the erotic poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne, which shocked the Victorian reading public in the seventies and eighties. In literary history, the term decadence specifically applies to a late nineteenth century movement marked by supposedly amoral sentiments, extensive use of sensual or exotic imagery, and aestheticism.
  • No sharp dividing line separates the nineteenth from the twentieth century.


Morbid Strains in Victorian Literature
A History of Victorian Literature
Late Victorian Era Information