Victorian Literary Style:

Victorian Novels:

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 forrealism 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 editedAll the Year Rounda 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 bookLondon 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 Bedewas called "the vile outpourings of a lewd woman's mind" andThe 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 Obscurewhich 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 toJudein 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'sErewhon, 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.

Children's literature
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 Englandbut 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 Schooldaysjust 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 asInvictusandIf— 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 o fElizabeth 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'sIdylls of the Kingwhich 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.

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