Characteristics of Victorian Age Literature

  • July 11, 2024/

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Historical Background of Victorian Age
In the year 1837, Queen Victoria ascended the throne of Great Britain and Ireland and succeeded William the IV. She served for a period of 64 years, till her death in 1901 and it is one of the longest reigns in the history of England. The period was marked by many important social and historical changes that altered the nation in many ways. The population nearly doubled, the British Empire expanded exponentially and technological and industrial progress helped Britain become the most powerful country in the world.

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Chief Characteristics of Victorian Period
While the country saw economic progress, poverty and exploitation were also equally a part of it. The gap between the rich and the poor increased significantly and the drive for material and commercial success was seen to propagate a kind of a moral decay in the society itself. The changing landscape of the country was another concern. While the earlier phase of Romanticism saw a celebration of the country side and the rich landscape of the flora and fauna, the Victorian era saw a changing of the landscape to one of burgeoning industries and factories. While the poor were exploited for their labor, the period witnessed the rise of the bourgeoisie or the middle class due to increasing trade between Britain and its colonies and the Reform Bill of 1832 strengthen their hold. There was also a shift from the Romantic ideals of the previous age towards a more realistic acceptance and depiction of society.
One of the most important factors that defined the age was its stress on morality. Strict societal codes were enforced and certain activities were openly looked down upon. These codes were even harsher for women. A feminine code of conduct was levied on them which described every aspect of their being from the proper apparels to how to converse, everything had rules. The role of women was mostly that of being angels of the house and restricted to domestic confines. Professionally very few options were available to them as a woman could either become a governess or a teacher in rich households. Hence they were financially dependent on their husbands and fathers and it led to a commercialization of the institution of marriage.
Victorian Novels
Victorian Era is seen as the link between Romanticism of the 18th century and the realism of the 20th century. The novel as a genre rose to entertain the rising middle class and to depict the contemporary life in a changing society. Although the novel had been in development since the 18th century with the works of Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Samuel Richardson and the others, it was in this period that the novel got mass acceptance and readership. The growth of cities, a ready domestic market and one in the oversea colonies and an increase in printing and publishing houses facilitated the growth of the novel as a form. In the year 1870, an Education Act was passed which made education an easy access to the masses furthermore increasing literacy rates among the population. Certain jobs required a certain level of reading ability and simple novels catered to this by becoming a device to practice reading. Also the time of the daily commute to work for men and the time alone at home for women could be filled by reading which now became a leisure activity. As a response to the latter, the demand for fiction, rose substantially.
The novels of the age mostly had a moral strain in them with a belief in the innate goodness of human nature. The characters were well rounded and the protagonist usually belonged to a middle class society who struggled to create a niche for himself in the industrial and mercantile world. The stress was on realism and an attempt to describe the daily struggles of ordinary men that the middle class reader could associate with. The moral tangents were perhaps an attempt to rescue the moral degradation prevalent in the society then and supplied the audience with hope and positivity. These moral angles allowed for inclusion of larger debates in fiction like the ones surrounding “the woman question”, marriage, progress, education, the Industrial Revolution. New roles for women were created because of the resultant economic market and their voice which was earlier not given cadence was now being spotted and recognized and novels became the means where the domestic confinement of women was questioned. Novels reflecting the larger questions surrounding women, like those of their roles and duties. In the latter half of the century, Married Women’s Property Acts was passed, the women suffrage became an important point of debate, and poverty and other economic reasons challenged the traditional roles of women. The novel as a form became the medium where such concerns were raised.
Charles Dickens: A Popular Victorian Author
In the same year that Queen Victoria ascended the throne, Charles Dickens published the first parts of his novel Oliver Twist, a story of an orphan and his struggle with poverty in the early part of the century. As the Industrial Revolution surged on, the class difference between the traditional aristocracy and the middle class was gradually getting reduced and with the passing of the Reform Act, the middle class got the right to vote and be politically engaged in the affairs of the nation. While the aristocracy criticized the work that the bourgeoisie had to do in the factories and the industries, to maintain the supremacy that they had the privilege of, the middle class in response promoted work as virtue. The result of this led to a further marginalization of those struck by poverty and were part of neither groups. The Poor Law that was passed made public assistance available to the economically downtrodden only through workhouses where they had to live and work. The conditions of these workhouses were deliberately made to be unbearable so as to avoid the poor from becoming totally dependent on assistance from outside. Families were split, food was inedible, and the circumstances were made inhospitable to urge the poor to work and fight a way through poverty. However, these ultimately became a web difficult to transgress and people chose living in the streets rather than seeking help from a workhouse. Dickens was aware of these concerns as a journalist and his own life and autobiographical experiences entered the novel through Oliver Twist. His novel enters the world of the workhouses, the dens of thieves and the streets and highlights that while there was economic prosperity on one side, there was poverty on the other and while morality, virtue were championed, hypocrisy was equally a part of society. His social commentary entered the world of his fiction.
In 1836, before Oliver Twist, his serials of Pickwick Papers were published which led him to instant recognition and popularity. It started the famous Victorian mode of serial novels which dominated the age till the end of the century. It not only made the reader anxious for the next serial to come and spread the popularity of the book itself, but also gave the writer a chance to alter his work according to the mood and expectation of his audience. His works enjoyed continuous popularity and acceptance and Dickens as a writer became famous for his wit, satire, social commentary and his in depth characters.
Bleak House, A Christmas Carroll, David Copperfield, Great Expectations are some of his other great works.
William Makepeace Thackeray: English Victorian Writer
Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India and was also an important writer but one who expressed his age very differently from Dickens and other writers. He is most noted for his satirical work Vanity Fair that portrays the many myriads of English society. Although he was seen as equally talented as Dickens, but his views were deemed old-fashioned which hindered his popularity. He did not readily accept the changing values of the age. His work is seen almost as a reactionary voice. Vanity Fair for example has the subtitle ‘A novel without a Hero’ and in a period where other writers usually embarked on a portrayal of the coming of age of a hero, Thackeray himself very deliberately opposes it. While the protagonist of Dickens’ David Copperfield invites the reader to identify with him, Thackeray’s Becky Sharp is the conniving, cynical and clever. Even his novel Pendennis, is a complete opposite of the novel David Copperfield, although both were published the same year. Thackeray did not identify with the middle class because hence his novels lack a middle class hero. When novels were catering to reassure middle class self-worth, Thackeray denied to give that assurance. Even, Dobbin, a middle class character in Vanity Fair, is not completely granted hero status and a tone of criticism lingers on the character throughout the work.
In The History of Henry Esmond, Thackeray deals with questions of not only of the concerns of society at large but also of individual identity. While most writers supported the idea of innate goodness in the individual human self, Thackeray differed. For example the character of Henry Esmond is also not a completely positive character and the negatives of his self, is perhaps Thackeray’s critique of Victorian emphasis on the individual. An individualism that focused on personal virtue and morality is seen as Thackeray to at the risk of selfishness bordering on narcissism and self-absorption. His discontent with his age became more vocal in later works like Phillip and The New Comes. While the former is injected with autobiographical accounts and is goes back to the satirical tone of Vanity Fair, the latter is a harsh critique of the material greed of the age and a critique of the contemporary culture of the age.
As a result of his strong opinions of his society and its issues, and a critical rejection of the dominant concerns found in works of other writers of the same age, Thackeray stands in isolation as an outsider to this circle due his skepticism of the changing Victorian society. His stand did not change with time and lends to a social criticism and commentary of a very different sort in his works. Catherine, A Shabby Genteel Story, The Book of Snobs are some of his other works.
Women Novelists of the Victorian Era
The era saw a proliferation of women writers. The novel as a genre was initially seen as feminine literature and as the literacy rate among women increased, a new need for women writers catering to this segment was answered by these writers.
Mrs. Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell, popularly called Mrs. Gaskell wrote short stories and novels that dealt with presenting a social picture of her society in the 1850s. While it was a time when doubts about material progress reaching the actual lives of the ordinary man were starting to be raised, Gaskell mostly gave an optimistic view of the time. Gaskell’s North and South for example, seeks to present an answer to division and difference by presenting a form of a social reconciliation. There is an attempt at reconciliation of many divergent streams in the novel.
Mary Barton was her first novel, published in 1848 with a subtitle, ‘A Tale of Manchester Life’ and sticks to the Victorian concern of presenting the daily life of the middle class. Cranford came next in the form of a serial and was edited by Dickens for the magazine called Household Words. It was received positively and Gaskell gained immediate popularity for it. It centered on women characters like Mary Smith, Miss Deborah and the others. However the book was also critiqued for its lack of a significant story line. She was also famous for her gothic style in some of her works and this made Gaskell slightly different from other novelist of her time. Ruth, Sylvia’s Lovers, Wives and Daughters were other significant works by her.
George Eliot
Perhaps the one most famous women writers, George Eliot still maintains a canonical status. Her real name was Mary Ann Evans or Marian Evans and she adopted the pseudonym George Eliot to escape the stereotype attached with women writers and successfully entered the domain of ‘serious’ writing. She had a controversial personal life and there too was not hesitant to break the norms of societal feminine boundaries. Adam Bede was her first novel, published 1859, set in a rural landscape and deals with a love rectangle. It received critical appreciation for its psychological descriptions of the characters and a realistic description of rural life.
Mill on the Floss, 1860, revolves around the life of Tom and Maggie Tulliver and traces their life as they grow up near the River Floss. Historical, political references to those of the Napoleonic Wars and the Reform Bill of 1832 inform the novel and lend it a more intellectual and serious strain. Autobiographical elements also form a part of the novel as George Eliot fuses herself partly with Maggie, the protagonist of the book. After Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863), Felix Holt the Radical, (1866) came Eliot’s most popular novel Middlemarch in the year 1871. The novel revolves around the life of complex characters and the Reform Bill of 1832. Subtitled ‘A Study of Provincial Life’ the plot is based in the fictitious town of Midlands. The greatness of the novel was because of the vast portraiture of country and urban life that it depicts, its complex plots and characters, and its stark realistic projection of the time its set in. The role of education, the women question, politics, social commentary, idealism are other complicated strands of the novel.
Bronte Sisters
Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte were the three famous novelist daughters of Patrick Bronte, a well-educated man and a writer himself; and Maria Bronte. The family together went through a series of tragedies where Maria Bronte died very early and none of the three sisters could reach the age of 40. Charlotte died at the age of just 39, Emily at 30 and Anne at 29. All three were educated by their father at home and all of them were fond of storytelling since childhood. Charlotte Bronte is famous for her novel Jane Eyre, published in 1847. The titular protagonist of the book, Jane Eyre, and her struggles in life and love for Mr. Rochester along with the process of her mental and spiritual growth are traced. The novel is believed to have a feminist tone to it and the famous ‘woman in the attic’ character of Bertha Mason raises several gender and feminist issues. Emily Bronte, the second of the trio, became famous for her novel Wuthering Heights, published in the year 1847 and the only book written by her. Like George Eliot, Emily wrote under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell but after her death Charlotte published the novel with her sister’s real name. The novel is the love story of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw. Anne Bronte, the last of the three, wrote two novels: Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). The former was an autobiographical work and the latter is about a woman named  Helen Graham who transgresses marital and social boundaries to assert her freedom. It is seen a substantial piece of feminist writing.
All three sisters hence larger societal questions through mostly women characters and the plot focusses on their life with themes of love and passion. They hence enjoyed a large female readership and have achieved status as classics of literature.
Late Victorian Novelists
Thomas Hardy was the most important writer in the later part of the Victorian Era. He was influenced by both the romanticism of the earlier era and the social commentary of Dickens. He is famous for the conception of the fictional town of Wessex. Far from the Madding Crowd published in 1874, The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1886, Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 1891, and Jude the Obscure in 1895 are his famous novels but Hardy was also known for his poetry. The late part of the period also saw the rise of the ‘sensational’ novels by writers like Wilkie Collins and they too were based on the life of the middle class. The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868) are Collins famous sensational novels. Anthony Trollope, another writer in the second half of the era, was himself from a middle class background and wrote the Phineas Finn (1869) and The Way we Live (1874). It was the time when Lewis Carroll wrote his famous Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland published in 1865 and stood very different from other because of the child fiction genre it became a classic of the Carroll’s different dreamy world that stood in direct contrast with the realistic tone of novels that was at its peak. George Gissing, George Moore, Samuel Butler, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson were other novels of the era. Rudyard Kipling and his short stories based in India pointed to the larger historical process of colonialism happening at the time. It was in 1877 that Queen Victoria became the Empress of India. Then also came George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, another two most famous writers of the time.
Overview of Victorian Period
The age hence was important for the rise of the novel as a genre and form which itself saw transformation within the period. From romanticism to realism, politics to passion, optimism to pessimism, the novel could successfully deal with the changing mood of the society. Class, gender, individualism, society all were given space in the novel. The period was known to have witnessed the massive change of Britain from an agrarian to industrial landscape. All concerns informed the novel and the novel was made into perhaps the most important genre of the age and the ones that would follow.
Modern Period
After Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 came the period which saw writers like Joseph Conrad, H.G Wells, D.H Lawrence, E.M Forster and others. The most important event in the early part of the 20th century was the First World War that took place from 1914 to 1918. It was a crucial event that changed the way of the world, impacted the psyche of the people and also the way literature was written. The pessimism and doubts that were a part of the writings of the earlier period may perhaps have anticipated the War. Hence Joseph Conrad, instead of talking of the society and its change now focused on dislocated individuals, a question of where one belongs in a seemingly cruel world. Colonialism are important part of his works wherein he presents a stark reality of exploitation and greed. Lord Jim, Nostromo, Heart of Darkness, are some of his major works. H.G Wells was a prolific writer and wrote around a hundred novels. The Time Machine, Ann Veronica, The History of Mr. Polly, The War of the Worlds, are some his important novels and Tono- Bungay is seen as his most brilliant work. Lawrence, was a controversial writer because of the open sexual references in his work. His work was different because of the sensual language and emotional feelings that made them. Therefore the novel then moved from the realism of the world outside more towards a description of the reality of the individual within. Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love are important works by him. E.M Forster, lastly wrote his famous Howard’s End that deals with the Schegel and the Wilcox family and the society in 1910, brilliantly and delicately described which would then be transformed permanently by the First World War.
The Georgian Poets and World War I
During the reign of George V, was published five anthologies of poetry by Edward Marsh in the year 1912 to 1922. Many important writers like of the time like Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, D.H Lawrence, Walter de la Mare contributed to these anthologies. The main concern was to depict the real issues surrounding the world around the World War.
Modernism as a movement was a response to the horrors of World War-I and to the rising industrial societies and growth of cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It challenged the harmony and the rationality of the Enlightenment and sought to reinvent art and literature of the age. To do so, it broke away from the works of the past and conventions that were earlier held at a pedestal. The view that traditional conceptions of beauty and on the whole the meaning of art itself did not fit the age lead to another movement called “Dadaism” that consciously set to redefine art itself. The movement was seen as “anti-art” that aimed to upturn its order. Chaos then as the basic antithesis to order was abundantly used by artists. Started by Tristan Tzara (1896- 1963) as a reaction against the senseless violence of the First World War and to reflect the anarchy that it spread in the social system as well as in the lives of ordinary people. What was also opposed was the conception of what was worthy of being the object of art. The classical subjects were replaced by the mundane as the urinal that Marcel Duchamp placed as an object of art in his gallery. Also in his ‘LHOOQ’ Duchamp’s Mona Lisa with a moustache was a direct means to shake the viewer and the age out from his complacency that lead to the war itself. It was the direct expression of disillusionment with the war and that art too had lost its meaning like the literature of the classical time. The breaking down of any previously set rules and a violent portrayal of freedom of expression to shock and awe was the channel of the time that saw the violence of the World War firsthand. The artists and writers of the Dada movement were mostly war veterans and expressed through their work the psychological devastation of the war. The call for re-invention was echoed in the movement and stood for what modernism broadly aimed at.
Thematic and Technical Features of Modern Literature
The conception that reality could be easily be comprehended was replaced by modernism with a more subjective argument. Reality became not what was directly seen but what was behind the apparent surfaces and it took a crude look at the ugly, the stark behind the glossy surfaces. It was to raise these questions that distortion became a crucial trope in the visual arts of the era. Comte’s Positivism could no longer be used to describe reality. The distorted images force the onlooker to step out of his comfort zone and to question his conception of reality. It highlights the dialectical relationship between the object of expression and the language that expresses it. This was echoed in the Literature of the time where sentences are fragmented and deliberately left incomplete as in Waiting for Godot. Dialogues are seldom completed and there is an inability to find the correct words to describe the state of the self. This breakdown of language after the World War calls out for a need to reinvent language to fit the post war world.
Hitler’s use of almost an enigmatic, opera type use of words (he admired Wagner) that achieved his mass appeal, did also lead to the war. It was perhaps then necessary to breakdown language to reinvent it. The distortion and the fragments not only hint at the former but to a unity that needs to be rediscovered. The half-sentence make the reader seek to complete them and participate in the call for a search of a new unity and identity which is Pound’s injunction to “Make it New”. The onlooker/reader is removed from his role as a mere passive observer to an active one who contributes to the meaning of the art he views/reads. Hence the incompleteness was not aimed at a completely pessimistic answer that leads to a loss of hope, but to different source of comfort similar to what T.S Eliot finds in the world of ‘shanti shanti shanti’ at the end of ‘Wasteland’.
Overview of Modern Age Literature
James Joyce set his novels and short stories in a small city of Dublin. Dubliners published in 1914 is a part of the modernist literature along with The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Stephen Daedalus is a central character both in the Portrait and Ulysses. The latter however was banned.
The next important writer was Virginia Woolf who was associated with the Bloomsbury Group which was a group of intellectuals and writers that met at her house which included E.M Forster and Leopold Woolf. Woolf attempted to present the changed world through a changed style of writing. In 1915 came her first novel called The Voyage Out and then came Night and Day in 1919. There was a realistic serious tone to both these books. Modernist strain in her writing began with her next novel call Jacob’s Room which was published in 1922 along with Ulysses. The rest of the novels like Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and Orlando had the same modernist tone.
Stream of Consciousness
Picasso’s cubism became an important part of modernism’s subjective view of reality and a need to move away from traditional forms of art. It was this subjectivity that lead to the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique of narration, as used by Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway. The focus on the interiority of the self and its perception of the objects it conceives was way to grasp the changed notion of reality. The ‘Pre-Speech’ level of consciousness (as Henry James called it) of the character where the narrative deals with what is freely sensed or felt by the characters rather than what is directly uttered changed the way that narratives functioned. The expression of the self was also to highlight the crisis of the self within itself. The existential view of life and its cyclical futile form was what entrapped it rendering it unable to transcend futility of existence. This pessimistic view was a residue of the war which saw man as Sisyphus with his worthless search for meaning, identity and unity in an age that cannot satiate his search. In ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ Albert Camus dwells on this futility of the modern experience.
Poetic Drama
The term ‘poetic drama’ was made popular during the middle of the 20th century. The term was made famous due to the works of T.S Eliot who used his work as a reaction to the drama of G. B Shaw and Galsworthy who were immensely influenced by Henrik Ibsen who wrote A Doll’s House and Ghosts. In the ‘The Quintessence of Ibsenism’ written by G.B Shaw, he accepted the former’s influence on him. T.S Eliot apart from being a poet was also a critic and wrote many important works like ‘Possibility of Poetic Drama’ and ‘Poetry and Drama’ in which he expressed his belief that poetry and drama are linked inseparably. W.B. Yeats, W. H. Auden and other poets also tried writing poetic drama.
Dramatic Monologue
A persona poem or what is popularly termed as a dramatic monologue in poetry, uses the theatrical device of a monologue where a character or person on stage speaks alone. Often done to highlight the character or author’s internal thoughts and vocalize them to an implied audience, it was used in poetry in the 20th century. Romantic poetry was seen as the root of the same. It is usually one person’s speech to oneself or the audience / reader wherein he talks about a subjective view on a situation, topic, or any other character. Robert Browning was the poet who perfected the use of dramatic monologue in his poems like “My Last Duchess”, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”. His use of the device influenced Eliot and other modernist writers.
As the term signifies, a paradox occurs when there is self-contradiction in a sentence. Even ideas can have a paradox in them. It is done often for stylistic reasons and to express a complicated thought or feeling. Hamlet’s line “I must be cruel only to be kind.” (Act 3, Scene iv line 178) in Shakespeare’s play with the same title is an example of paradox where two contradictory emotions of kindness and cruelty are brought together.
It basically denotes the coming together of complete opposites in a sentence. It is a rhetorical device often used by orators. For example, Goethe’s quote “Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing” is an example of the same.
Derived from the greek word Symbolom, a symbol is a word or object that stands for another word or object. For example a fox is a symbol for cleverness and dove is the universal symbol for peace.
Problem Play
Used mostly with reference to drama, a problem play usually deals with an attempt to focus the public opinion about a social concern. It engages therefore with a ‘problem’ in the most feasible manner and may either seek to solve it or complicate it further. It was made famous by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian Playwright and even used by G.B Shaw in his plays.
Usually a piece of prose writing that is aimed at being a thoughtful piece of writing with strong intellectual debates and undertones. It is derived from the word exagium that in Latin means a ‘trial by weight’. The form is believed to have emerged in the Renaissance and Francis Bacon in 1597 published his “Essays”.
A novel is a piece of literature that can be fictional or real and is written in prose. It is very different from drama and poetry by the extent of its length. There are many sub genres that can be a part of the novel itself. In fact a single novel is often is result of play of these various strands of literature. The root of the word “Novel” or “Novella” signifies something “new” as it was a later conception in the history of literature. It came after poetry and drama. It was the 18th and the 19th century that form became a major literary field with writers like Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe; Fielding, who wrote Tom Jones and Samuel Richardson, Charles Dickens and others. After the romantic phase there was a revival of the gothic fiction in works like Ann Radcliff’s Mysteries of Udolfo and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Gothic was one such genre of the novel form. Realist novels, Sensational novels, domestic novels are just some of the others. On the whole the novel can be seen as a fictional narrative in prose, generally longer than a short story. Unlike the epic, which is now seen as a dead genre, the novel is still enjoying its high status in the literary market as perhaps, it has evolved with the continuously evolving world.
Free Verse
Free verse is a type of structure which does not have a fixed meter or regular rhythm. Even the line length varies from one sentence to another. The cadence is dependent solely on the wish of the writer but sometimes alternates between stressed and unstressed syllables. It was derived from the word ‘freo’ a middle-english word that meant ‘free’. Many great writers and poets experimented with the free verse style including Milton in his Samson Agonistes.
Short Story
 A short story is also a form of fiction writing but is different from the novel because of the length due to which it gets its name. It can be a highly serious work of literature, a didactic one with a moral, a part of children’s fiction and is also open to experimentation. For example, Rudyard Kipling wrote many short stories. The word ‘short’ comes from the word ‘sceort’ which means the same. Defoe also wrote short stories because of the popularity of serial novels at his time. It is however Edgar Allen Poe, who is considered to be a seminal figure responsible for the popularity of short stories as a genre. Joyce wrote them in his work titled Dubliners and Kafka wrote Metamorphosis using the same.

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