Victorian Literature (1837–1901)

The Victorian Novel 

It was in the Victorian era (1837–1901) that the novel became the leading literary genre in English.Women played an important part in this rising popularity both as authors and as readers and monthly serializing of fiction also encouraged this surge in popularity, further aided by a combination of increased literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution. Circulating libraries, that allowed books to be borrowed for an annual subscription, were a further factor in the rising popularity of the novel.

The 1830s and 1840s saw the rise of social novel that “arose out of the social and political upheavals which followed the Reform Act of 1832”.This was in many ways a reaction to rapid industrialization, and the social, political and economic issue associated with it and was a means of commenting on abuses of government and industry and the suffering of the poor, who were not profiting from England’s economic prosperity.Significant early examples of this genre include Sybilor The Two Nations (1845) by Benjamin Disraeli, and Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1849).

Charles Dickens (1812–70) emerged on the literary scene in the late 1830s and soon became probably the most famous novelist in the history of English literature. Dickens fiercely satirized various aspects of society, including the workhouse in Oliver Twist, the failures of the legal system in Bleak House. An early rival to Dickens was William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–63), who during the Victorian period ranked second only to him, but he is now known almost exclusively for Vanity Fair (1847). The Brontë sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne, were other significant novelists in the 1840s and 1850s. Emily Brontë’s (1818–48) novel was Wuthering Heights and, according to Juliet Gardiner, “the vivid sexual passion and power of its language and imagery impressed, bewildered and appalled reviewers,” and led the Victorian public and many early reviewers to think that it had been written by a man. Jane Eyre (1847) is Charlotte Brontë’s most famous work.

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–65) was also a successful writer and her North and South contrasts the lifestyle in the industrial north of England with the wealthier south.Anthony Trollope (1815–82) was one of the most successful, prolific and respected English novelists of the Victorian era. Trollope’s novels portray the lives of the landowning and professional classes of early Victorian England.George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans, 1819–80) was a major novelist of the mid-Victorian period. Her works, especially Middlemarch (1871–72), are important examples of literary realism and are admired for their combination of high Victorian literary detail, with an intellectual breadth that removes them from the narrow geographic confines they often depict.

George Meredith (1828–1909) is best remembered for his novels The Ordeal of Richard Fevered (1859), and The Egoist (1879). “His reputation stood very high well into” the 20th-century but then seriously declined.An interest in rural matters and the changing social and economic situation of the countryside is seen in the novels of Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), including The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). Hardy is a Victorian realist, in the tradition of George Eliot, and like Charles Dickens he was also highly critical of much in Victorian society. Another significant late-19th-century novelist is George Robert Gissing (1857–1903), who published 23 novels between 1880 and 1903. His best-known novel is New Grub Street (1891).

Although pre-dated by John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River in 1841, the history of the modern fantasy genre is generally said to begin with George MacDonald, the influential author of The Princess and the Goblin and Phantastes (1858). Wilkie Collins’ epistolary novel The Moonstone (1868), is generally considered the first detective novel in the English language.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94) was an important Scottish writer at the end of the nineteenth century, author of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and the historical novel Kidnapped (1886). H. G. Wells’s (1866–1946) writing career began in the 1890s with science fiction novels like The Time Machine (1895), and The War of the Worlds (1898) which describes an invasion of late Victorian England by Martians, and Wells is seen, along with Frenchman Jules Verne (1828–1905), as a major figure in the development of the science fiction genre. He also wrote realistic fiction about the lower middle class in novels like Kipps (1905).

American Novel (From Romanticism to realism)

By the mid-19th century, the preeminence of literature from the British Isles began to be challenged by writers from the former American colonies. A major influence on American writers at this time was Romanticism, which gave rise to New England Transcendentalism, and the publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” is usually considered the watershed moment at which transcendentalism became a major cultural movement.

The romantic American novel developed fully with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804–1864) The Scarlet Letter (1850), a stark drama of a woman cast out of her community for committing adultery. Hawthorne’s fiction had a profound impact on his friend Herman Melville (1819–1891). In Moby-Dick (1851), an adventurous whaling voyage becomes the vehicle for examining such themes as obsession, the nature of evil and human struggle against the elements. By 1880s, however, psychological and social realism were competing with Romanticism in the novels.American realist fiction has its beginnings in the 1870s with the works of Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James.

Mark Twain (the pen name used by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835–1910) was the first major American writer to be born away from the East Coast – in the border state of Missouri. His regional masterpieces were the novels Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Twain’s style changed the way Americans write their language. His characters speak like real people and sound distinctively American, using local dialects, newly invented words, and regional accents.

The most significant American novelist of the late 19th-century was Henry James (1843–1916). Although born in New York City, he spent most of his adult years in England. Many of his novels center on Americans who live in or travel to Europe. James confronted the Old World-New World dilemma by writing directly about it. His works include The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians (1886), The Princess Casamassima (1886).

Genre fiction

The premier ghost story writer of the 19th century was Sheridan Le Fanu. His works include the macabre mystery novel Uncle Silas (1865), and his Gothic novella Carmilla (1872) tells the story of a young woman’s susceptibility to the attentions of a female vampire. Bram Stoker’s horror story Dracula (1897) belongs to a number of literary genres, including vampire literature, horror fiction, gothic novel and invasion literature.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Scotland of Irish parents but his Sherlock Holmes stories have typified a fog-filled London for readers worldwide. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant London-based “consulting detective”, famous for his intellectual prowess. Conan Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories featuring Holmes, from 1880 to 1907, with a final case in 1914. All but four Holmes stories are narrated by Holmes’ friend, assistant, and biographer, Dr. Watson. The Lost World literary genre was inspired by real stories of archaeological discoveries by imperial adventurers. H. Rider Haggard wrote one of the earliest examples, King Solomon’s Mines, in 1885. Contemporary European politics and diplomatic maneuverings informed Anthony Hope’s Ruritanian adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda (1894).

Children’s Literature

Literature for children developed as a separate genre. Some works become internationally known, such as those of Lewis CarrollAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850–94) Treasure Island (1883) is the classic pirate adventure. At the end of the Victorian era and leading into the Edwardian era, Beatrix Potter was an author and illustrator, best known for her children’s books, which featured animal characters. In her thirties, Potter published the highly successful children’s book The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. Potter eventually went on to publish 23 children’s books and became a wealthy woman.

Victorian Poetry

ThePoetryng poets during the Victorian period were Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–92), Robert Browning (1812–89), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61), and Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The poetry of this period was heavily influenced by the Romantics, but also went off in its own directions.Particularly notable was the development of the dramatic monologue, a form used by many poets in this period, but perfected by Robert Browning. Literary criticism in the 20th century gradually drew attention to the links between Victorian poetry and modernism.

Tennyson was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria’s reign. He was described by T. S. Eliot, as “the greatest master of metrics as well as melancholia”, and as having “the finest ear of any English poet since Milton”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82) was a poet, illustrator, painter and translator. He founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.Rossetti’s art was characterised by its sensuality and its medieval revivalism.Arthur Clough (1819–1861) and George Meredith (1828–1909) are two other important minor poets of this era.

Towards the end of the 19th century, English poets began to take an interest in French Symbolism and Victorian poetry entered a decadent fin-de-siècle phase. Two groups of poets emerged in the 1890s, the Yellow Book poets who adhered to the tenets of Aestheticism, including Algernon Charles Swinburne, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons and the Rhymers’ Club group, that included Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and Irishman William Butler Yeats. Yeats went on to become an important modernist in the 20th century.Also in 1896 A. E. Housman published at his own expense A Shropshire Lad.

Writers of comic verse included the dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911), who is best known for his fourteen comic operas, produced in collaboration with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, of which the most famous include H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Pirates of Penzance.Novelist Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) wrote poetry throughout his career, but he did not publish his first collection until 1898, so that he tends to be treated as a 20th-century poet. Now regarded as a major poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s (1844–89) Poems were published posthumously by Robert Bridges in 1918.

American Poetry

America also produced major poets in the 19th century, such as Emily Dickinson (1830–86) and Walt Whitman (1819–92). America’s two greatest 19th-century poets could hardly have been more different in temperament and style. Walt Whitman (1819–92) was a working man, a traveller, a self-appointed nurse during the American Civil War (1861–65), and a poetic innovator. His major work was Leaves of Grass, in which he uses a free-flowing verse and lines of irregular length to depict the all-inclusiveness of American democracy. Emily Dickinson (1830–86), on the other hand, lived the sheltered life of a genteel, unmarried woman in small-town Amherst, Massachusetts. Within its formal structure, her poetry is ingenious, witty, exquisitely wrought, and psychologically penetrating. Her work was unconventional for its day, and little of it was published during her lifetime.

Victorian Drama

A change came in the Victorian era with profusion on the London stage of farces, musical burlesques, extravaganzas and comic operas that competed with productions of Shakespeare’s plays and serious drama by dramatists like James Planché and Thomas William Robertson. In 1855, the German Reed Entertainments began a process of elevating the level of (formerly risqué) musical theatre in Britain that culminated in the famous series of comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan and was followed by the 1890s with the first Edwardian musical comedies. The length of runs in the theatre changed rapidly during the Victorian period. As transport improved, poverty in London diminished, and street lighting made for safer travel at night, the number of potential patrons for the growing number of theatres increased enormously. Plays could run longer and still draw in the audiences, leading to better profits and improved production values. The first play to achieve 500 consecutive performances was the London comedy Our Boys, opening in 1875. Its record of 1,362 performances was bested in 1892 by Charley’s Aunt.

Several of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas broke the 500-performance barrier, beginning with H.M.S. Pinafore in 1878, and Alfred Cellier and B. C. Stephenson’s 1886 hit, Dorothy, ran for 931 performances. After W. S. Gilbert, Oscar Wilde became the leading poet and dramatist of the late Victorian period. Wilde’s plays, in particular, stand apart from the many now forgotten plays of Victorian times and have a much closer relationship to those of the Edwardian dramatists such as Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), whose career began in the last decade of the 19th century, Wilde’s 1895 comic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, holds an ironic mirror to the aristocracy and displays a mastery of wit and paradoxical wisdom.

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