How to Identify Literature Written During the Victorian Era
Victorian Literature: Victorian Novels, Poetry, and Short Stories
How much do you know about Victorian literature? Most people are familiar with Charles Dickens, the most famous of the Victorian novelists, but Dickens is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The British Victorian period is described by many as being the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 until 1901. Victorian literature, however, slightly exceeds these dates. In fact, some historians argue that the Victorian era actually began with the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. Politically and socially, I tend to agree that the main ideas put forth in the Victorian age began before Victoria became queen. The stage had already been set for the major Victorian literature themes, for example, prior to 1837. Some of the main characteristics of Victorian literature continued beyond Queen Victoria’s death, too. In this article, the different types of literature produced during the Victorian times will be discussed, including novels, poetry, and short stories. Hopefully, after reading, you’ll know how to identify literature written during the Victorian era and form a better understanding of it.
Victorian age literature was often a reflection or a response to historical events and social conditions. This was a time of great change in England. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, manufacturing cities were overcrowded and dirty. Many citizens were living in poverty and squalor. Men, women, and children worked long hours in terrible conditions. Debtors’ prisons and work houses were filled with the poor. People finally began to be concerned with these conditions, and several laws were enacted to reduce working hours and to clean up the cities. Reform is a common theme in Victorian literature.
This was also a time of new discoveries. Advances in technology, medicine, and transportation made life better for many, and some Victorian period literature expresses this. The middle class grew strong, and an emphasis was often placed on the family, with the father as the powerful head of the household. Social constraints became rigid, too. Society, in general, became prudish in regard to sex. Even words like “pregnant” became taboo. Instead of saying someone was pregnant, it was said that the woman was “expecting a bundle from Heaven,” or some other innocuous term was used. One of the most popular Victorian novels to comment on the culture of the time is Vanity Fair, written by William Makepeace Thackeray.
Firmly established religious beliefs were also threatened by the writings of Darwin. Some Victorians began to question their long held beliefs, while many rejected Darwin’s theories completely. This struggle was often reflected in Victorian literature.
The British Empire
During Victorian times, Britain had colonies all over the world. In fact, by the early 1900s, the empire ruled over almost one-fourth of the globe and one-fifth of the planet’s population. For British citizens, this meant all sorts of new imports from far flung corners of the globe. British citizens became acutely interested in the customs, traditions, and beliefs of exotic locations, although for the most part, British ways were seen as superior, and there was a strong sense of British nationalism. The writings of British citizens who lived and wrote about their experiences in parts of the Empire became popular. One such example is Rudyard Kipling.
Kipling was born in India but was educated in England. At the age of sixteen, he returned to Bombay. The tendency of the British Empire was often to superimpose British values and beliefs on ancient cultures, and this can be seen in some of Kipling’s pieces, especially in his short stories. For example, in “Mark of the Beast,” the struggle between the Christian God and the gods of India resulted in a terrifying experience.
Other important Victorian writers who shared their adventures in remote parts of the Empire and on the continent include E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Olive Schreiner, Robert Browning, Wilkie Collins, William Howitt, Anthony Trollope, and Grant Allen. Joseph Conrad will also have to be mentioned here. Although he was born in Poland, he became a British citizen in 1886 and had an amazing command of the English language.
Victorian Novels – Victorian Novelists
Of all the Victorian novelists, Charles Dickens was perhaps the most important. A true reflection of the Victorian age, Dickens often used social inequality as a basis for his novels. Dickens was especially concerned with the plight of children in the Industrial Revolution, as can be seen in several of his works. Before reforms were passed, children as young as four or five years old were forced to work in factories, mines, narrow chimneys, and on the streets of London as errand boys. Dickens’ novels forced readers to examine aspects like treatment of the poor, orphanages, schools, and work houses.
Other important Victorian novels and Victorian novelists are Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre), Rudyard Kipling (Kim), George Eliot (Silas Marner), Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped and Treasure Island), H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines), Jerome K. Jerome (Diary of a Pilgrimage), William Harrison Ainsworth (The Miser’s Daughter), Elizabeth Gaskell (Mary Barton), Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim), and Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). Another great among the Victorian novelists is Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s Victorian novels were very controversial at the time they were written, but they still remain popular today. These include Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Far from the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, and The Return of the Native.
Victorian Poetry – Victorian Poets
Victorian period literature includes some amazing verse, in the forms of lyric poems, dramatic monologues, narrative ballads, sonnets, and blank verse. Victorian poetry somewhat helped to bridge the gap between romanticism and modern poetry, and the major Victorian poets were influenced by a wide spectrum of real events and romantic ideals. Some of the major themes in Victorian poetry are religion, social injustice, economic issues, nature, grief, loss, and man’s inhumanity. Female Victorian poets often addressed women’s issues and relationships, which can be seen in the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. Writers like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and William Butler Yeats often found inspiration from mythology, folklore, and legend. Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” are prime examples.
The Poet Laureate for much of the Victorian period was Alfred Tennyson. Allusions to his words and works can often be seen in modern culture – in movies and in common expressions. Most speakers of English are familiar with some of Tennyson’s lines: “theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do and die,” “tears, idle tears,” and “’tis better to have loved and lost.” The Mirror Crack’d, both a novel and a movie based on the novel, got its title from a Tennyson Poem. Some of Tennyson’s most notable poems are “Crossing the Bar,” “In Memoriam: A.H.H.,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “The Eagle,” and “Cradle Song.”
In addition to being a novelist, Thomas Hardy was one of the most important poets from this time period. Some Victorian poetry expressed a keen sadness and loss of faith, and this is especially true with Hardy. Some examples include “The Darkling Thrush,” “Channel Firing,” and “The Oxen.” Hardy’s views on war are obvious in “The Man He Killed,” and his thoughts on man’s inhumanity are expressed in “The Blinded Bird.”
Other important Victorian poets and examples of Victorian poetry include Matthew Arnold (“Dover Beach”), Robert Browning (“My Last Duchess,” “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and “Porphyria’s Lover”) A.E. Housman (“To an Athlete Dying Young,” “When I Was One-and-Twenty,” and “Is My Team Ploughing?”), Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Pied Beauty”) Oscar Wilde (“Fern Hill”), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (“My Sister’s Sleep” and “The House of Life”), and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Sonnets from the Portuguese – a collection of poems).
Short Stories and Novellas
Short works of fiction often appeared in periodicals during the Victorian period. Since many people had access to periodicals, short stories were popular and were widely read. Of course, short stories were also published in collections, and some novellas were published on their own. Major writers of short fiction from Victorian times include Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Many of the same Victorian literature themes found in novels and poems can be found in short works of fiction from the period.
The Victorian Web
The Victorian era was a fascinating time in history. Many see it as marking the beginning of the modern era, when knowledge, science, and technology took a front seat to ignorance and superstition. Customs and traditions that began in the Victorian period are still being practiced today, especially those having to with Christmas. There’s a great site, The Victorian Web, that provides an insight into the period. If you’re interested in learning more about the Victorian era and the Victorians, spend some time on the Victorian Web. You’ll find information about politics, philosophy, technology, the visual arts, music, vocabulary, science, drama, and religion, along with great information about Victorian literature, including novels, poetry, letters, autobiography, essays, short stories, and more. Studying the site will help you gain a better understanding of the writer’s thoughts, feelings, and motives. The Victorian Web also includes many photographs of authors and key locations.