The Victorian Novel and its Characteristics
The Victorian era is generally agreed to stretch through the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901). Victorian England saw great expansion of wealth, power, and culture.It was a tremendously exciting period when many artistic styles, literary schools, as well as, social, political and religious movements flourished. Culturally, the novel continued to thrive through this time.
Among the famous novelists of the time were the critical realists like Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and Oscar Wilde, and witnessed a huge expansion in the literary market (partly because of the rise in literacy). The Victorian era was highly conscious of its own relation to the past – its ‘heritage’ or place in history – but it also sensed its role in shaping the future. For modern readers, it has come to represent both our literary past and the beginnings of modernity as we experience it today.
The Victorian reading public firmly established the novel as the dominant literary form of the era. The novel is the most distinctive and lasting literary achievement of Victorian literature. Earlier in the century Sir Walter Scott had created a large novel-reading public and had made the novel respectable. He had also strengthened the tradition of the 3-volume novel. The publication of novels in monthly installments enabled even the poor to purchase them.
The novelists of the Victorian era:
• accepted middle class values
• treated the problem of the individual’s adjustment to his society
• emphasized well-rounded middle-class characters
• portrayed the hero as a rational man of virtue
• believed that human nature is fundamentally good and lapses are errors of judgment corrected by maturation
The Victorian novel appealed to readers because of its:
• impulse to describe the everyday world the reader could recognize
• introduction of characters who were blends of virtue and vice
• attempts to display the natural growth of personality
• expressions of emotion: love, humor, suspense, melodrama, pathos (deathbed scenes)
• moral earnestness and wholesomeness, including crusades against social evils and selfcensorship to acknowledge the standard morality of the times.
The Victorian novel featured several developments in narrative technique:
• full description and exposition
• authorial essays
• multiplotting featuring several central characters
Furthermore, the practice of issuing novels in serial installments led novelists to become adept at subclimaxes.
Major Victorian Novelists CHARLES DICKENS (1812-1870)
Dickens was the most successful of the English Victorian novelists, a master of sentiment and a militant reformer.
We admire Dickens for his:
• fertility of character creation
• depiction of childhood and youth
• comic creations
• A Christmas Carol (1843), most popular Christmas story in the English speaking world
• David Copperfield (1849-50), essentially autobiographical and Dickens’ own favorite novel
• Bleak House (1852-3), the first Dickens novel with a carefully-knit plot.
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY (1811-63)
Thackeray’s chief subject is the contrast between human pretensions and human weakness. He excelled at portraying his own upper middle class social stratum.
His major work is Vanity Fair (1847).
THOMAS HARDY (1840-1920)
The characteristic Victorian novelist such as Dickens or Thackeray was concerned with the behavior and problems of people in a given social milieu which he described in detail. Thomas Hardy preferred to go directly for the elemental in human behavior with a minimum of contemporary social detail. He felt that man was an alien in an impersonal universe and at the mercy of sheer chance. Though readers assume he is a pessimist he called himself a meliorist, yearning hopefully for a better world.
• Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891)
• Jude the Obscure (1895)
The revolt in Jude the Obscure against indissoluble Victorian marriage (of Jude to Arabella and Sue Bridehead to Phillotson) aroused such a storm of protest over its religious pessimism and sex themes that Hardy turned thereafter exclusively to poetry.
The Victorian period also coincided with many scientific and technological advances. In 1859, for example, Darwin published on the Origins of Species, and in 1867 Alexander Bell patented the invention of the telephone. Victorian Literature is thus often concerned with knowledge, and specifically the dangers of too much knowledge. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, first published in 1886, is a good example of a text which explores the dangers of too much knowledge.
Victorian literature also often explores poverty and the conditions of working-class life. The working classes in Victorian England endured very hard lives. Death rates were high, child labor was common, and living conditions were squalid. Charles Dickens in many of his novels, most notably Oliver Twist, wrote sympathetically about these conditions of workingclass life in Victorian England.
First of all, in the Victorian Age the dominating literary form was the novel. It was in fact easier to be read and understood by simple people, its plot was more interesting than any other literary forms, the main protagonists of the novel were the same people who read it so that they felt deeply involved in the adventure told, the writer and his readers shared the same opinions, values and ideals because they belonged to the same middle class, the setting was mainly that of the same city where readers lived. In conclusion the novel was a kind of mirror which reflected society and where a self-identification of the readers was possible.
Of course, the middle-class readers were the most avid consumers, particularly women: they had the money to buy or to borrow books, they had plenty of free time to dedicate to reading, but they also had enough privacy to read. The problem of privacy was in fact very important: poor or working people lived in narrow houses and more than a single family often shared the same flat or, at worst, the same room. So, they didn’t have the possibility to read because reading needed silence, tranquility, light.
In order to improve the reading public, in this period they started to publish novels in instalments: every week few pages of the novel (or a complete chapter), were included in one of the periodicals issued. This kind of publication had an important advantage on the price of the novel but also on the writers: they could check the reaction of their public to the plot and, if parts of it were not appreciated, they could decide to change it in accordance with the taste of readers. This happened because, if not satisfied, the readers could stop buying the magazine determining the failure of the novel and of its writer.
The novelists represented society as they saw it but, being aware of the problems created by industrialization, (exploitation of women and children, terrible living conditions etc) they used their novels in order to put in evidence these evils and to stimulate people to find remedies to them. In this sense “didacticism” was the dominating aim of most of the novels of these years. As a consequence, the narrator is generally omniscient: he operates a marked division between good and evil characters, he judges people and actions, he makes its stories finish with a wise distribution of “punishment” for the evil characters, “retribution” for the good ones.
The plot of the novels was generally very long and complicated by many sub-plots: the writer also wanted to give a marked impression of reality so that he presented not only the adventures of the main characters, but also those of the secondary ones.