The Diversity of Victorian Literature

Term Paper 2005 24 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Background information
2.1. Social and economic conditions
2.2. Age of Contradictions
2.3. The literary scene
2.3.1. The readership
2.3.2. Topics, taboos and the temper of Victorian literature
2.3.3. Victorian thoughts

3. The Victorian novel
3.1. Major novelists: Early and High Victorianism
3.1.1. Charles Dickens: the central figure of Victorian literature
3.1.2. Female Voices: The Brontës and Eliot
3.1.3. Thackeray and Trollope
3.1.4. Meredith
3.2. Popular Genres
3.2.1. The Historical Novel
3.2.2. Social Fiction
3.2.3. Adventure and Sensation Novels, Utopia, Nonsense Prose
3.3. Late Victorian novels
3.3.1. The general mood
3.3.2. Hardy: the negative Bildungsroman
3.3.3. Others

4. Victorian poetry
4.1. Early and High Victorianism
4.1.1. General Facts
4.1.2. Tennyson
4.1.3. The Brownings
5.1.4. Pre-Raphaelites
4.1.5. Others
4.2. Late Victorian poetry
4.2.1. General Facts
4.2.2. Aestheticism
4.2.3. Others

5. The Victorian drama
5.1. The special position of the drama
5.2. The beginning of the realistic drama
5.3. The revival of the drama
5.3.1. The influence of Ibsen
5.3.2. Witty comedies and social criticism: Shaw and Wilde

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The Victorian Age is marked by enormous changes. Mark Twain expressed it this way: “and yet in a good many ways the world has moved farther ahead since the Queen was born than it moved in all the rest of the two thousand put together.” (Abrams 61993 : 891). Besides industrial and social changes, the era also saw a growth in literature, and great authors like Charles Dickens or Oscar Wilde who are still read today.

Generally, the term ‘Victorian’ marks the time of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 till 1901, but it is often extended and for many historians it started with the passage of the first Reform Bill in 1832. Since the era comprises about seventy years, many drastic changes occurred during this time, and the distinguishing characteristics of the individual authors cannot be combined into a general mood. Consequently one cannot call it a homogenous period, and it is necessary to distinguish it into three different parts. Since the transitions were smooth, the exact division may differ between historians.

The early phase is a period of changes and growth, but it also saw a depression and demonstrations of workmen. In the 1850s the Great Exhibition in 1851 and Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” in 1859 can be seen as the beginning of the middle period, a time of national prosperity. England was the leading industrial power, and English confidence was at its high point. The late Victorian period covers the last two decades of the century. It can be characterized by a general change of the Victorian mood: doubts and fear of decay dominated, and literature started to shatter into various very different forms.

This term paper will give a brief overview over the conditions and the literature of the Victorian era. The diversity of the age will be shown and explained. Therefore each genre will be described separately. Furthermore I will summarize the works of major authors and while doing so show the contrasts between them.

2. Background information

2.1. Social and economic conditions

The era, also called “An age of expansion“ (Abrams 61993 : 891), saw a unique economic growth, caused by new inventions, further developments, and the development of new markets and free trade. The telegraph was invented, and steam power was exploited for printing press, agricultural machines, iron ships and faster railways. Victoria became the Empress of India in 1878, and at the end of the century, the British Empire “comprised more than a quarter of all the territory on the surface of the earth.” (Abrams 61993: 892). Great Britain was the first industrialized country and “the world’s leading imperial power” (Alexander 2000: 247).

The economic expansion also caused rapid changes in society. Life, which was formerly based on land, was now based on manufacturing and trade (Abrams 61993: 891). The rapid and unregulated growth of the cities brought many new problems. The often appalling working and living conditions of the lower classes led to social unrests, and reforms were demanded.

Historians also call the Victorian era an “Age of Reform” (Nünning 2000: 14), because many steps towards a democracy and a welfare state were made. A universal male suffrage was gradually established by the Reform Bills in 1832, 1867 and 1884. Educational Reforms like the Education Act of 1870 provided a basis for elementary education, which had been private before. The Factory Act and the Employers and Workman Act improved the working conditions.

Samuel Smiles Self Help is often valued as a symbol for Victorian the major values such as self-improvement and discipline. The Victorians are also well-known for their strict and puritanical morality: “subjects like sex were taboo” (Burgess 1974: 180), ‘duty’ and ‘earnestness’ became central moral attitudes. The family was worshiped as a place for morality and the retreat for hard-working men. Therefore women had to arrange the home as a secure place, where moral values were high on the list of priorities. The term ‘Angel of the House’ symbolizes this stereotyped picture. Queen Victoria, who enjoyed an immense popularity, served as a role model for many of these values.

2.2. Age of Contradictions

Victorian society seems very uniform nowadays, but closer examinations show many paradoxes and a great diversity (Gelfert 1999: 245).

On one hand, optimism was the result of the progress: many people believed in the strength of the British Empire, and expected expansion and improvements to last and grow continuously (Carter, McRae 1997: 272). The Great Exhibition in 1851 “demonstrated British wealth and industrial achievements” (Sieper 81993: 73).

On the other hand, pessimism, melancholy and doubt could be found, especially in the last phase of the era. Poverty, alienation, and injustice revealed the negative sides of the rapid industrialisation. Furthermore Christian faith was challenged by Darwin’s theory of natural selection (Burgess 1974: 180). Many Victorians suffered “from an anxious sense of something lost, a sense too of being displaced persons in a world made alien by technological changes …” (Abrams 61993: 892).

Other tensions existed between a liberal ideology which promoted self-help and the many philanthropic activities, between liberalism and imperialism, and between Victorian hypocrisy and their love of truth. Besides their worshiping of women as ‘angel in the house’ on one hand, there existed an obsessive fascination with the ‘femme fatal’ on the other hand (Gelfert 1999: 248 - 259).

2.3. The literary scene

2.3.1. The readership

At the beginning of the Victorian era, about 80 % of the population was able to read. Nevertheless, only a small minority had the time to do so and the money to purchase books. The standard price for a novel, set by Sir Walter Scott, was 31 shillings 6 pence, which made it a luxury product for the higher classes. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which was found in 1827, fought for the lower classes rights for culture, and eventually achieved the sale of much cheaper popular and cheap editions. Still the major part of popular literature was not bought but rent from circulating libraries (Gelfert 1999: 260f.) like Mudies.

The enlargement of the circle of readers also caused a division of the readership. During the early Victorian period the readership was, except for the drama, quite homogeneous. The rise of the novel during the middle period caused a diversification of the genre. The complex last works of Eliot or Dickens often were often regarded as too difficult. (Nünning 2000: 95) During the late Victorian period, this division became a general phenomenon (Schirmer 61983: 719). Difficult and demanding novels existed next to entertaining novels, which appealed to a different readership. Trivial literature, which made up half of the circulating libraries’ turnover, saw also an enormous growth.

2.3.2. Topics, taboos and the temper of Victorian literature

Victorian literature’s temper can be described “as an eager or earnest response to the expanding horizon of nineteenth-century life” (Abrams 61993: 906). It reflected concerns about the consequences of the industrialization process and the fear of alienation, and also the period’s general moods of optimism and patriotism. One must differentiate between high Victorian literature and the late one: the general change in mood moved the themes mainly into a more melancholy direction.

The puritan code influenced the early- and mid- Victorian literature strongly. Novels “were commonly read aloud in family gatherings” (Abrams 61993: 904). In order to protect the morality of young girls, certain topics, for instance erotic scenes, had to be avoided. Only at the end of the century the novelists began to break with these restrictions. In contrast to the novelists, Victorian poets like Swinburne and Browning flouted the taboos. These moral differences also caused the diversity of subjects in Victorian literature.

There also existed “the desire on the part of readers to be guided and edified.” (Abrams 81993: 905). Problems of the daily life and also problems of society and religion needed to be discussed and explained. Sometimes this duty appealed to the authors, but it was also often appalling.

2.3.3. Victorian thoughts

The writing of Victorian philosophers, who represented many different opinions, influenced the work of creative writers enormously.

Thomas Carlyle was called “the great teacher of the age” (Abrams 61993: 910). He foresaw many problems of the age: “Carlyles Beschäftigung mit Fragen der Erziehung, der Entfremdung des Individuums in der kapitalistischen Gesellschaft und dem Elend der Armen nimmt bedeutende Themen vieler Romane des 19. Jh.s vorweg.” (Nünning 2000: 54). His work influenced novelists such as Charles Dickens George Eliot but mixed feelings about his work were as common.

John Stuart Mill was a philosopher of liberalism. He founded the Utilitarian Society and his essays “balance rational material improvement with emotional spiritual growth.” (Alexander 2000: 254).

Matthew Arnold, son of the famous headmaster of Rugby School, saw his mission in the education of the middle class and in bearing “on the value of European and of biblical culture.” (Alexander 2000: 259) Arnold missed a serious awareness of culture in England. Therefore the Germans, where he thought to have found this awareness, should serve as a model for his fellow countrymen.



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Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald – IfAA
Diversity Victorian Literature



Title: The Diversity of Victorian Literature