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Victorian Literature

In a Nutshell

It was the best of times for the serialized novel; it was the worst of times for satire. Yep, that's the Victorian era for you. Named for a spiffy royal lady (you guessed it: Queen Victoria), this period lasted sixty-four years—not too long in the grand scheme of things, but that didn't stop writers from taking their sweet ol' time. Remember A Tale of Two Cities? Yeah, that was Dickens at his most concise.

Satire wasn't exactly thriving in an age that prized all things bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. In fact, if you were to slap a label on the Victorian personality, it might just be "earnest." Victorian writers are laced with earnestness, even when they're making fun of it. So when Oscar Wilde took aim at Victorian manners, he included a character named Ernest, and a gal who will only marry a man named Ernest—and titled the whole thing The Importance of Being Earnest).

Why was it important to be earnest? Well, being earnest meant you were probably trying to be a good person: thoughtful, moral, self-improving, and all around too-good-to-be-true. Today we're pretty skeptical about anyone who seems too perfect (politicians, anyone?), but Victorians had honest-to-goodness heroes. Even everyday people could aspire to act like true ladies and gentlemen. The age saw a whole slew of guidebooks for manners, household management, and self-improvement.

Victorians didn't let their kids off the hook, either. What Victorian schoolchild didn't recite "How doth the little busy Bee / Improve each shining Hour?" (It's no wonder Lewis Carroll would parody it in Alice in Wonderland with "How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail.")

From the didactic novel to magazines that claimed to be wholesome for the whole family, the Victorians found ways to improve every shining minute. Children could learn to behave better, adults could improve their knowledge and morality, the nation could keep growing, trains could run even faster—you get the idea.

The 19th century was also the age of good humor and joviality. After all, what Dickens novel is really complete without a Christmas party and some punch? This is totally a case of art imitating life: some Victorian parties are so famous that they have their own encyclopedia entries. Queen Victoria had both a Golden and a Diamond "Jubilee" to celebrate her extended reign. And when Prince Albert (her husband) wanted to showcase the nation's industry, he came up with what was basically an early World's Fair. He even had the Crystal Palace built just to house it.

If Victorian lit had a motto, it might well be "work hard, play hard"—which might explain all those 800-page novels: all that work for all that fun.


Why Should I Care?

The story goes that Victorians were so prudish they even covered piano legs with little pantalettes. Even saying the word "leg" at all was sometimes considered scandalous.

So, okay, the idea we have of Victorians isn't too flattering: stiff, proper, old-fashioned. We often describe them as if they were the dusty chaperones of literary history.

But that's not how they saw themselves. In their day, they were on the cutting edge. All the gadgets we're always improving on? The Victorians saw them being invented—things like railways, photography, electricity, and the telegraph. Okay, so the cell phone pretty much blows the telegraph out of the water, but it was still a huge improvement on hand-delivering letters (or sending smoke signals). In the 19th century, everything seemed bigger and better. London was crowded, industries were booming, and the British Empire was expanding to its breaking point.

No wonder, then, that Dickens would, in David Copperfield, think of a line like "Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him." Or that the Victorians would launch science fiction (think H.G. Wells's The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds). But not everyone was clamoring for the future to arrive faster. The Victorians were also sentimental in a big way. They had a serious crush on King Arthur and like to make new buildings to look medieval. Basically, they were into all things old and British. Oh, how they would have loved Masterpiece Theater.

It sounds like a paradox, but Victorians were both eager for the next big invention that would change everything and nostalgic for a simpler time. Kind of like how we're all awaiting the next iPhone and suspecting that life was somehow better and simpler back in the day. No surprise, then, that even in a hyper technology-driven world, we still have something in common with the Victorians.

If you find yourself sympathizing with the heroes and heroines of Victorian novels, go with it. They aren't so different—except for the extra flounce in their skirts, and their inexplicable fondness for top hats.

(Oh, wait: top hats are totally back. Yay?)

Contemporary interest in the Victorian era is more than a passing flirtation. All sorts of fashions and books are taking inspiration from the 19th century. Steampunk makes old technology look freshly cool—whether in the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or in best-selling novels like Mortal Engines, or in art installations like the telectroscope. And lots of novels channel Victorian life—like Possession, and almost everything that Sarah Waters has written.

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