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We bet you saw this one coming. What Essential Guide to Victorianism could forget the celebrity author of the period? Dickens's novels are all distinctly his—he did perfectly fit his nickname, the Inimitable—but they also show the range of genres that were popular in his day. From the Newgate novel Oliver Twist, to the historical novel A Tale of Two Cities, to the industrial novel Hard Times, to the Bildungsroman David Copperfield—whew. Dickens did it all his way.
So what is it about Dickens's style that's so distinctive and memorable and funny? Well, he can get his characters into some hilariously awkward situations, like accidentally proposing to a woman—and then being sued for not going through with it. He also gives his characters memorable and quirky characteristics, from Micawber's obsession with mixing punch, to Mrs. Joe's hard-hitting insults, to Mr. Bounderby's endless talk on his favorite subject—himself. Dickens's characters seem to have long afterlives, and we're still using them to describe people today. Who hasn't called someone else a Scrooge?
Dickens claimed that this novel was his "favourite child," and that's not surprising: the plot of this novel comes the closest to events Dickens's own life. From factory boy, to up-and-coming professional, to author, David lives the British dream of self-improvement.
The title could sum up the Victorian age—the hot pursuit of progress and happiness. But Dickens gives us the flip side: what if there's a serious flaw in our idea of progress? And what if we have to give something up to pursue it?
Oh, and what if—on an appropriately dark and stormy night—a violent, unkempt criminal shows up on our doorstep?
Chew on This:
What is it about Dickens's humor? Flip back to David Copperfield. How is it that this novel ends up being so comical, even with all the death and child labor?
Dickens isn't always making jokes—he's also serious about trying to improve Victorian life. Check out Bleak House for Dickens's take on what's rotten in the state of London. What's going on in Chancery? And what's with Tom-All-Alone's?
Today Thackeray's best known for Vanity Fair—a rollicking, satirical novel without a hero. But in the 19th century, he was famous for a whole bookcase worth of reasons. He was a big contributor to a favorite magazine of the era, Punch. He wrote novellas (like The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which Stanley Kubrick made into a film in 1975), sketches, and travel books. And he did in fact write novels besides Vanity Fair—like Pendennis and The Newcomes—they were just a lot more popular with Victorians than they are with us today. In fact, Anthony Trollope's favorite Thackeray novel was actually Henry Esmond, not Vanity Fair.
So what was it about Thackeray's writing that made him a preeminent Victorian author? Well, he seemed to be the perfect writer for the transition from the 18th to the 19th century. His novels are full of picaresque adventure and satire—but he throws some Victorian earnestness and morality into the mix. He's also just straight-up funny: this is the guy who coined the term "snob" and then wrote a guide for identifying different types of snobs. Sounds like our cup of tea.
Thackeray's first long novel is full of flirting, warring, and gambling. Two schoolgirls take radically different paths: Amelia Sedley is kind-hearted and simple-minded, and Becky Sharp is selfish and scheming.
Somehow it seems like Becky Sharp is always clawing her way onto center stage. This is Thackeray at his most cynical—and some readers thought this novel was too full of satire. Victorians liked to imagine that the aristocracy was all about old ideals and gentlemanly codes, but Thackeray's aristocratic characters are corrupt and selfish. And whereas Victorians usually loved novels about misunderstood governesses or perfect wives, Thackeray makes his governess a social climber and his sweet wife kind of boring.
Thackeray was competing directly with Dickens's David Copperfield when he wrote Pendennis: both are semi-autobiographical, both trace the bumpy road of a young man figuring out his career and his very challenged love life—and both of those young men turn out to be authors. Adding to the crazy parallels is the fact that the two novels were serialized at the same time, meaning that Dickens and Thackeray could respond to one another in real time.
Chew on This:
It can seem like everyone in Vanity Fair is plotting out ways to get ahead of everyone else. Becky Sharp is the most famous example, but can you find other characters who are as obsessed with class and status? What's the narrator's attitude toward these characters? And how do they end up?
Thackeray's Vanity Fair showcases his funny style: characters are absurd (and often absurdly named), the text is full of random digressions, and the narrator seems to be winking at every other line. Check out our analysis of his style, and find some examples of your own in the novel.
Although she wasn't the most prolific of authors, Charlotte Brontë wasone of the most widely read and discussed. When she and her sisters Emily and Anne started publishing under pseudonyms—first a volume of poetry, and then individual novels—their work was all the more mysterious since no one knew who they were, where they lived, or even if they were men or women. They were outsiders to the world of Victorian literature. After all, they lived in Yorkshire, which must have seemed like it was a world away from the literary hub of London, where writers knew each other and had dinners and went to clubs together.
Not surprisingly, the Brontës' work feels like it was written from the outside. Jane Eyre is a poor governess without much power over her life, and Emily Brontë's Cathy and Heathcliff are on the border of genteel life, emotional stability, and, well, overall sanity.
Jane Eyre was both popular and enduring. It's a novel with big Victorian themes on its mind: Like marriage: what should it mean? Is it about economics, or is it about love? (And just how bad is bigamy, anyway?) It also takes on the role of the governess: it's a tricky position since you're basically sandwiched between the family and the servants. (But does that mean it's okay to marry your employer?) And then there's the little matter of the British Empire.
But this novel isn't just for Victorians. It's also got the elements that make it an enduring page-turner—like love and duty, and inequality and power. Oh, and suspense: who or what is in the attic? What's going on with the torn veil? And is insanity catching? (Because why else would Jane even consider marrying St. John Rivers?)
Shirley kind of confused everyone when it came out. After Jane Eyre, critics and readers were surprised: where was the Gothic romance? The illegitimate marriages and children? The house fires? And, most importantly, the homicidally insane wife in the attic?
But Charlotte Brontë wanted to do something different. Shirley takes a wider scope, with a whole cast of characters. And it also deals with the debates of the day—industrialization, the relation between workers and employees, and marriage. In fact, it's usually classified as an Industrial Novel (or Condition of England Novel).
Chew on This:
Another big difference between Jane Eyre and Shirley is the narrator: Jane Eyre is in first person, and Shirley is in third person. What sort of voice does Jane Eyre have as a narrator, and why do you think it has held up so well with readers across the centuries?
If Shirley leans toward the Industrial Novel genre, what genre, exactly, is Jane Eyre? What major Victorian genres find their way in?
If you were reading or writing novels in the second half of the 19th-century, you were either loving or competing with George Eliot.
This lady (her real name is Mary Anne Evans; George Eliot is her pen name) helped define realism, a movement that was all about holding a mirror up to life and recording everything. It was a rising genre in the 19th century, both in Britain and abroad. But Eliot's narrator doesn't stop at just recording everything she can see from the outside. She also has a tricky way of delving into how characters' minds work and analyzing the best and worst parts of them. Even when we see the most shameful and unlikable parts of a character, Eliot's still not done: now she wants us to imagine sympathizing with them—even with the characters we love to hate.
Although she was competing with some big names—like Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, to name only two—Eliot is really in her own class. Her views on art and philosophy get all tangled up with her plots. Sometimes when you think you're just reading about a girl with a crush, you realize you're actually reading philosophy.
That's exactly what happens in Adam Bede, Eliot's first novel. The novel takes a turn midway through and things start to get all meta: Eliot's narrator starts talking about how she writes and why. Imagine the voice-over in Grey's Anatomy suddenly breaking into an episode and explaining why things are going down the way they are. Like the (spoiler alert!) plane crash of a season finale—"You might be wondering why we decided to stage a plane crash and kill someone off so quickly: well, let us explain!"
Lots of Victorian novels end with a marriage, and we get to assume that everything continues happily ever after. Not so with George Eliot's marriage plots: in Middlemarch the point isn't getting married, but being married. It's as if she were saying, yes, it's all well and good to write about growing up—growing up is tough. But what happens when you're already grown up? What if you're still trying to figure things out? Virginia Woolf realized this years later, when she called Middlemarch "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people" (source). Zing.
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Can a novel make us more sympathetic? What about those certain people that we just can't feel sorry for? (Come on, Rosamond so knew better!) Eliot's masterpiece, Middlemarch, tackles these questions head on.
Eliot's The Mill on the Floss takes inspiration from Eliot's own life, and it's got a lot to say about how to grow up, and how to be both an individual and a member of a group, whether it's family or society. What's Eliot's take? Could you say that this novel is philosophy and fiction?
Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a force to be reckoned with on the Victorian literary scene. He wrote one of the most popular poems of the 19th century: In Memoriam, an extended reflection on the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam. Queen Victoria herself was a huge fan (she was also, dare we say, the type of person to take mourning to new heights—or depths).
Tennyson also snagged the post of Poet Laureate in 1850, after the death of William Wordsworth. It was a sign of the times. The old Romantic poet was dead, and the eminently Victorian Tennyson took center stage.
Tennyson wrote this poem over the course of seventeen years—a long time to work on one poem, wouldn't you say? And it's a long one, 133 cantos in all. The subject is the mourning process, and there are a whole lot more than five stages to Tennyson's grief.
It's all written in a distinct form that Tennyson made his own: ABBA stanzas in iambic tetrameter (still sometimes called the In Memoriam stanza). It's easy to get lost in the poem's reflections on love and loss, but, from Christmastimes that seem to remind everyone of Hallam to Tennyson's sister's marriage, it does have a storyline to keep us grounded.
King Arthur was all the rage in the 19th century. The Pre-Raphaelite school of painters also jumped on this bandwagon (for a quick example, here's Edward Burne-Jones's Beguiling of Merlin). But Tennyson's version paints a pretty bleak picture: sure, everything starts out all sunshine and kittens, but it slowly gets pulled apart by betrayals and in-fighting. It can make you wonder what Tennyson really thought about Victorian progress.
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Tennyson fed the King Arthur fire with "The Lady of Shalott". And the Pre-Raphaelites were ready with illustrations—check out John William Waterhouse's version. Critics are always proposing different things that this poem is really talking about—whether it's the whole nature of art, or the place of women in society, or something else. What do you think?
What happens after Ulysses finally makes it home? He realizes the truth behind that cliché—it's all in the journey, not the destination. What do you make of Tennyson's "Ulysses," given the Victorian preoccupation with improvement and progress?