Study Guide

Victorian Literature Characteristics

  • Serialization

    It can be daunting to pick up a Victorian novel. The Penguin edition of Middlemarch weighs in at 880 pages, and it's not an exception. But that's not always how you would have originally encountered them. Many novels were published in parts—in the super trendy three-volume form, or by a monthly dose, or even in a weekly magazine. Why? Mostly it came down to cold hard cash.

    Circulating libraries (think Blockbuster, but with books) were big supporters of the three-volume novel. They figured that most people wouldn't invest in buying all three volumes when they could just trot down to their local circulating library. And it was also good for magazines. If you get people hooked on a story that will be running for a year or more, then you're going to sell a lot of magazines. Still, it takes two to tango, and readers also got some benefit out of this arrangement: they could pick up an installment of the latest Dickens novel for a shilling rather than pay thirty times that for the full thing.

    As you'd predict, the function does affect the form of your favorite Victorian stories. If you split a story into twenty pieces, each piece—not just the whole banana—is going to have to be a page-turner. And the end of a first volume can't leave everything too tidy, or who would bother making a trip out to borrow the next installment? Can we thank Victorians for the cliffhanger?

    Chew on This:

    Dickens originally published A Tale of Two Cities in his own weekly magazine, All the Year Round. And despite its length, A Tale of Two Cities often gets described as rushed or fast-paced. Do you think this has anything to do with the way it was published? Can you find traces of that original form in the chapters and plot?

    Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone was also published in All the Year Round. What would it have been like to read this novel—full of suspense and mystery, like all the best sensation novels—in weekly bits?

  • Industrialization

    Okay, so "industrialization" might sound more like economic development than literary history. But Victorians were seeing major changes—from manufacturing booms to the first railways to widespread urbanization. And it's hard to escape this stuff if you read many 19th-century novels or poems. In fact, a whole genre developed around it: the industrial or social novel (sometimes it's called "the condition of England" novel).

    Most novels revolve around some sort of problem—whom to marry, what career to choose, whether to go to that party or not. But industrial novels really up the ante on conflict. Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South sets up the problem right in the title: the south is the cultured life of London, and the north is the up-and-coming industrial town. Guess what happens when a nice southern girl confronts the bleak life in the north? Riotous good times, of course. (Or just riots.) Luckily, even when the "industrial" part of the industrial novel gets a bit bleak, there's usually a good romance that can get us through.

    Chew on This:

    Dickens's Hard Times is about the grittier side of factory life, workers' rights, and… the circus. If you're a character in an industrial novel, what's your work-to-play ratio?

    Even in the most pastoral of small English towns, the problem of workers and living conditions crops up. Want to see for yourself? Revisit Dorothea's pet project in Middlemarch.

  • Class

    The Victorians were super status conscious. Between the working class and the upper crust, there was the catchall "middle class." And with the middle class growing in the nineteenth century, there were suddenly more class gradations to keep track of. How much money do you make per year? Do you have your very own carriage? What does your family do for a living? Are you going to inherit Pemberley? (Okay, maybe not so much that last one.)

    Since you couldn't just ask people these things, it was tricky to figure out where exactly they landed on the social ladder. And the Victorians had it complicated; on top of just how much money you inherited or made, there was also the old system of nobility. So you could be the daughter of a self-made man, or you could be a penniless lord. Not surprisingly, Victorian novels find these figures endlessly fascinating. Especially when they might marry each other.

    Anthony Trollope's novels are full of characters figuring out the social landscape so that they can make that ultimate of decisions—whom to marry. In Can You Forgive Her?, Glencora Palliser and Plantagenet Palliser seem like the perfect match: both of their families are old and super wealthy, and Plantagenet will be a duke when his uncle dies. The trouble comes when they ask themselves whether they'll marry for social standing or for love.

    Trollope comes back to this question in The Prime Minister. In this one, our dear heroine, Emily Wharton, is also trying to figure out whom to marry. Her father wants her to marry into the same old English family that they've been marrying into for years, but Emily is fascinated by a handsome man with foreign blood—and very uncertain income.

    Chew on This:

    What happens when you fall in love with your employer, who's also a few (hundred) steps up the socio-economic ladder? How does Jane Eyre confront it?

    A rich American heiress visits old England and meets an enlightened member of the aristocracy. Miss Money and Lord Fancy Title marry and live happily ever after. Sounds like a Victorian novelist's favorite theme, right? And yet, things go awfully awry in Portrait of a Lady.

  • Science vs. Religion

    The Victorians were the first to confront Darwin's theory of evolution. Yep, we're talking before the bumper stickers. When his Origin of Species came out in 1859, it sparked a lot of debate. Sure, some people had questioned whether the Bible was literally accurate (especially when it came to the age of the earth—geologists had some ideas of their own). But Darwin was also proposing a new theory for how the earth came to be populated with so many different species. (Hint: Darwin said it didn't just take one week.)

    Victorian theories about nature often work their way into the lit when things take a turn for the bleak—from Tennyson's famous description of nature as "red in tooth and claw," to George Gissing's depressing novels about being poor in London. Things are pretty wretched in Gissing's New Grub Street: it's like taking Darwin's theories and applying them to the London literary scene. All the characters seem to be in a real struggle for survival. They're trying to make it as writers, but only the strong (or just lucky) survive. It doesn't seem to matter how hard people try, or how much faith they have—sometimes the world (i.e., nature) is against them.

    And of course the debates didn't end with the Victorians. The Scopes Trial really forced religion and science to face off. If you've heard the more recent debates about teaching evolution in schools (or teaching it along with creationism or intelligent design), then you've already got a sense of how big this issue must have been for the Victorians, who were the first on the scene.

    Chew on This:

    So, yes, every Thomas Hardy novel is about survival—it seems like his characters have a really hard time staying alive. But Return of the Native is especially interested in how people are affected by their environment. How could you use the "survival of the fittest" to analyze the novel's Egdon Heath?

    Middlemarch is full of scientific allusions and comparisons with religious purpose. What do you make of Lydgate's belief in scientific progress and Dorothea's almost saintly aspirations?

  • Progress

    Victorians loved them some progress, whether it was one person bootstrapping their way up into the middle class, or the entire nation growing bigger and stronger. And the British didn't stop at their borders, either. This was the age of imperialism, and the British colonies stretched as far away as India and Jamaica. But things were always liable to fall apart.

    Part of Victorian progress was figuring out what to do with all the stuff Britain had inherited. Imagine learning that you now own a big rickety fixer-upper—where every few days a different leak springs and another fuse blows out.

    Not only was London outgrowing the old systems, but new cities were also cropping up in the industrial north. And the political situation? Think of a big tug-of-war—with the prize being the vote. The middle class suddenly wanted more control (i.e., the vote), and the working class even started its own movement for more rights (a movement known as Chartism). To give Parliament its due, it did pass enough bills to topple a small elephant in the 19th century. Everything was getting regulated—the number of hours you could work a week, how much control women had over money and property, and, of course, voting rights (thanks, Reform Acts).

    Along with more people, there were also more, well, logistics. In the wake of cholera epidemics and "The Great Stink" of 1858 (or: Waste Water Meets Hot Summer), sanitation was suddenly front and center. Politicians and concerned citizens alike were eager to regulate London's health.

    Novelists were just as eager to get involved with the cause. Whenever you read a Victorian novel that takes place in London, watch for all the descriptions of the city—from the mazy streets, to the mud and fog, to the most down-and-out of slums. Dickens is famous for his descriptions of the urban scene. So all the city fog in Bleak House seems just as much a description as a symbol—it's hard to see where you're going, whether you're in the streets or in the court case at the center of the novel. And the slums aren't just there for a plot twist: they're also part of Dickens's plea that society do something about the dirtiest parts of the dirty city.

    Chew on This:

    Okay, we know that we're always recommending Middlemarch. But it really is the go-to for thinking about tradition and reform. It's no coincidence that Eliot wrote it in the wake of the Second Reform Act (1867), and set the action in the age of the First (1832). How could you interpret the plot through the lens of reform?

    Dickens just can't pass up a good jab at the things he's mad at—whether it's a loopy legal system or the hopeless state of London slums. But he's usually got a purpose behind it all. If you've got a favorite Dickens novel, where do you see him attacking the status quo? (And you can seriously start anywhere with this one: Hard Times? Oliver Twist? Bleak House?)

  • Nostalgia

    The Victorians had a bad case of nostalgia. They could get wistful and sad about just about anything that was over. Victorian literature is riddled with nostalgia: from historical novels about Robin Hood (Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe), to epic poems about the golden days of Camelot (Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King).

    But it wasn't just literature that was nostalgic; it was also art and politics. John Ruskin talks up Gothic architecture in his Stones of Venice and argues that those crazy gargoyle-studded buildings were part and parcel of the way that old society worked. You have to be really nostalgic for this one—when's the last time you were like, okay, modern comforts and technology are great and all, but you know when I'd like to time travel to? The medieval period.

    This nostalgia probably had more to do with the present than with the past. Many Victorian writers and thinkers—especially Thomas Carlyle—were convinced that the nineteenth century was facing a crisis. For example, see everything Carlyle ever wrote. (You may as well start with Signs of the Times.)

    Even if you weren't thinking the end times were near, you might just have been tired of all the progress. What better way to escape from new fashions, new machines, and new inventions than to curl up with a novel about knights and jousting?

    Chew on This:

    Whenever something's drawing to an end, it's easy to get nostalgic about it. That seems to be what happens to David Copperfield when he's wrapping up the story of his life. What do you make of the tone of this final chapter, beginning with the line "And now my written story ends. I look back, once more—for the last time—before I close these leaves"?

    It's hard to make major transitions without getting nostalgic. Take Ulysses' adventures: as soon as he's home, he's imagining that things were so much better when he was fighting in foreign wars and getting chased by a Cyclops. Do you read Tennyson's "Ulysses" as a serious plea for adventure, or as an ironic comment on how nostalgia works?

  • The Woman Question

    The question of what women could (or should) do attracted a lot of debate in the Victorian era. It's not that no one had ever thought, "Hey, why not teach women something more than drawing and music?" (See: Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman). Or that no woman had ever thought, "Hmmm, wouldn't it be nice to have custody rights over the kids and maybe some control over my property when I'm married?" It was just that now—with reform in the air, and women outnumbering men—more people were asking.

    And Parliament was answering. From The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act, to the Married Women's Property Acts, women were finally getting more control.

    But even with these reforms, the huge female population in Britain didn't have a ton of options. Marriage was still the default, even when there weren't enough men to actually allow everyone to pair off (all the wars hadn't done good things to the men-to-women ratio). The other options depended on your class. Working-class women could go into dressmaking or factory work. Middle-class women, however, didn't have many career paths, besides becoming a governess or author. (Many did choose these—to the point that George Eliot was railing against "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists", and governesses faced some stiff competition for a job.)

    From the many novels about governesses (like Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, and The Turn of the Screw), to the New Woman novels at the end of the century, "The Woman Question" was being asked in a lot of different ways.

    Chew on This:

    Jane Eyre is the classic governess novel. Jane has nothing but her education to fall back on, so she accepts a post as a governess at Thornfield. How does the novel answer the Woman Question?

    Gender has a lot to do with what Tom and Maggie can each do in The Mill on the Floss. Since this is the closest of Eliot's novels to her own life—and she definitely blazed some trails for what women can do—what do you make of the novel's portrayal of women's choices?

  • Utilitarianism

    Utilitarianism is a big name, but it's got an easy definition. The whole thing boils down to asking one question to make decisions: "What will make the most people the most happy?"

    Seems simple, until you try to get through a day of using it to determine everything you do. Sure, choose that hamburger for lunch, if that's what will make you happy. But what about after school—should you watch TV because it makes you happy, or should you volunteer at the community center because you'll maybe improve other kids' days? Or should you make your own family happy and go home to bake cookies?

    Not surprisingly, this philosophy was super attractive to some people (Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were big proponents). But others found it limiting and soulless: can we really reason our way into being happy? And what about the people who aren't in the majority? Is it okay to sacrifice the happiness of a couple of people if it makes a whole crowd happy? (It's another version of the classic ethical dilemma: would you kill one person to save four?) And how are we supposed to get beyond playing favorites, and just making our loved ones and ourselves happy?

    Victorians and their literature were asking ethical questions in a lot of different ways, but utilitarianism was one popular lens through which to do it. The philosophy relies on math and stats—it's hyper-rational and logical. But some writers, like Gaskell and Dickens, wanted to show the other side: what happens to the "few" who get sacrificed for the happiness of the many?

    Chew on This:

    Hard Times is Dickens's manifesto against Utilitarianism. What do you make of the Gradgrind philosophy vs. the circus philosophy?

    George Eliot's novels often boil down to choices—what to do, why to do it, and for whose happiness? Daniel Deronda has a lot of tough choices. How do the characters measure happiness?