Topic 50A – The victorian novel

Topic 50A – The victorian novel


Queen Victoria gave her name to one of the most brilliant periods of English literature.

This great age appears as a continuation of Romanticism. It was the period where the conflict between religious feeling and scientific spirtit, between mysticism and rationalism became intense and widespread.

The prudence and reserve with which novel ideas on the subject of faith and morality were ordinarily expressed. There was a general agreement in avoiding scandal, and the few who transgressed were rejected by public opinion.



Elevated to the highest levels by writers as Walter Scott, the novel was the most important literary form of the Victorian era and it was a main source of entertainment for the middle classes.

Not only read, but also read aloud and listened.

Expansion of lending libraries

Novels appeared in magazines

Techniques in book production meant cheaper prices for books

Steam driven press

Wood pulp used in paper production

Railway helped distribution. People started buying books when they travelled in the new trains.

Religious bodies claim that the novel inflame the imagination with sensual thoughts.


Novels which were becoming less fashionable and were about high life involving aristocracy.

Novels very popular among lowest classes. About low life criminals (sensation, criminal and domestic).

About middle class life less sensationalist and popular.

About social problems. Social conditions were improving but there was still a world of the most apalling poverty, ugliness, brutality and violence.

High Victorian novelists:

The Oxford movement:

The Oxford Movement marked, in 1833, the opening of a long and influential campaign against secularism.

The movement offered a kind of certainty and an assertion of tradition, to a nation increasingly beset with uncertainty and the consequences of progressive change.

The most significant figure amongst the leaders of the movement: John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman.

He is characterized by the power of argument expressed in subtle and clear prose.

Their platform: British Magazine.

Series of historical and doctrinal pamphlets produced under the title of Tracts for the Times.

Novels Loss and Gain, Callista, both propagandist in intent, some fine descriptive passages and some excellently alert dialogue they are remarkably wooden.

Thomas Carlyle:

Product both of a rugged Scottish Presbyterianism and of a more refined, but equally censorious world of the Edinburgh Enlightenment and of the Edinburgh Review.

Like the Oxford Men he recognized the power of the printed word in form of jounals and pamphlet propagand. But the conflict he identified was no simply that of faith and doubt, tradition and innovation, conservatism and reform, but between the rich and the poor, in Sartos Resartus.

Benjamin Disraeli:

Trilogy of socio political novels. Coningsby, Sybil, Tancred. His novels are witty, paradoxical, contradictory and excitedly imaginative. But they scarcely expound a serious political program.

Charles Kingsley:

The contrast between Desraeli´s account of Woodgate in Sybil and Kingsley´s disturbing picture of the London slums in Alton Locke is telling. It is a supposed autobiography (1st person) of a self educated, working class radical stirred into action by the despair, disease, and squalor of contemporary London. Kingsley followed Carlyle in that he had a taste for history and a penchant for the kind of heroes called Muscular Christians.

Elizabeth Gaskell

She is the most persuasive and observant of the early Victorian social novelists and the most memorable observer of what Carlyle called that sublime Prophetic city, Manchester.

Mary Barton describes the lives of some of those “who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town”.

The 1850 brought a more prosperous, more consolidated, and cooperative decade in politics and economics than the 40s were.

North and South, also in Manchester, exploits the distinction drawn at the beginning between rural, traditionally stratified southern England and the Industrial, pushy, class-conscious North.


Porstmouth 1812

Family´s finances always precarious.

1823 a relative offers work in a blacking business, labelling bottles for 6 shillings a week deeply traumatic. Even as a child he had dreamed of becoming famous, and this job made this possibility slip away from him. The experience portraited in displaced form in Oliver Twist, snatched away from the prospects of respectable middle-class and delivered into Fagin´s criminal underworld. Fagin was the real name of the only Dicken´s friend in the job. He is one of the long line of false fathers in Dicken´s fiction. Frightening but warm, comic and paternal. First seen frying sausages ( food is almost always sign of festive companionship in Dickens). Resembles Dicken´s own father inefectual, financially embarrased, portraited in the Micawber of David Copperfield, and the Harold Skimpole of Bleak House.

Father arrested for debt. The whole family, except the young Charles, moves to Marshalsea´s prison. This also was a traumatic experience for the boy, who would later recreate the prison in Little Dorrit. In his novels, family and crime will be complexly interrelated, as in the figure of the irresponsible father. For the later Dickens, the father who has abandoned care for his children es Victorian society itself, a false and heartless patriarchy which gas orphaned its people. Family, that sacred enclave of Victorian England, appears more and more as a sick, villent and perverted network. In earlier works, Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, still look for the resolution of probems to what has been termed the Chrismas figure, the reformed Scrooge of A Chrismas Carol. From Dombey and Son onwards (1846-48) become gradually aware that Victorian England is corrupt and exploitative as a system. Their Chrismas characters, like John Jarndyce of Bleak House, are thus more significantly and ineffectual.

At 16, freelance reporter in the court of Doctor´s Commons. Introduction to the London of clerks and hacks, lawyers, businessmen and politicians. Dickens himself was born into the lower middle class. This precarious, contradictory social location is the source of the greatest Victorian fiction. Brönte sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy. View from here, is to have access to the official, middle class order, but also to experience sympathy for those beyond the social pale. Like Oliver Twist, he is caught painfully between the upper world of polite middle class society and the criminal world of Fagin.

He becomes a parliamentary reported some years before the firs Reform Bill of 1832, so he views one of the most crucial events in modern English political story. (The system of parliamentary representation was changed and more voters, (from the industrial working class were enfranchised)). This reform represents a qualified victory for the industrial middle class in its struggle to control the state apparatus of English society. Landowners controlled the legislature, the judiciary aand the executive institutions of power, which the manufacturers set out to break in the early 19th century.

The early works deals with class struggle throughout Britain, the middle class disatisfied and proletariat carrying through a campaign for political enfranchisement. His sympathy for the oppressed coexists with a typical middle class fear or the mob, reflected in the anti trade union sentiments of Hard Times. Two antithetical ideological traditions in 19th society. Ruling class ideology of Utilitarianism, with its ruthlessly “modernizing” impulse. Romantic humanist heritage descending from the early romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake), an essentially idealist protest against the inhuman priorities of industrial capitalism. But Dickens is a pragmatic rather than doctrinal or metaphysical thinker.

After the publishing of Martin Chuzzlewit, he was already a phenomenal success. His contemporary audiences,saw him as an entertainer, closer to the forms of popular culture than to high art:

Works of literature

Organic unity

Characters complex, fully rounded and psychologically detailed

The modern author should shyly erase himself from the text


Proliferate in all directions

Figures flat, two dimensional, vivid sketches for real people

Bounds into it, preaching didactic, sententious and moralistic

Dickens´ early period coincides with the phase of early industrial capitalism development in England, in which social relations and institutions are being violently uprooted and transformed. The economic expansion had been bought at inmense human cost. The age at which children might begin work was 6 or 7, even 3 or 4. Hours from 12 to 19 in a busy period, brutal beatings administered to keep children awake. Parliamentary reform had been passed to limit working hours, but the reform continued incomplete by the middle of the century. The fragmentary, disorientating world of his fiction belongs to a social order in transition. His isolated athomized individuals, reflect a society in which all settled relations between men are being dissolved.

The later novels search for some single institution or social process which might provide a unifying metaphor of society as a whole:

Bleak House bureaucratic legal system

Hard times educational system

Little dorrit Marshalsea´s prison

Dust heaps Our mutual friend.

(symbol for capitalist profit)

Through essays, pamphlets and lectures, he emerged as the dominant social thinker of early Victorian England.

Wilkie Collins:

He was a former protector of Dickens. Collins is the greatest English master of the mystery story. The woman in white is a disturbing treatment of insanity and a clever narrative structure. Its character Count Fosco, an Italian with a murky background and a habit of playing disconcertingly with his white mice.

In the Moonstone we find the first portrait of the detective in his work. It was Jorge Luis Borges who rescued the work of Collins in the 20th century. Influenced all the detective story Simenon Maigret, Borges and Bioy Casares Don Isidro Parodi.

William Makepeace Thackeray:

Often compared to Dickens because of their novels, in education and social status they are very different. Dickens had little regular education, and knew the meaning of hardwork and poverty. Thack was the son of of an East Indian Company official, and he studied in Cambridge.

He was born in Calcuta. He was sent to England in 1817. The ship on which he travelled made a scala in the Island of St. Helen, and he could see there Napoleon, desterred in that lonely peñasco. He was educated at the best schools and college, and in Cambridge. The years he spent far away from his family, were terribly sad for the young William, this melancholy and the treatment given in this disciplined school is reflected in the general tone of his work. As an anecdote, during his school years, in a fight with a school fellow, he got his nose broken, and he would kept that feature all his life, if we see portraits, he is very serious, broken nose, funny little glasses. The boy with whom he fought, George Stovin became a friend, and they were friends until his dead in 1863. He didn´t excell in his studies. After leaving Cambridge, without a degree, he travelled abroad and knew Goethe and Schiller.

He became proprietor of The national standard, for which he wrote and drew (he drew). He also wrote for Punch (the paper where Wilde was so often satirized).

In 1836 he married Isabella Shawe. His wife became mentally ill soon after they got married, and remained so until her death in 1844. Apart from writing essays and articles for various fashionable newspapers, he travelled abroad and lectured in US. He stood unsuccessfully for parliament, and founded the Cornhill Magazine. He died in 1863.


His satirical spirit gained for Thackeray the reputation of a cynic, but he was a deeply sensitive man who hid his feelings under a cloak of cynicism.

His pictures of contemporary life were obviously real, and were accepted by the middle classes. He provided a mirror for his friends at the clubs in Kensington.

His masterpiece is Vanity Fair. It is a clear sighted realism, a deep detestation of insincerity, and a powerful development of narrative. In comparison with Dickens, he is less concerned with presenting a moral solution than with evoking an image of life as he has seen it. He portrayed Victorian middle and high society, his virtuous characters are also likeable and enviable, they are all that Thack´s readers would like to be. The novel follows the fortunes and misfortunes of two women, Becky Sharp, a governess of unlimited social ambition, and Amelia Sedley,a wealthy young woman of almost egually unlimited goodness.This provoked that the instalments of Vanity Fair were followed with the greatests interest, it was the Falcon Crest of that era.

The novel is intended as a novel without main character, a chorus novel.


Charlotte Brontë´s Jane Eyre seems to have stimulated contemporary novelists into their own experiments with first person narratives.

Dickens: David Copperfield, Bleak House

Kingsley: Alton Locke

Thackeray: Esmond

Anne Bronte: The tennant of Wildfell Hall

The publication of Jane Eyre (Charlotte) created a sensation parallel to that of the serialization of Vanity Fair. It is regarded now as a classic variation on a traditional enough love story, is in fact the narrative of a far from conventional heroine who never recedes into passivity or mere observation. A reaction against romantic sentimentalism.

Wuthering Heights (Emily). Durante mucho tiempo la crítica rejected Wuthering Heights. La intensidad de su sentimiento y la brutalidad de los personajes, las energías primitivas de amor y odio que impregnate la novela fueron juzgadas como salvajes and coarse por los críticos del siglo XIX. It is an important contribution to modern novel, due to the variety of points of view, that prefigures the narrative of Faulkner, in technique.

Wildfell Hall (Anne) has a complex narrative structure and an impressive varieties of characters.