Topic 50B – The victorian novel

Topic 50B – The victorian novel



2.1 Precedents of the Victorian Age: the Industrial Revolution

2.2 Social and political changes













The Victorian era of the United Kingdom marked the height of the British Industrial Revolution and the apex of the British Empire. Although commonly used to refer to the period of Queen Victoria’s rule between 1837 and 1901, scholars debate whether the Victorian period—as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians—actually begins with the passage of the Reform Act 1832. The era was preceded by the Regency era and succeeded by the Edwardian period. The latter half of the Victorian era roughly coincided with the first portion of the Belle Époque era of continental Europe and other non-English speaking countries.

Queen Victoria had the longest reign in British history, and the cultural, political, economic, industrial and scientific changes that occurred during her reign were remarkable. When Victoria ascended to the throne, Britain was primarily agrarian and rural (though it was even then the most industrialized country in the world); upon her death, the country was highly industrialized and connected by an expansive railway network. The first decades of Victoria’s reign witnessed a series of epidemics (typhus and cholera, most notably), crop failures and economic collapses. There were riots over enfranchisement and the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had been established to protect British agriculture during the Napoleonic Wars in the early part of the 19th century.

The mid-Victorian period also witnessed significant social changes: an evangelical revival occurred alongside a series of legal changes in women’s rights. While women were not enfranchised during the Victorian period, they did gain the legal right to their property upon marriage through the Married Women’s Property Act, the right to divorce, and the right to fight for custody of their children upon separation.

The period is often characterized as a long period of peace and economic, colonial, and industrial consolidation, temporarily disrupted by the Crimean War, although Britain was at war every year during this period. Towards the end of the century, the policies of New Imperialism led to increasing colonial conflicts and eventually the Anglo-Zanzibar War and the Boer War. Domestically, the agenda was increasingly liberal with a number of shifts in the direction of gradual political reform and the widening of the franchise.

The Victorian literature is the literature produced during the reign of Queen Victoria (18371901) and corresponds to the Victorian era. It forms a link and transition between the writers of the romantic period and the very different literature of the 20th century.

The 19th century saw the novel become the leading form of literature in English. The works by pre-Victorian writers such as Jane Austen and Walter Scott had perfected both closely-observed social satire and adventure stories. Popular works opened a market for the novel amongst a reading public. The 19th century is often regarded as a high point in British literature as well as in other countries such as France, the United States of America and Russia. Books, and novels in particular, became ubiquitous, and the “Victorian novelist” created legacy works with continuing appeal.

In the following topic we will analyze the biographies and works of some of the most significant writers of the Victorian era: Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Elisabeth Gaskell, William Thackeray, the Brontë Sisters, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.


The term Industrial Revolution is commonly used to denote the changes in the organisation of production that mark the passage from a rural handicraft barter economy to an urban industrial wage-earning economy. Although many countries have undergone this change in different ways and at different times, the term refers specifically to the first historical instance of this change: the British industrialisation. This term was first popularised in the late 19th century by the economic historian Arnold Toynbee to describe England’s economic development from 1760 to 1840. However, to think that Britain suddenly became an industrialised country towards the end of the 18th century would not be correct, since this happened over a long period which started already in the 17th century. As far as its extension is concerned, it reached its peak towards the mid 19th century, around the time of the Crystal Palace Exhibition that was held in London in 1851 in which the pride of the British industry was exhibited to the world, and it started to decline in the late Victorian period.

2.1 Precedents of the Victorian Age: the Industrial Revolution

The reasons for Britain to become the first country which developed a modern industry were partly material and partly social and political.

Britain was favoured in the first place by the fact that it was a small island, so that most of the land was within easy reach of water transport. Because of that England had developed a large merchant and war fleet.

The British military supremacy brought about an expansion of colonial commerce, that provided abundant raw materials and new markets in which to sell English manufactured products. At the same time, English laws prevented the creation of industry in the colonies.

Furthermore, since the beginning of the 18th century England had also gone through a transformation of agriculture. The Enclosure Act consolidated the land in the hands of great landlords and farming as a form of capitalist enterprise was introduced. With the introduction of new inventions and discoveries many people were forced off the land into the cities and at the same time production was increased to feed the new urban society.

The long tradition of commerce had favoured the rise of capitalism, that is, there was an important accumulation of capital that could be invested in the new industry. Moreover, Britain was also rich in the natural resources that the new technology required, especially water, coal and iron.

Finally, the Industrial Revolution was possible due to the technological developments such as the steam engine and the new machines, which enabled the shift from muscle to steam power.

This development was specially significant in the iron and coal industry and in the textile industry. After this the English steel industry grew rapidly since coal and iron were very abundant.

However, the mining industry was under pressure because they had to dig deeper and deeper and they needed to find new ways to drain the underground water.

The development in industry and commerce was accompanied by an improvement of transportation.

At the end of the 18th century great attention was paid to roads and internal navigation both in rivers and through the construction of canals. The experimentation with steamships had been taking place at the same time, but it was not until the second half of the century that the use of steam for oceanic transport became common.

2.2 Social and political changes

The changes that took place in economy were reflected in a change in the social organisation. Pre-industrial society was constituted by closed groups predestined by birth, industrial society, on the other hand, is a class-society formed by groups determined by money. The new society was constituted by an upper class of aristocrats, industrialists and merchants and a working class.

Since the power was in the hands of the industrialists, laws favoured them and the conditions of the workers deteriorated. Craftsmen disappeared as a result of industry competition and the increase of production lead to a decrease of salaries. The exploitation of workers and the use of women and children as cheap labour was common. The working class was very different from the previous lower class of farmers and craftsmen.

As the 18th century went on, the discontent gave place to revolts and to the growth of trade unions, which were the first expression of class conflict. Workers were united by a common experience and by common interests and they developed an ideology. The first movement that opposed the worsening conditions brought about by mechanisation was the Ludite movement. The Ludites smashed machines to protest against the worsening conditions of the workers, but their activity resulted in the establishment of the death penalty for those who destroyed machines.

This process also affected the British geography, the revolution affected the north part of the country and the Midlands far more than the south. Until that moment it had been the south which had been the most advanced, populous and liberal, whereas the north remained almost empty, backward and conservative, but now, the north was pushing against the conservatism of the south.

The evidence of this contrast is a recurrent topic in the Victorian novels, for instance, Elisabeth Gaskell´s “North and South”, Dickens´ “Bleak House” or George Elliot´s “Silas Marner”.

The contrast between town and countryside was also obvious in Hardy´s works.

The discontent with the political organisation was extended through the first half of the 19th century. The political institutions were questioned, and the trade unions could not exercise much power against the employers.

The first political movement that demanded improvements for the working-class was the Chartism, which asked for a parliamentary reform to make the system more fair by achieving the representation of the workers, but they did not get any of their objectives.

The socialist movement appeared towards the middle of this century. Around 1850 Karl Marx went to live in Britain where he did most of his work studying the capitalist society.

Universal male suffrage was obtained in the 1860’s, with the conservative prime minister Disraeli, who passed a considerable amount of social legislation in favour of workers.

It was also toward the end of the century when the suffragette movement, which demanded the vote for the women, and the Fabian Society, the origin of the Labour Party, were founded.


The nineteenth century was the great age of the English novel. If the vitality of England during the reign of Queen Elisabeth the First culminated in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the dynamic of the industrial revolution made the Victorian period the golden age of the British novel.

Three are the main factors that contributed to develop novel as the main literary genre: the increase of a reading public with the expansion of lending libraries; the development of publishing in the modern sense of the word and the new topics to be dealt with, that is to say, the description of a concrete socials class to which the novels were addressed.

The novel, like the “medieval flabiau” (according to Northrop Frye in Anatomy of criticism) is a low mimetic literary form – it represents the way of life of real and ordinary people-. The Victorian novel-reader wanted to be first entertained, then close to what he was reading. Thus, the same impulse that makes modern television viewers so devoted to the popular soap-operas which deal with people like themselves with whom they can identify, helped to create the novel of this time.

In such a context, the reflection of reality is the subject matter of the new fiction and the world of subjectivity hardly has to do in this literary framework. As well, the collective character and the world of the street begin to be present in the writings, and most of the times the novel turns itself into an instrument of social inquiry.

Formally, the novel is divided into chapters because the most common way of publishing is the monthly series or instalments that appear in newspapers. In that way, the writer is allowed to know the readership´s opinion and it is frequent to change the plot of the story according to the public´s taste.

Following the tradition of their predecessors such as Fielding, Richardson and Jane Austen, the works of this generation of writers were mainly concerned with man in society. The stories centre on the struggles of a protagonist to find himself or herself in relation to other men and women. Therefore the main concerns of the novels are love, marriage, family, and society in general. The main innovation was the introduction of the novel as a means of social criticism in novels that reflect the lives of the lower class.


Let’s begin by considering the works of Charles Dickens, the most representative novelist of the early Victorian period and the most famous English novelist of all times. Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812, but his family moved to London when he was a child. They went through economic hardships due to his father’s debts, and when he was ten he had to work while the rest of the family was in a debtor’s prison. However, later on Dickens went to school and, after working as a clerk, he eventually became a newspaper reporter. With the publication of The posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club he started his literary career.

In his novels Dickens showed himself a liberal reformer concerned with the problems in city life as a result of the Industrial Revolution. He appealed to all social classes and he became an important figure in asking for reforms. His novels were praised for their realistic presentation of life at all levels of society, and for their humanitarian interest. Through them the readers learned much about the living conditions of the poor, a topic that had been avoided so far. Throughout his career his social criticism became more mature, changing from the farce and the melodrama to the satire and the psychological characterisation.

One of his earliest novels is Oliver Twist (1837), characterised by a mixture of melodrama and realism. The novel denounces workhouse conditions and the life in the London slums through the experiences of the innocent young protagonist.

He continued in the same line of the social melodrama with Nickolas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop, but kept experimenting with new forms and topics, also showing a sort of discontent with his age.

After some years in which his literary production was stopped by his travels abroad and a greater dedication to journalism, in the 1850’s he wrote many of his best known novels, such as David Copperfield, Bleak House and Hard Times which meet a deeper stage of psychology regarding characters.


Kingsley was born in Holne, Devon, the second son of a Rev. Charles Kingsley and his wife Mary. His brother, Henry Kingsley, also became a novelist. Kingsley’s life was written by his widow in 1877, entitled Charles Kingsley, his Letters and Memories of his Life, and presents a very touching and beautiful picture of her husband, but perhaps hardly does justice to his humour, his wit, his overflowing vitality and boyish fun.

Kingsley’s interest in history is shown in several of his writings, including The Heroes (1856), a children’s book about Greek mythology, and several historical novels, of which the best known are Hypatia (1853), Hereward the Wake (1865), and Westward Ho! (1855).

His concern for social reform is illustrated in his great classic, The Water-Babies (1863), a kind of fairytale about a boy chimney-sweep, which retained its popularity well into the 20th century. Furthermore in The Water-Babies he developed in this literary form something of a purgatory, which runs counter to his “Anti-Roman” theology. The story also mentions the main protagonists in the scientific debate over Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species, gently satirising their reactions.

He was sympathetic to the idea of evolution, and was one of the first to praise Darwin’s book. Kingsley was influenced by Frederick Denison Maurice, and was close to many Victorian thinkers and writers

As a novelist his chief power lay in his descriptive faculties. The descriptions of South American scenery in Westward Ho!, of the Egyptian desert in Hypatia, of the North Devon scenery in Two Years Ago, are brilliant; and the American scenery is even more vividly and more truthfully described when he had seen it only by the eye of his imagination than in his work At Last, which was written after he had visited the tropics. His sympathy with children taught him how to secure their interests. His version of the old Greek stories entitled The Heroes, and Water-babies and Madam How and Lady Why, in which he deals with popular natural history, take high rank among books for children.

Kingsley also wrote poetry and political articles, as well as several volumes of sermons. His argument, in print, with the Venerable John Henry Newman, accusing him of untruthfulness and deceit, prompted the latter to write his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which clearly shows the strength of Kingsley’s invective and the distress it induced. He also wrote a preface to the 1859 edition of Henry Brooke‘s book The Fool of Quality in which he defends their shared belief in universal salvation.

Kingsley’s humour has escaped many; perhaps it can be found in another of his historical romances, named after its heroine, Hypatia, in which the arch neo-Platonist of end-of-empire Alexandria converts to Christianity at the moment of her obscene murder.


Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell often referred to simply as Mrs. Gaskell, was an English novelist and short story writer during the Victorian era. She is perhaps best known for her biography of Charlotte Brontë. Her novels offer a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor, and as such are of interest to social historians as well as lovers of literature. Her father, William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister and a writer, remarried after Elizabeth’s mother died. Much of Elizabeth’s childhood was spent in Cheshire, where she lived with an aunt, Mrs Hannah Lumb, in Knutsford, a town she would later immortalise as Cranford.

In 1832 Elizabeth married William Gaskell, the minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester, who had a literary career of his own.The Gaskells settled in Manchester, where the industrial surroundings would offer inspiration for her novels (in the industrial genre).

Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton, was published anonymously in 1848. The best known of her remaining novels are Cranford (1853), North and South (1854), and Wives and Daughters (1865). She became popular for her writing, especially her ghost story writing, aided by her friend Charles Dickens, who published her work in his magazine Household Words. Her ghost stories are quite distinct in style from her industrial fiction and belong to the Gothic fiction genre.

Even though her writing conforms to Victorian conventions (including signing her name “Mrs. Gaskell”), Gaskell usually frames her stories as critiques of contemporary attitudes, particularly those toward women, with complex narratives and dynamic female characters.

In addition to her fiction, Gaskell also wrote the first biography of Charlotte Brontë, which played a significant role in developing her fellow writer’s reputation.

Gaskell’s style is notable for putting local dialect words into the voice of middle-class characters and of the narrator; for example in North and South, Margaret Hale suggests redding up (tidying) the Bouchers’ house and even offers jokingly to teach her mother words such as knobstick (strike-breaker).


If Charles Dickens was the entertainer of the middle-class readership, William Makepeace Thackeray was its social critic. He came from a wealthy family and received a good education, but he wasted the family fortune and he entered the literate career through journalism. He would become famous as an author of historical novels and contemporary novels about the upper-middle class.

Most of Thackeray’s major novels were published as monthly serials. Thackeray studied in a satirical and moralistic light upper- and middle-class English life – he was once seen as the equal of his contemporary Dickens, or even as his superior.

He was educated at Charterhouse and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Thackeray abandoned his studies without taking a degree, having lost some of his inheritance of twenty thousand pounds through gambling. In the beginning of the 1830s he visited Germany, where he met Goethe.

During 1831-33 Thackeray studied law at the Middle Temple, London, but had little enthusiasm to continue his studies. In 1833 he brought with a large heritage the National Standard, but lost his fortune a year later in the Indian bank failures and other bad investments. According to an anecdote, Thackeray offered to undertake the task of illustrating Dickens’s Pickwick Papers in 1836, but the author himself found Thackeray’s drawings unsuitable.

After art studies in Paris, Thackeray returned in 1837 to London and started his career as a hard working journalist. In 1836 he married a poor Irish girl, Isabella Shawe; they had three daughters. Their first child, Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919), became a writer – her impressionistic texts impressed Virginia Woolf, who drew a portrait of her in Night and Day (1919) as ‘Mrs Hilbery’. Ritchie (1837-1919) published several novels, and contributed to an 1898-99 edition of her father’s works. A prominent intellectual figure of her time and well-acquainted with a number of the great names of British literature, she also wrote memoirs of her contemporaries, including Tennyson (1809-1892) and Ruskin (1819-1900).

Thackeray began to contribute regularly to Fraser’s Magazine, Morning Chronicle, New Monthly Magazine and The Times. His writings attracted first attention in Punch, where he satirized English snobbery. These sketches reappeared in 1848 as The Book of Snobs, in which he stated that “he who meanly admires mean things is a Snob.”

In 1840 Isabella Thackeray suffered a mental breakdown, from which she never recovered, through she survived Thackeray by thirty years. The author was forced to send his children to France to his mother. The children returned to England in 1846 to live with him.

Already in his first novel, Catherine (1839), originally written for Fraser’s Magazine, Thackeray broke with the literary conventions of his day. The characters of the tale are immoral, and no doubt of it; but the writer humbly hopes the end is not so. The public was, in our notion, dosed and poisoned by the prevailing style of literary practice, and it was necessary to administer some medicine that would produce a wholesome nausea, and afterwards bring about a more healthy habit. In The luck of Barry Lyndon(1844), Thackeray portrayed an adventurer, opportunist, and gambler, who serves in the Seven Years War, first under the English flag and then in the Prussian army, gains wealth, and eventually is punished for his imperfections.

In Vanity Fair , set at the time of the Napoleonic wars, Thackeray created one of the most fascinating immoral female characters, Becky Sharp. Vanity Fair was sub-titled ‘A Novel without a Hero’. Everybody in Vanity Fair must have remarked how well those live who are comfortably and thoroughly in debt; how they deny themselves nothing; how jolly and easy they are in their minds. The vast satirical panorama of a materialistic society centres on Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, good-natured but ‘silly’. They are two boarding-school friends, whose destinies are contrasted. Clever and ambitious Becky is born into poverty as the daughter of a penniless artist. Her plans to marry Amelia’s brother Joseph fail. She marries Rowdon Crawley, but he is disinherited. Becky manages to live at the height of fashion through the patronage of Lord Steyne. When her husband discovers the truth, he departs to become the governor of Coventry Island. Becky is ostracized and she moves to the Continent. In the meantime Amelia’s stockbroker father is ruined. Amelia is loved by William Dobbin but she marries George Osborne – he dies in the battle of Waterloo. Amelia’s son is left into the care of his grandfather, who dies and leaves him a fortune. Amelia travels in the Continent with his brother and they meet Becky. Dobbin has returned from India and disapproves Amelia’s kindness to Becky. Older and disillusioned, Dobbin and Amelia can marry. Becky regains her hold over Joseph, who dies in suspicious circumstances. Becky’s husband Rowdon dies, and Becky ends the novel in the guise of a pious widow. As soon as we begin to read Vanity Fair, we are aware of a voice describing things, judging them, adding personal comments. In creating this sort of narrative voice, Thackeray is following a great eighteenth century tradition embodied by Fielding´s Tom Jones or Sterne´s Tristram Shandy.

Thackeray’s increasing love for Jane Brookfield, the wife of an old Cambridge friend, led to a rupture in their friendship. The History of Henry Esmond appeared in three volumes in 1852, and reflected the melancholic period in the life of the author. By the end of his career, Thackeray’s disillusionment with contemporary culture seems to have deepened. In The Adventures of Philip(1862) the protagonist, Philip, is out of place in a world that does not accommodate his vision of masculinity.

Less successful Thackeray was with his attempt to stand for Parliament. His contacts with friendly rival Charles Dickens ended in a quarrel, but their daughters continued to be friends. Thackeray died suddenly on Christmas Eve 1863. Just before his death he had reconciled with Dickens.


With the quickly establishment of the novel as the main literary genre, more and more different kinds of sensibilities came to express themselves in it.

The majority of the Victorian novelists dealt with problems of man in society and the moral situation in an industrialized world, but there was the occasional writer who explored the realms of his private passions, that was the case of the Brontë Sisters, often considered as a unit because they shared an obsession for the lonely life in a bleak Yorkshire village and they wrote novels following the traces of the old-fashioned Romantic world.

Their production was not extensive due to their early deaths and it has some exceptional characteristics, more related to the Romantics than to their contemporaries. They grew up away from the literary and cultural spheres at a time when women did not have many opportunities, but they read extensively, mainly Romantic poetry and novel, and they started to write as a form of amusement. Each of them had a novel by 1847.

The Brontë sisters were born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in the north of England. Charlotte was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman who had moved with his family to Haworth amid the Yorkshire moors in 1820. The landscape around the parsonage, the lonely rolling moors and wild wind, influences all the Brontë sisters deeply. After their mother and two eldest children died, Charlotte was left with her sisters Emily and Anne, and brother Branwell (1817-1848) to the care of their father, and their strict, religious aunt, Elisabeth Branwell.

Branwell collaborated with Charlotte in creating the imaginary world of Angria. After failing as a painter and writer, he took to drink and opium, then worked as a tutor and assistant clerk to a railway company. In 1842 he was dismissed and joined his sister Anne at Thorp Green Hall as a tutor. His affair with his employer’s wife ended disastrously. He returned to Haworth in 1845, where he rapidly declined and died three years later.

Charlotte´s attempts to earn her living as a governess were hindered by her disabling shyness, her ignorance of normal children, and her yearning to be with her sisters. In 1842 Charlotte travelled to Brussels with Emily to learn French, German, and management. During this period she fell in love with a married man, M. Heger, the owner of the Pensionnat Heger, a girls’ school, where Charlotte and Emily were pupils and Charlotte later taught. Her own attempt to open a school failed in 1844. The collection of poems, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846), which she wrote with her sisters. The surname was probably taken from Arthur Bell Nicholls, then their father’s curate. Charlotte wrote in one of its poems, perhaps referring her sad experiences in Brussels. Because the sisters thought that their mode of writing was not feminine, they used masculine names.

The book sold only two copies, but the costs were £37; the sum could represent a year’s wages. By the time of its publication her sisters had finished a novel; Charlotte’s first, The Professor, published under the name Currer Bell, was based on her experiences of teaching in Brussels, never found a publisher in her lifetime. Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were accepted by Thomas Newby in 1847 and published next year.

Undeterred by her own rejection, Charlotte began Jane Eyre, which came out in October 1847, and became an immediate success. Charlotte dedicated the book to William Makepeace Thackeray, who described it as “the masterwork of a great genius”. The heroine of Jane Eyre is a penniless orphan who becomes a teacher, obtains a post as a governess, inherits money from an uncle, and marries after several turns of the plot the Byronic hero, Rochester. Their first meeting is described in comical light – Rochester falls off a horse. Some readers of the novel suggested that its author was a depraved man. It was followed by Shirley(1848) and Villete(1853), based on her memories of Brussels. Although her identity was well known, Charlotte continued to publish as Currer Bell.

In Jane Eyre Charlotte used her experiences at the Evangelical school and as governess. The novel severely criticized the limited options open to educated but impoverished women, and the idea that women ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. Jane’s passionate desire for a wider life, her need to be loved, and her rebellious questioning of conventions, also reflected Charlotte’s own dreams. The gloomy hero, Mr Rochester, represents the ideal of masculine tenderness, which is combined with masculine strength – all along Byronic lines. Jane’s discovery at the altar that Rochester has an insane wife hidden in the attic is the most shocking plot twist of the novel. Some later critics have presented that the mad Bertha Rochester is a nymphomaniac. Her character was refreshed in Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which told the story of Rochester’s ill-fated Creole wife.

The title character from Shirley is perhaps the first fully developed independent, brave, outspoken heroine, a type that has since deeply influenced mass-market novels read by women. Caroline Helstone, the other heroine, is a more conventional figure. In the background of the story is industrial change and the Luddite riots. Charlotte had been at school in the Calder Valley where the attack on the frames and mill had taken place. When Charlotte started to write the book, the four Brontës were all alive and together at the parsonage; before it was finished, a family tragedy shadowed the work.

Branwell, whose wildness and intemperance had caused the sisters much distress, died in September 1848. Emily died in December of the same year, and Anne the following summer. In 1854 Charlotte married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls – he was the fourth to propose her. Charlotte died during her pregnancy on March 31, 1855 in Haworth, Yorkshire.

Perhaps the greatest writer of the three Brontë sisters. Emily Brontë published only one novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), a story of the doomed love and revenge

Between the years 1824 and 1825 Emily attended the school at Cowan Bridge with Charlotte, and then was largely educated at home. Her father’s bookshelf offered a variety of reading: the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Scott and many others. The children also read enthusiastically articles on current affairs and intellectual disputes in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Fraser’s Magazine, and Edinburgh Review.

Unlike Charlotte, Emily had no close friends. She wrote a few letters and was interested in mysticism. Her first novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), a story-within-a-story, did not gain immediate success as Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, but it has acclaimed later fame as one of the most intense novels written in the English language. In contrast to Charlotte and Anne, whose novels take the form of autobiographies written by authoritative and reliable narrators, Emily introduced an unreliable narrator, Lockwood. He constantly misinterprets the reactions and interactions of the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. More reliable is Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, who has lived for two generations with the novel’s two principal families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons.

Lockwood is a gentleman visiting the Yorkshire moors where the novel is set.Through Lockwood´s eyes the reader will know about the lives of the characters. In a series of flashbacks and time shifts, Brontë draws a powerful picture of the enigmatic Heathcliff, who is brought to Heights from the streets of Liverpool by Mr Earnshaw. Heathcliff is treated as Earnshaw’s own children, Catherine and Hindley. After Mr. Earnshaw’s death Heathcliff is bullied by Hindley and he leaves the house, returning three years later. Meanwhile Catherine marries Edgar Linton. Heathcliff ‘s destructive force is unleashed. Catherine dies giving birth to a girl, another Catherine. Heathcliff curses his true love, then Heathcliff marries Isabella Linton, Edgar’s sister, who flees to the south from her loveless marriage. Their son Linton and Catherine are married, but the always sickly Linton dies. Hareton, Hindley’s son, and the young widow became close. Increasingly isolated and alienated from daily life, Heathcliff experiences visions, and he longs for the death that will reunite him with Catherine.

Wuthering Heights has been filmed several times. William Wyler’s version from 1939, starring Merle Oberon as Cathy and Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, is considered on of the screen’s classic romances.

Emily Brontë died of tuberculosis in the late 1848. She had caught cold at her brother Branwell’s funeral in September. After the appearance of Wuthering Heighs, some skeptics maintained that the book was written by Branwell, on the grounds that no woman from such circumscribed life, could have written such passionate story. In 1848 Charlotte and Anne visited George Smith to reveal their identity and to help quell rumors that a single author lay behind the pseudonyms. After her sisters’ deaths, Charlotte edited a second edition of their novels, with prefatory commentary aimed at correcting what she saw as the reviewers’ misunderstanding of Wuthering Heights. The complex time scheme of the novel had been taken as evidence by the critics, that Emily had not achieved full formal control over her narrative materials. However, her model in layering narrative within narrative may have been Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein (1818). Emily’s refusal to reduce ambiguity to simplistic clarity did not have any immediate influence on the novel form until Wilkie Collins experimented with multivocal first-person narratives in such works as The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

Anne Brontë is best-known of her Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which are generally considered more conservative works than her sisters. The close-knit Bronte family have inspired many studies, in which Charlotte, the oldest child, is characterized as the most ambitious writer, and Emily the greatest genius. Anne has been described mild and the less-talented youngest sister although, but her novels were sharp and ironic.

The first novel did not gain similar success as Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was published in 1848 in three volumes and sold well. In the story the young and beautiful Helen Graham has taken a refuge at Wildfell Hall from her irresponsible, drinking husband Huntingdon. Wildfell Hall is the property of Helen’s brother, a mansion of the Elizabethan era, built of dark grey stone, cold and gloomy. Gilbert Markham, a local farmer and the first narrator, falls in love with her. In her diary Helen offers another point of view in the story and reveals the disintegration of her marriage and adopted disguise as Mrs Graham. When Helen’s husband dies, the way is clear for Gilbert to marry her. The frank depiction of Huntingdon’s alcoholism and Helen’s struggle to free herself was considered by some critics inappropriate subjects for a woman.

Anne Brontë fell ill with tuberculosis after the appearance of the book. She died on the following May in 1849 at Scarborough, where she was buried. The other sisters were buried at Haworth.


Victorian writer, a humane freethinker, whose insightful psychological novels paved way to modern character portrayals – contemporary of Dostoevsky (1821-1881), who at the same time in Russia developed similar narrative techniques. Eliot’s liaison with the married writer and editor George Henry Lewes arise among the rigid Victorians much indignation, which calmed down with the progress of her literary fame.

Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) was born in Chilvers Coton, Warwickshire. Her father was a carpenter who rose to be a land agent. When she was a few months old, the family moved to Griff, and there Eliot spent 21 years of his life among people that he later depicted in her novels. She was educated at home and in several schools, and developed a strong evangelical piety at Mrs. Wallington’s School at Neneaton. However, later Eliot rejected her dogmatic faith. When her mother died in 1836, she took charge of the family household. In 1841 she moved with her father to Coventry, where she lived with him until his death in 1849. During this time she met Charles Bray, a free-thinking Coventry manufacturer. His wife, Caroline (Cara) was the sister of Charles Hennel, the author of a work entitled An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity (1838). The reading of this and other rationalistic works influenced deeply Eliot’s thoughts. After her father’s death, Eliot travelled around Europe. She settled in London and took up work as subeditor of Westminster Review.

In Coventry she met Charles Bray and later Charles Hennell, who introduced her to many new religious and political ideas. Under Eliot’s control the Westminster Review enjoyed success. She became the centre of a literary circle, one of whose members was George Henry Lewes, who would be her companion until his death in 1878. Lewes’s wife was mentally unbalanced and she had already had two children by another man. In 1854 Eliot went to Germany with Lewes. Their unconventional union caused some difficulties because Lewes was still married and he was unable to obtain divorce. Eliot did not inform her close friends Caroline and Sarah Hennell about her decision to live with Lewes – the both friends were shocked and angry because she had not trusted them.

Eliot’s first collection of tales, Scenes of Clerical Life, appeared in 1858 under the pseudonym George Eliot – in those days writing was considered to be a male profession. It was followed by her first novel, Adam Bede, a tragic love story in which the model for the title character was Eliot’s father. He was noted for his great physical strength, which enabled him to carry loads that three average men could barely handle. When impostors claimed authorship of Adam Bede, it was revealed that Marian Evans, the Westminster reviewer, was George Eliot. The book was a brilliant success. Her other major works include The Mill on the Floss(1860), a story of destructive family relations, and Silas Marner(1861). Silas Marner, a linen-weaver, has accumulated a goodly sum of gold. He was falsely judged guilty of theft 15 years before and left his community. Squire Cass’ son Dunstan steals Marner’s gold and disappears. Marner takes care of an orphaned little girl, Eppie and she becomes for him more precious than the lost property. Sixteen years later the skeleton of Dunstan and Marner’s gold is found. Godfrey Cass, Dunstal’s brother, admits that he is the father of Eppie. He married the girl’s mother, opium-ridden Molly Farren secretly before hear death. Eppie and Silas Marner don’t wish to separate when Godfrey tries to adopt the girl. In the end Eppie marries Aaron Winthorp, who accepts Silas Marner as part of the household.

Middlemarch(1871-72), her greatest novel, was probably inspired by her life at Coventry. The story follows the sexual and intellectual frustrations of Dorothea Brooke. Eliot weaves into her story other narrative lines, which offer a sad comment upon human aspirations. Middlemarch is a novel of English provincial life in the early nineteenth century, just before the Reform Bill of 1832. The book was called by the famous American writer Henry James a ‘treasure-house of detail.’ It fuses several stories and characters, creating a a network of parallels and contrasts. One of Eliot’s main concerns is the way which the past moulds the present and the attempts of various characters to control the future. Dorothea, an idealistic young woman, marries the pedantic Casaubon. After his death she marries Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s young cousin, a vaguely artistic outsider. Doctor Tertius Lydgate is trapped with the egoistic Rosamond Vincy, the town’s beauty. Lydgate becomes involved in a scandal, and he dies at 50, his ambitions frustrated. Other characters are Bulstrode, a banker and a religious hypocrite, Mary Garth, the practical daughter of a land agent, and Fred Vincy, the son of the mayor of Middlemarch. For modern feminist readers Middlemarch has been a disappointment: Dorothea was not prepared to give up marriage.

In 1860-61 Eliot spent some time in Italy collecting material for her historical romance Romola. It was published serially first in the Cornhill Magazine and in book form in 1863.

George Eliot was a realist, but she practised a different realism from that of Dickens and Thackeray, associated to a grim pessimism about human life. Her realism was concerned with a scientific analysis of the social processes and of the characters. She was the first novelist to develop the psychological analysis. Her main themes are the strength of women, the injustices that they have to suffer and the important decisions that they have to make in life. Before, novels presented marriage as the desired objective of every woman, in contrast, her heroines see marriage as a renunciation to their actual love, to their intellectual aspirations and to their freedom.


The last great 19th century novelist was Thomas Hardy. Hardy came from Dorset, in the South of England, which was still a rural and pre-industrial world in the mid19th century. He was the son of a builder, and he worked as a builder in his youth, but he also received a good education at local schools and read widely with the intention of taking holy orders.

As a novelist he is reputed as England’s main regional novelist for his stories closely connected with the disappearing rural world. His fiction was realistic, but it was characterised by its pessimism about the human condition. In his novels determinism and disastrous coincidences lead the protagonists to tragic outcomes.

Tess of the D´Urbervilles (1891) came into conflict with Victorian morality. It explored the dark side of his family connections in Berkshire. In the story the poor villager girl Tess Durbeyfield is seduced by the wealthy Alec D’Uberville. She becomes pregnant but the child dies in infancy. Tess finds work as a dairymaid on a farm and falls in love with Angel Clare, a clergyman’s son, who marries her. When Tess tells Angel about her past, he hypocritically deserts her. Tess becomes Alec’s mistress. Angel returns from Brazil, repenting his harshness, but finds her living with Alec. Tess kills Alec in desperation, she is arrested and hanged.

Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) aroused even more controversy. The story dramatized the conflict between carnal and spiritual life, tracing Jude Fawley’s life from his boyhood to his early death. Jude marries Arabella, but deserts her. He falls in love with his cousin, hypersensitive Sue Bridehead, who marries the decaying schoolmaster, Phillotson, in a masochist fit. Jude and Sue obtain divorces, but their life together deteriorates under the pressure of poverty and social disapproval. The eldest son of Jude and Arabella, a grotesque boy nicknamed ‘Father Time’, kills their children and himself. Broken by the loss, Sue goes back to Phillotson, and Jude returns to Arabella. Soon thereafter Jude dies.

In 1896, disturbed by the public uproar over the unconventional subjects of two of his greatest novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy announced that he would never write fiction again.

After giving up the novel, Hardy brought out a first group of Wessex poems, some of which had been composed 30 years before. During the remainder of his life, Hardy continued to publish several collections of poems. Hardy’s gigantic panorama of the Napoleonic Wars, The Dynasts, composed between 1903 and 1908, was mostly in blank verse. Hardy succeeded on the death of his friend George Meredith to the presidency of the Society of Authors in 1909. King George V conferred on him the Order of Merit and he received in 1912 the gold medal of the Royal Society of Literature. Hardy died in Dorchester, Dorset, on January 11, 1928.

Hardy bravely challenged many of the sexual and religious conventions of the Victorian age. The center of his novels was the rather desolate and history-freighted countryside around Dorchester. In the early 1860s, after the appearance Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), Hardy’s faith was still unshaken, but he soon adopted the mechanical-determinist view of universe’s cruelty, reflected in the inevitably tragic and self-destructive fates of his characters. In his poems Hardy depicted rural life without sentimentality – his mood was often stoically hopeless.

He further confronted the moral standards provoking greater indignation with Jude, where a married man and a married woman left their respective partners, lived together and had children. The problem was not that he proposed that that was right, since in both cases the penalty for sin is death, but his sympathy for the characters. The presentation of sinners as unhappy human beings rather than monsters of depravity made him enter into conflict with the public and he decided not to write any more novels.


Many writers were to express their literary talent in different works which met more or less degree of success. Among the professional ones whose literary output deserves to be mentioned here are George Meredith who ranged over a great variety of subjects from the oriental extravagances of The Shaving of Shagpat to the carefully ironic exposure of vanity in The Egoist and the national portrayal of national struggle in Vittoria.

Anthony Trollope was other author who had an eye for character types and individual eccentricities. He had also the imagination and the knowledge to build a world substantial enough for the Victorian readers´ interest. Some of his works were Orley Farm, The Claverings and The Way We Live Now.

Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the most talented writers too, especially when he dealt with adventure plots. Treasure Island is not only skilfully written, but also embodies a carefully work-out moral pattern. What we admire the most is not always what we approve of, that is the case of the anti-hero Long John Silver.

Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a fascinating presentation of the attraction of the evil and the dullness of the virtue which explores a moral ambiguity.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century and at the turn of the new one, John Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga, a collection of stories which traces the fortunes of a wealthy middle-class family and how a changing society affects it. The Forsyte and the Cherrels are related through marriage and the novels relate the relationship among the different members of both families.

I would like also to mention briefly the literary contribution to this period of writers such as Lewis Carroll, Benjamin Disraeli, R.S. Surtees, R.D. Blackmore, George Borrow, Frederick Marryat and W.H.Hudson. All of them used the novel as a means of discussing the new situation of England in the process of the industrial revolution.


The Victorian era of the United Kingdom marked the height of the British Industrial Revolution and the apex of the British Empire. Although commonly used to refer to the period of Queen Victoria’s rule between 1837 and 1901, scholars debate whether the Victorian period—as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians—actually begins with the passage of the Reform Act 1832. The era was preceded by the Regency era and succeeded by the Edwardian period. The latter half of the Victorian era roughly coincided with the first portion of the Belle Époque era of continental Europe and other non-English speaking countries.

Queen Victoria had the longest reign in British history, and the cultural, political, economic, industrial and scientific changes that occurred during her reign were remarkable. When Victoria ascended to the throne, Britain was primarily agrarian and rural (though it was even then the most industrialized country in the world); upon her death, the country was highly industrialized and connected by an expansive railway network. The first decades of Victoria’s reign witnessed a series of epidemics (typhus and cholera, most notably), crop failures and economic collapses. There were riots over enfranchisement and the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had been established to protect British agriculture during the Napoleonic Wars in the early part of the 19th century.

Charles Dickens arguably exemplifies the Victorian novelist better than any other writer. Extraordinarily popular in his day with his characters taking on a life of their own beyond the page, Dickens is still the most popular and read author of the time. His first real novel, The Pickwick Papers, written at only twenty-five, was an overnight success, and all his subsequent works sold extremely well. He was in effect a self-made man who worked diligently and prolifically to produce exactly what the public wanted; often reacting to the public taste and changing the plot direction of his stories between monthly numbers. The comedy of his first novel has a satirical edge which pervades his writings. These deal with the plight of the poor and oppressed and end with a ghost story cut short by his death. The slow trend in his fiction towards darker themes is mirrored in much of the writing of the century, and literature after his death in 1870 is notably different from that at the start of the era. Some of his best works are Oliver Twist, Hard Times, David Coperfield, Great Expectations, Dombey and Son, etc.

Other important social novelists of the mid-19th century were Charles Kingsley and Elisabeth Gaskell. Kingsley was an Anglican clergyman member of the Christian Socialist movement. He favoured the improvement of the of working class conditions in his novels.

His first novel, Yeast, dealt with the relations between rich and poor in the countryside.

Alton Locke dealt with the political agitation of the Chartist movement.

However, he was more famous as a writer of historical novels such as Hypathia, Westward Ho! and Hereward the Wake.

Elisabeth Gaskell was aware of the hardships of the working class in her condition as the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester. She wrote social novels such as Mary Barton, which reflects the class conflicts in the Manchester of the late 1830’s and Ruth, which presents the hardships of a single mother. She also was famous for her portrayals of country life and for a biography of Charlotte Brontë. The best known of her remaining novels are Cranford (1853), North and South (1854), and Wives and Daughters (1865).

William Thackeray was Dickens’ great rival at the time. With a similar style but a slightly more detached, acerbic and barbed satirical view of his characters, he also tended to depict situations of a more middle class flavour than Dickens. He is best known for his novel Vanity Fair, subtitled A Novel without a Hero, which is also an example of a form popular in Victorian literature: the historical novel, in which very recent history is depicted. The portray of middle class was brilliant, but his ultimate goal was to show that man always strives for things that are hollow when he achieves them. The snobberies, hypocrisies and vanities of society were perfectly depicted in The Yellowplush Papers, The Book of the Snobs or The Luck of Barry Lyndon. In the last one Thackeray deals with the life of a social climber who lies, blackmails and has different women to reach a high position in society. Formally there is also an interest aspect in the book, and it is the personal comment of the author through foot-notes. The main character tells the story of his own life with a heroic tone, whereas the author destroys that tone in the foot-notes.

After Vanity Fair, he went on producing the so-called Pedennis sequence after the name of one of the characters, he presented a kind and attractive picture of the middle-class, or of what the middle-class would like to be.

Away from the big cities and the literary society, Haworth in West Yorkshire held a powerhouse of novel writing: the home of the Brontë family. Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë had time in their short lives to produce masterpieces of fiction although these were not immediately appreciated by Victorian critics. Wuthering Heights, Emily’s only work, in particular has violence, passion, the supernatural, heightened emotion and emotional distance, an unusual mix for any novel but particularly at this time. It presents the most primary human motives such as love, hate, passion. Furthermore, its narrative structure and lack of comment by the narrator was also unusual at the time. It tells the story of passion between Catherine and Heathcliff, Catherine’s death, Heathcliff’s perversity and desire of revenge and the final restoration of peace.

Charlotte’s Jane Eyre became an immediate success. It joined realism and romance in the melodramatic story of a governess who falls in love with her employer. She cannot marry him because he is already married, although his wife is mad, so she leaves the house. When Jane hears that a fire has burned the house killing his wife and leaving him blind she goes back to marry him. This is the first English novel to present a new view of woman’s position in society, which is a topic that she would also deal with in her two other novels, Shirley, which depicted the social problematic of early 19th century Yorkshire, and Villette, also dealing with the life of a governess.

Anne did not have such an immediate success. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, deals with the life of a governess like the novels of her sister, but she uses of some humour and shows more interest in morals and piety. Her other novel is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the story of a young man’s degradation.

Another important writer of the period was George Eliot, a pseudonym which concealed a woman, Mary Ann Evans, who wished to write novels which would be taken seriously rather than the silly romances which all women of the time were supposed to write. Influenced as they were by the large sprawling novels of sensibility of the preceding age they tended to be idealized portraits of difficult lives in which hard work, perseverance, love and luck win out in the end; virtue would be rewarded and wrong-doers are suitably punished. Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, both deal with the difficult choice of the protagonist between the respect of her family and the happiness with the man she loves.

However, her masterpiece was Middlemarch, which deals with life in a provincial town in the 1830’s. It presents different plots, but the main theme is the idealism of the two protagonists, frustrated by the imposing society.

Another woman writer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote even grimmer, grittier books about the poor in the north of England but even these usually had happy endings. After the death of Dickens in 1870 happy endings became less common. Such a major literary figure as Charles Dickens tended to dictate the direction of all literature of the era, not least because he edited All the Year Round a literary journal of the time. His fondness for a happy ending with all the loose ends neatly tied up is clear and although he is well known for writing about the lives of the poor they are sentimentalized portraits, made acceptable for people of character to read; to be shocked but not disgusted.

This change in style in Victorian fiction was slow coming but clear by the end of the century, with the books in the 1880s and 90s more realistic and often grimmer. The disgust of the reading audience perhaps reached a peak with Thomas Hardy‘s Jude the Obscure which was reportedly burnt by an outraged bishop of Wakefield. He started his literary career in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but he did not achieve literary success until the publication of Far from the Madding Crowd, the first novel in which he introduced the imaginary county of Wessex to represent the disappearing rural South.

The cause of such rejection was Hardy’s frank treatment of sex, religion and his disregard for the subject of marriage; a subject close to the Victorians’ heart, with the prevailing plot of the Victorian novel sometimes being described as a search for a correct marriage. Hardy had started his career as seemingly a rather safe novelist writing bucolic scenes of rural life but his disaffection with some of the institutions of Victorian Britain was present as well as an underlying sorrow for the changing nature of the English countryside. With Tess of D´Urbervilles he began to come into conflict with the Victorian conventions of morality by showing compassion and understanding for the protagonist, a girl who had an illegitimate child and was eventually hanged for the murder of her lover. The hostile reception to Jude in 1895 meant that it was his last novel but he continued writing poetry into the mid 1920s


Anatomy of criticism, Northrop Frye

The Bronte Novels by W.A. Craig (1968)

The Brontes. The Critical Heritage by, ed. by M. Allott (1974)

The Brontës and Their Background by Tom Winnifrith (2nd ed. 1988)

George Eliot by J. Uglow (1987)

George Eliot: Voice of a Century by While Frederick Karl (1995

The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel by Robin Gilmour (1981);

Thackeray’s Cultural Frame of Reference by Rowland McMaster (1991).