Victorian literature: 1837–1901
It was in the Victorian era (1837–1901) that the novel became the leading literary genre in English. Women played an important part in this rising popularity both as authors and as readers. Monthly serialising of fiction encouraged this surge in popularity, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution. Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, was published in twenty parts between April 1836 and November 1837. Both Dickens and Thackeray frequently published this way. However, the standard practice of publishing three volume editions continued until the end of the 19th century. Circulating libraries, that allowed books to be borrowed for an annual subscription, were a further factor in the rising popularity of the novel.
Although London, as imperial capital, was the pre-eminent centre for literature and publishing, the pluricentric nature of British culture and the growing sophistication of provincial towns and cities as rapid industrialisation progressed meant that literature developed in the provinces. The Lake Poets (William Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge), the Brontës, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell are all figures who strengthened the provincial trend in the literature of England, examining questions of Englishness at the same time as other writers throughout Britain and Ireland were exploring the conflicts of their own non-English identities. This was in many ways a reaction to rapid industrialisation, and the social, political and economic issues associated with it, and was a means of commenting on abuses of government and industry and the suffering of the poor, who were not profiting from England’s economic prosperity. Stories of the working class poor were directed toward middle class to help create sympathy and promote change. An early example is Charles Dickens‘ Oliver Twist (1837–38). Other significant early example of this genre are Sybil, or The Two Nations, a novel by Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81) and Charles Kingsley‘s (1819–75) Alton Locke (1849).
Charles Dickens (1812–70) emerged on the literary scene in the late 1830s and soon became probably the most famous novelist in the history of British literature. One of his most popular works to this day is A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens fiercely satirised various aspects of society, including the workhouse in Oliver Twist, the failures of the legal system in Bleak House, the dehumanising effect of money in Dombey and Son and the influence of the philosophy of utilitarianism in factories, education etc., in Hard Times. However some critics have suggested that Dickens’ sentimentality blunts the impact of his satire. In more recent years Dickens has been most admired for his later novels, such as Dombey and Son (1846–48), Bleak House (1852–53) and Little Dorrit (1855–57), Great Expectations(1860–1), and Our Mutual Friend (1864–65). An early rival to Dickens was William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–63), who during the Victorian period ranked second only to him, but he is now much less read and is known almost exclusively for Vanity Fair (1847). In that novel he satirises whole swaths of humanity while retaining a light touch. It features his most memorable character, the engagingly roguish Becky Sharp.
The Brontë sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne, were other significant novelists in the 1840s and 1850s. Their novels caused a sensation when they were first published but were subsequently accepted as classics. They had written compulsively from early childhood and were first published, at their own expense, in 1846 as poets under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The following year the three sisters each published a novel. Charlotte Brontë‘s (1816–55) work was Jane Eyre, which is written in an innovative style that combines naturalism with gothic melodrama, and broke new ground in being written from an intensely first-person female perspective. Emily Brontë‘s (1818–48) novel was Wuthering Heights and, according to Juliet Gardiner, “the vivid sexual passion and power of its language and imagery impressed, bewildered and appalled reviewers,” and led the Victorian public and many early reviewers to think that it had been written by a man. Even though it received mixed reviews when it first came out, and was often condemned for its portrayal of amoral passion, the book subsequently became an English literary classic. The third Brontë novel of 1847 was Anne Brontë‘s (1820–49) Agnes Grey, which deals with the lonely life of a governess.Anne Brontë‘s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), is perhaps the most shocking of the Brontës’ novels. In seeking to present the truth in literature, Anne’s depiction of alcoholism and debauchery was profoundly disturbing to 19th-century sensibilities. Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley was published in 1849, Villette in 1853, and The Professor in 1857.
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–65) was also a successful writer and her first novel, Mary Barton, was published anonymously in 1848. Gaskell’s North and South contrasts the lifestyle in the industrial north of England with the wealthier south. Even though her writing conforms to Victorian conventions, Gaskell usually frames her stories as critiques of contemporary attitudes, and her early works focused on factory work in southeast Lancashire. She always emphasised the role of women, with complex narratives and dynamic female characters.
Anthony Trollope‘s (1815–82) was one of the most successful, prolific and respected English novelists of the Victorian era. Some of his best-loved works are set in the imaginary west country county of Barsetshire, including The Warden (1855) and Barchester Towers (1857). Trollope’s novels portray the lives of the landowning and professional classes of early Victorian England. Henry James suggested that Trollope’s greatest achievement was “great apprehension of the real”, and that “what made him so interesting, came through his desire to satisfy us on this point”.
George Eliot‘s (Mary Ann Evans (1819–80) first novel Adam Bede was published in 1859, and she was a major novelist of the mid-Victorian period. Her works, especially Middlemarch 1871-2), are important examples of literary realism, and are admired for their combination of high Victorian literary detail, with an intellectual breadth that removes them from the narrow geographic confines they often depict, that has led to comparisons with Tolstoy. While her reputation declined somewhat after her death, in the 20th century she was championed by a new breed of critics, most notably by Virginia Woolf, who called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. Various film and television adaptations of Eliot’s books have also introduced her to a wider readership.
George Meredith (1828–1909) is best remembered for his novels The Ordeal of Richard Fevered (1859) and The Egotist (1879). “His reputation stood very high well into” the 20th century but then seriously declined.
Victor Hugo spent 18 years in exile in the Channel Islands, 1852–1870. He completed Les Misérables in Guernsey and Les Travailleurs de la mer was written and set in Guernsey and has been described as “the finest British novel written in French”. Hugo used some of Guernsey poet George Métivier‘s work as material in his novels.
An interest in rural matters and the changing social and economic situation of the countryside is seen in the novels of Thomas Hardy (1840–1928). A Victorian realist, in the tradition of George Eliot, he was also influenced both in his novels and poetry by Romanticism, especially by William Wordsworth. Charles Darwin is another important influence on Thomas Hardy. Like Charles Dickens he was also highly critical of much in Victorian society, though Hardy focused more on a declining rural society. While Hardy wrote poetry throughout his life, and regarded himself primarily as a poet, his first collection was not published until 1898, so that initially he gained fame as the author of such novels as, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). He ceased writing novels following adverse criticism of this last novel. In novels such as The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d’Urbervilles Hardy attempts to create modern works in the genre of tragedy, that are modelled on the Greek drama, especially Aeschylus and Sophocles, though in prose, not poetry, fiction, not a play, and with characters of low social standing, not nobility. Another significant late-19th-century novelist is George Robert Gissing (1857–1903), who published 23 novels between 1880 and 1903. His best-known novel is New Grub Street (1891). Also in the late 1890s, the first novel of Polish-born immigrant Joseph Conrad, (1857–1924), an important forerunner of modernist literature, was published. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, a symbolic story within a story, or frame narrative, about the journey to the Belgian Congo by an Englishman called Marlow. This was followed by Lord Jim in 1900.
Ulster Scots was used in the narrative by Ulster novelists such as W. G. Lyttle (1844–1896). By the middle of the 19th century the Kailyard school of prose had become the dominant literary genre, overtaking poetry. This was a tradition shared with Scotland which continued into the early 20th century. The Scottish authors; Robert Louis Stevenson, William Alexander, Sir James M. Barrie, and George MacDonald, also wrote in Lowland Scots or used it in dialogue.
The Welsh novel in English starts with “The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shon Catti” (1828) by T. J. Ll. Prichard, and novelists following him developed two important genres: the industrial novel and the rural romance. Serial fiction in Welsh had been appearing from 1822 onwards, but the work to be recognisable as the first novel in Welsh was William Ellis Jones’ 1830 “Y Bardd, neu y Meudwy Cymreig“. This was a moralistic work, as were many of the productions of the time. The first major novelist in the Welsh language wasDaniel Owen (1836–1895), author of works such as Rhys Lewis (1885) and Enoc Huws (1891).
The first novel in Scottish Gaelic was John MacCormick’s Dùn-Àluinn, no an t-Oighre ‘na Dhìobarach, which was serialised in thePeople’s Journal in 1910, before publication in book form in 1912. The publication of a second Scottish Gaelic novel, An t-Ogha Mòr by Angus Robertson, followed within a year.
The short story
There are early European examples of short stories published separately between 1790 and 1810, but the first true collections of short stories appeared between 1810 and 1830 in several countries around the same period. The first short stories in the United Kingdom were gothic tales like Richard Cumberland‘s “remarkable narrative” “The Poisoner of Montremos” (1791). Major novelists like Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens also wrote some short stories.
Literary magazines first began to appear in the early part of the 19th century, mirroring an overall rise in the number of books, magazines and scholarly journalsbeing published at that time. Critics Francis Jeffrey, Henry Brougham and Sydney Smith founded the Edinburgh Review in 1802. Other British reviews of this period included the Westminster Review (1824), The Spectator (1828) and Athenaeum (1828).
Welsh writers in English have favoured the short story form over the novel for two main reasons: in a society lacking sufficient wealth to support professional writers, the amateur writer was able to spare time only for short bursts of creativity; and, like poetry, it concentrated linguistic delight and exuberance. However, the genre did not develop in these writers much beyond its origin in rural sketches. Satire was avoided, and, since the main market was London publishers, the short stories tended to focus on the eccentricities (as seen from a metropolitan viewpoint) of Welsh life.
The short story in Welsh only developed as a serious literary form in the early years of the 20th century, as writers absorbed European and American models and moved on from the moralistic parables that were typical of the Nonconformist press that had grown up in the 19th century. Daniel Owen’s last book Straeon y Pentan (“Tales of the hearth”, 1895) served as the pattern for the short story form that became a codified part of the competitions at the National Eisteddfod at the start of the 20th century.
Ulster Scots regularly appeared in Ulster newspaper columns such as those of “Bab M’Keen” from the 1880s.
Philippe Le Sueur Mourant‘s Jèrriais tales of Bram Bilo, an innocent abroad in Paris, were an immediate success in Jersey in 1889 and went through a number of reprintings.
Important developments occurred in genre fiction in this era.
Sir John Barrow‘s descriptive 1831 account of the Mutiny on the Bounty immortalised the Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty and her people. The legend of Dick Turpin was popularised when the 18th-century English highwayman‘s exploits appeared in the novel Rookwood in 1834.
Although pre-dated by John Ruskin‘s The King of the Golden River in 1841, the history of the modern fantasy genre is generally said to begin with George MacDonald, the influential author of The Princess and the Goblin and Phantastes (1858). William Morris was a popular English poet who also wrote several fantasy novels during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Wilkie Collins‘ epistolary novel The Moonstone (1868), is generally considered the first detective novel in the English language, while The Woman in White is regarded as one of the finest sensation novels. H. G. Wells‘s (1866–1946) writing career began in the 1890s with science fiction novels like The Time Machine (1895), and The War of the Worlds (1898) which describes an invasion of late Victorian England by Martians, and Wells is seen, along with Frenchman Jules Verne (1828–1905), as a major figure in the development of the science fiction genre. He also wrote realistic fiction about the lower middle class in novels like Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr Polly (1910).
Penny dreadful publications were an alternative to mainstream works, and were aimed at working class adolescents, introducing the infamous Sweeney Todd. The premier ghost story writer of the 19th century was the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu. His works include the macabre mystery novel Uncle Silas 1865, and his Gothic novella Carmilla 1872, tells the story of a young woman’s susceptibility to the attentions of a female vampire. The vampire genre fiction began with John William Polidori‘s “The Vampyre” (1819). This short story was inspired by the life of Lord Byron and his poem The Giaour. An important later work is Varney the Vampire (1845), where many standard vampire conventions originated: Varney has fangs, leaves two puncture wounds on the neck of his victims, and has hypnotic powers and superhuman strength. Varney was also the first example of the “sympathetic vampire”, who loathes his condition but is a slave to it. Bram Stoker, yet another Irish writer, was the author of seminal horror work Dracula and featured as its primary antagonist the vampire Count Dracula, with the vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing his arch-enemy. Dracula has been attributed to a number of literary genres including vampire literature, horror fiction, gothic novel and invasion literature.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant London-based “consulting detective”, famous for his intellectual prowess, skillful use of astute observation, deductive reasoning and forensic skills to solve difficult cases. Holmes’ archenemy Professor Moriarty, is widely considered to be the first true example of a supervillain, while Sherlock Holmes has become a by-word for a detective. Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Holmes, from 1880 up to 1907, with a final case in 1914. All but four Conan Doyle stories are narrated by Holmes’ friend, assistant, and biographer, Dr John H. Watson.
The Lost World literary genre was inspired by real stories of archaeological discoveries by imperial adventurers. H. Rider Haggardwrote one of the earliest examples, King Solomon’s Mines in 1885. Contemporary European politics and diplomatic manoeuvrings informed Anthony Hope‘s swashbuckling Ruritanian adventure novels The Prisoner of Zenda 1894, and Rupert of Hentzau, 1898.
F. Anstey‘s comic novel Vice Versa 1882, sees a father and son magically switch bodies. Satirist Jerome K. Jerome‘s Three Men in a Boat 1889, is a humorous account of a boating holiday on the river Thames. Grossmith brothers George & Weedon‘s Diary of a Nobody 1892, is also considered a classic work of humour.
Literature for children developed as a separate genre. Some works become internationally known, such as those of Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Adventure novels, such as those of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94), are generally classified as for children. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), depicts the dual personality of a kind and intelligent physician who turns into a psychopathic monster after imbibing a drug intended to separate good from evil in a personality. His Kidnapped (1886) is a fast-paced historical novel set in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745, and Treasure Island 1883, is the classic pirate adventure. At the end of the Victorian era and leading into the Edwardian era, Beatrix Potter was an author and illustrator, best known for her children’s books, which featured animal characters. In her thirties, Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. Potter eventually went on to publish 23 children’s books and become a wealthy woman. Another classic of the period is Anna Sewell‘s animal novel Black Beauty.
In the latter years of the 19th century, precursors of the modern picture book were illustrated books of poems and short stories produced by English illustrators Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane, and Kate Greenaway. These had a larger proportion of pictures to words than earlier books, and many of their pictures were in colour. Some British artists made their living illustrating novels and children’s books, include Arthur Rackham, Cicely Mary Barker, W. Heath Robinson, Henry J. Ford, John Leech, and George Cruikshank.
The leading poets during the Victorian period were Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), Robert Browning (1812–89), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61), and Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The poetry of this period was heavily influenced by the Romantics, but also went off in its own directions. Particularly notable was the development of the dramatic monologue, a form used by many poets in this period, but perfected by Browning. Literary criticism in the 20th century gradually drew attention to the links between Victorian poetry and modernism.
Tennyson was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria‘s reign. He was described by T. S. Eliot, as “the greatest master of metrics as well as melancholia”, and as having “the finest ear of any English poet since Milton“. Browning main achievement was in dramatic monologues such as “My Last Duchess“, “Andrea del Sarto” and “The Bishop Orders his Tomb”, which were published in his two-volume Men and Women in 1855. In his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of Browning’s Poems 1833–1864, Ian Jack comments, that Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound and T S Eliot “all learned from Browning’s exploration of the possibilities of dramatic poetry and of colloquial idiom”. Tennyson was also a pioneer in the use of the dramatic monologue, in “The Lotus-Eaters” (1833), “Ulysses” (1842), and ‘”Tithonus” (1860). While Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the wife of Robert Browning she had established her reputation as a major poet before she met him. Her most famous work is the sequence of 44 sonnets “Sonnets from the Portuguese” published in Poems (1850). Matthew Arnold‘s reputation as a poet has declined in recent years and he is best remembered now for his critical works, like Culture and Anarchy (1869), and his 1867 poem “Dover Beach“. This poem depicts a nightmarish world from which the old religious verities have receded. It is sometimes held up as an early, if not the first, example of the modern sensibility. The influence of William Wordsworth, both in ideas and in diction, is unmistakable in Arnold’s best poetry, and Arnold has been seen as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, because of his use of symbolic landscapes was typical of the Romantic era, while his sceptical and pessimistic perspective was typical of the Modern era.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) was a poet, illustrator, painter and translator. He founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with William Holman Huntand John Everett Millais, and was later to be the main inspiration for a second generation of artists and writers influenced by the movement, most notably William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Rossetti’s art was characterised by its sensuality and its medieval revivalism. Poetry and image are closely entwined in Rossetti’s work and he frequently wrote sonnets to accompany his pictures. He also illustrated poems by his sister Christina Rossetti such as Goblin Market.
While Arthur Clough (1819–61) was a more minor figure of this era, he has been described as “a fine poet whose experiments in extending the range of literary language and subject were ahead of his time”.
George Métivier published Rimes Guernesiaises, a collection of poems in Guernésiais and French in 1831 and Fantaisies Guernesiaises in 1866. Métivier’s poems had first appeared in newspapers from 1813 onward, but he spent time in Scotland in his youth where he became familiar with the Scots literary tradition although he was also influenced by Occitan literature. The first printed anthology of Jèrriais poetry, Rimes Jersiaises, was published in 1865.
In the second half of the century, English poets began to take an interest in French Symbolism. The moral earnestness of the 1840s and 1850s expressed in the industrial novel sparked a reaction against the idea that art should advance a moral agenda. Aestheticism responded with a concern for formal values, virtuoso manipulation of a wide range of poetic forms, both established and revived, and open disrespect for Christian doctrines and sexual respectability. Algernon Charles Swinburne‘s 1866 collection Poems and Ballads revived classical metres and evoked extreme sexual passion. A major innovation of Aesthetic writing was the importance of the poem or prose poem composed in response to a work of visual art, blurring the distinction between art criticism and ekphrasis. Two groups of poets emerged in the 1890s: the Yellow Book poets who adhered to the tenets of Aestheticism, including Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons and the Rhymers’ Club group, that included Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and William Butler Yeats. Irishman Yeats went on to become an important modernist in the 20th century. Also in the 1890s A. E. Housman(1859–1936) published at his own expense A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of 63 poems, because he could not find a publisher. At first selling slowly, it rapidly became a lasting success, and its appeal to English musicians had helped to make it widely known before World War I, when its themes struck a powerful chord with English readers. The poems’ wistful evocation of doomed youth in the English countryside, in spare language and distinctive imagery, appealed strongly to late Victorian and Edwardian taste. Housman wrote most of them while living in Highgate, London, before ever visiting that part of Shropshire (about thirty miles from his birthplace), which he presented in an idealised pastoral light, as his ‘land of lost content’. Though A. E. Housman was born in the Victorian era and first published in the 1890s, his poetry only really became known in the 20th century. He published a further highly successful collection, Last Poems, in 1922, while a third volume, More Poems, was published posthumously in 1936. A Shropshire Lad has been in print continuously since May 1896.
The nonsense verse of Edward Lear, along with the novels and poems of Lewis Carroll, is regarded as a precursor of surrealism. In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions and helped popularise the form. In 1865 The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple was published, and in 1867 his most famous piece of nonsense, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby. Many other works followed. Lewis Carroll wrote the poems “The Hunting of the Snark” and “Jabberwocky“.
Denys Corbet published collections of Guernésiais poems Les Feuilles de la Forêt (1871) and Les Chànts du draïn rimeux (1884), and also brought out an annual poetry anthology 1874–1877, similar to Augustus Asplet Le Gros‘s annual in Jersey 1868–1875.
Increased literacy in rural and outlying areas and wider access to publishing through, for example, local newspapers encouraged regional literary development as the 19th century progressed. Some writers in lesser-used languages and dialects of the islands gained a literary following outside their native regions, for example William Barnes (1801–86) in Dorset, George Métivier (1790–1881) in Guernsey and Robert Pipon Marett (1820–84) in Jersey.
Writers of comic verse included the dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911), who is best known for his fourteen comic operas produced in collaboration with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, of which the most famous include H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado.
John Ceiriog Hughes desired to restore simplicity of diction and emotional sincerity and do for Welsh poetry what Wordsworth and Coleridge did for English poetry.
For much of the first half of the 19th century, drama in London and provincial theatres was restricted by a licensing system to the Patent theatre companies, and all other theatres could perform only musical entertainments (although magistrates had powers to license occasional dramatic performances). By the early 19th century, however, music hall entertainments had become popular, and provided a loophole in the restrictions on non-patent theatres in the genre of melodrama which did not contravene the Patent Acts, as it was accompanied by music. The passing of the Theatres Act 1843 removed the monopoly on drama held by the Patent theatres, enabling local authorities to license theatres as they saw fit, and also restricted the Lord Chamberlain’s powers to censor new plays. The 1843 Act did not apply to Ireland where the power of the Lord Lieutenant to license patent theatres enabled control of stage performance analogous to that exercised by the Lord Chamberlain in Great Britain.
Drama did not achieve importance as a genre in the 19th century until the end of the century, and then the main figures were Irish-born. Irish playwright Dion Boucicault (1820–90), was an extremely popular writer of comedies who achieved success on the London stage (London Assurance, 1841). In the last decade of the century major playwrights emerged, including George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) (Arms and the Man, 1894) and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) (The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895). Both these writers lived mainly in England and wrote in English, with the exception of some works in French by Wilde.
The development of Irish literary culture was encouraged in the late 19th and early 20th century by the Irish Literary Revival (see also The Celtic Revival), which was supported by William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), Augusta, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge (The Playboy of the Western World, 1907). The Revival stimulated a new appreciation of traditional Irish literature. This was a nationalist movement that also encouraged the creation of works written in the spirit of Irish, as distinct from British culture. While drama was an important component of this movement, it also included prose and poetry.
Ernest Rhys was seen as the leading Welsh member of the Celtic Revival and his poetry and translations were held in high regard at the time, not least by Yeats. However posterity remembers him best as the shaper and first editor of the Everyman’s Library, which brought affordable classics to a wide reading public.