Victorian literature is literature written in England during the reign of Queen Victoria, or roughly from 1837 -1901.
It is largely characterized by the struggle of working people and the triumph of right over wrong.
Understanding Literary Periods
So, we’re talking about Victorian literature, and it’s good to keep in mind that all literary periods, or movements, are really just a scholarly construct to help readers understand and classify literature from different time periods or that have been written in different styles. So, it’s not like Charles Dickens got together with George Eliot and Robert Browning and went, ‘Hey, we’re Victorian writers, so our work better have a strong sense of right and wrong.’ That’s not how it worked.Characteristics of Victorian literature are likely similar because the artists were inspired both by the art that came before them and the events occurring during the time that they were working. So, something can seem Victorian, but not have been written in the Victorian era, or something written in the Victorian era might not actually seem Victorian. For example, Charlotte and Emily Bronte wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in what would be considered the Victorian era, but those novels have much more qualities of the Romantic period.
So, what I’m going to talk about are the commonly observed characteristics of poetry and prose written during the Victorian era and the probable causes for those characteristics. Now that you’re suitably enthused, let’s dive in.
Major Events of the Victorian Era
So, Victorian literature is just literature written during the reign of Queen Victoria in Great Britain. My favorite British comedian, Eddie Izzard, refers to Queen Victoria as ‘one of England’s more frumpy queens.’ You can take a look at her picture and decide for yourself. So, Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901. Currently her reign is the longest of any British monarch – 63 years and 7 months – but it looks like our girl, Queen Elizabeth II, is well-poised to steal that record.Some major events that took place during the Victoria era include:
- A huge growth in population.
During Victoria’s reign, the population of England more than doubled, from 14 million to 32 million.
- There were also some significant improvements in technology. The Victorian era slightly overlaps with Britain’s Industrial Revolution, which saw big changes to the way that people lived, worked, and traveled.
These improvements in technology offered a lot of opportunities for the people in England but also represented a major upheaval in regards to how people lived their lives and interacted with the world. Those of us who were alive before the Internet should be able to relate. I mean, the Internet has made a lot of things easier, but it’s also brought a lot of issues about personal privacy, how we communicate and the potential for terrible things, like identity theft.
- Another characteristic of the Victorian era are changing world views.
In addition to the major developments in technology, there were emerging scientific beliefs, like Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution, and those things were changing how people in England thought about themselves and how they interacted with the world around them. Most notably, a lot of people were distancing themselves from the church.
- And finally, there were poor conditions for the working class. The Industrial Revolution led to the distance between the haves and have-nots growing at a really high rate, and a lot of people (especially artists, like writers) felt obligated to speak out against what they believed to be societal injustices, which if you’ve followed any of the ‘We are the 99%’ movement, it might sound familiar to things that are happening right now.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of things that were happening during the Victorian era, but it’s just meant to give you a sense of what was going on and why that would have inspired the writers of that time to write what they do.
Arguably the most well-known Victorian writer was Charles Dickens.
He wrote a lot of novels about the struggles of the poor and the battle between right and wrong. His characters were really vivid but not terribly nuanced, so it’s pretty obvious from the get-go who’s good, who’s bad, who can be reformed, and who can’t.Dickens himself had to leave school early to work in a factory to support his family after his father was sent to jail, so it’s not really surprising that a lot of his works, including Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, have protagonists who are good people that fall into bad circumstances that they don’t deserve.
It seems like that’s something he could really relate to personally.Dickens’ novels usually end with every character getting the kind of ending they deserve. So, the good people get happy endings, and the bad people get sad endings, and there really aren’t that many loose ends left at the end of the novel. We’ll talk more about Dickens’ novels in another video.
Another notable novelist from that time, from the Victorian era, is George Eliot. It’s important to know that George Eliot was actually a woman.
Her name was Mary Ann Evans. She wrote under the name George Eliot to conceal the fact that she was a woman because she thought that her work wouldn’t be taken seriously if they knew it was written by a female writer. (The Bronte sisters also had gender-ambiguous pen names to hide the fact that they were women. And I promise that’s the last thing I’ll say about the Bronte sisters for this video.)George Eliot wrote a bunch of successful novels during the Victorian Era, including Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Middlemarch (1871-72). Middlemarch, I think, is her best novel and arguably her most well-known.
Her novels tended to focus on the lives of people living in the country and were noted for really strong character development – the characters were really, really clear and nuanced in a way that I personally don’t think Dickens’ were. Some modern critics actually consider Middlemarch to be the best novel ever written. I’m a big fan of it myself but that strong character development can sometimes lead to some really boring chapters that I found myself skimming.
Anyway, we’ll talk about George Eliot later in another video, too.
Victorian poetry is different from Victorian novels in a lot of ways. Some of the notable poets from the Victorian era are Lord Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and also Matthew Arnold. Their poems were often characterized by a strong desire to connect with the past, a skepticism about religion, which could tie in with Darwin’s theory of evolution coming in to prominence during that time, and they also had a stronger sense of humor than was generally present in the Romantic poetry that came before it. I want to be clear that not all the poems had to have all these characteristics.
It’s not like every poem written in the Victorian era had to be funny, skeptical and nostalgic all at the same time.
As we explore more Victorian literature, and really all of literature, it’s important to keep in mind that the characteristics that I’ve talked about are things that people have observed in retrospect about these works and not the qualities that the writers were necessarily striving for at the time.This is true for all periods and all forms of art. Knowing the characteristics of a particular time period – in this case, the Victorian era – can really help you to understand the motivations of the people who lived at that time and who wrote then or painted then or did whatever they were doing.
But it’s important that as you read these works, you draw your own conclusions and make your own observations, too, because they’re just as valid.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify and describe some of the major events of the Victorian era that influenced writers
- Identify Charles Dickens and George Eliot, and describe their writing styles
- Explain the basic characteristics of Victorian poetry