Victorian literature refers to the body of literary work that was written during the reign of Queen Victoria over the United Kingdom, from 1837 until her death in 1901. Most literary historians consider 1830 the beginning of the Victorian era. Literature produced up to 1870 is usually called early Victorian, while everything produced after that year is often referred to as late Victorian. The Victorian era served as a transition between the Romantic period and the literature of the twentieth century. British writers commanded the Victorian era, although also popular were writers from France, the United States, and Russia, among other countries.
Characteristics and Themes of Victorian Literature
Writers of the Victorian era created literature that commented on societal, economical, religious, and philosophical ideas of the time. Much of Victorian literature criticized the increased industrialization of the world, and on the other hand, the deterioration of the rural lifestyle. Much Victorian literature dabbled in satire as it critiqued the society it entertained. While the middle class increased its political power over society, the poor had to make due with less. Writers of the Victorian era critiqued this imbalance of power in their work.
Victorian literature addressed the themes of conflict among the classes as well as the burgeoning push for women's rights. However, the defining characteristic of Victorian literature is a strong focus on morality. Heroes of Victorian literature are often the oppressed members of society, such as the poor. Victorian writers romanticized hard work and strong virtue. Characters with good morals were usually rewarded, while characters who acted poorly received their just desserts in the end. Victorian fiction was often written with the intention of teaching a moral lesson to readers.
Underneath the moral surface, characters in Victorian literature are often teeming with passion and tempted by evil. The characters of Victorian literature, however, show restraint against their wild emotions—a restraint that was abandoned by the Romantic writers who came before, celebrating wildness and uncontrollable emotions.
Another popular theme of Romantic literature was the celebration of the past. During the Victorian era, many readers also sought stories about chivalry and courtly love. The poet laureate of the time—Alfred, Lord Tennyson—published a cycle of twelve narrative poems called "Idylls of the King" in the mid-nineteenth century. The poems told the story of the legend of King Arthur's kingdom, although some details were changed to better teach the moral lessons of the day. For instance, in Tennyson's version of the story, Lady Guinevere repents for her infidelities to the king by spending the rest of her life in a convent. Many critics saw the poems as an allegory for popular problems in Victorian culture, such as the struggle to remain morally ideal and women's attempts at earning more power.
Sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte—three of the most popular writers of the Victorian era—published under the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Writing under a pseudonym in the Victorian era was a common practice of female writers who wanted their novels to be taken more seriously by critics as well as the public. The novels by these sisters, most notablyJane EyreandWuthering Heights,written by Charlotte and Emily respectively, were not immediately popular—perhaps because of their inclusion of violence, romance, and the supernatural, but they eventually earned great success.
Novelist Charles Dickens is perhaps the most widely read novelist of the Victorian era. His novels were extremely popular at the time they were published, and gained popularity and cemented Dickens as a notable author on the literary scene. The novel resulted in the sale of merchandise and spin-off books that celebrated the book's most popular characters. Like many Victorian novels, Dickens's stories criticized social issues of the time and usually saw the morally sound characters thrive despite the extraordinarily difficult circumstances thrown their way.
William Makepeace Thackeray also wrote novels during the Victorian era, although his stories focused on middle-class characters rather than those that dealt with poverty. Thackeray is most noted for his novelVanity Fair,which he published in 1847. The book focuses on an infinite celebration that symbolizes human beings' preoccupation with material objects.
The foremost poet of the Victorian period was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who served as poet laureate of the United Kingdom from 1850 until his death in 1892. Much of Tennyson's poetry focused on the retellings of classical myths. He experimented with meter, but most of his poetry followed strict formatting—a reflection of the strict formality of the Victorian era. His work often focused on the conflict between allegiance to religion and the new discoveries being made in the field of science.
Husband and wife team Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning became famous for the love poems they wrote to each other. Elizabeth was already an accomplished poet when she met her future husband in 1845. He influenced her to publish her love poems, which significantly increased her popularity.
Also worth mention in a discussion of the Victorian era is a collection of writers and artists called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of which Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina were a part. In the late 1840s, a group of English artists organized the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with the goal of replacing the popular academic approach to painting with the more natural approach taken by artists who worked before the Italian Renaissance. Several writers joined this movement, echoing a simpler, less formal approach to writing literature.
The Victorian era was a period of great scientific discovery. People of this time were quite interested in understanding the natural world. Naturalist Charles Darwin published his bookOn the Origin of Speciesin 1859. This landmark scientific work challenged widely held beliefs about the origin of man. At the book's publication, many people considered the work scandalous. With time, however, Darwin's theories about evolution became more accepted. The publication ofOn the Origin of Specieschanged the world's views on philosophy and religious fundamentalism.
During the Victorian era, children's literature became very popular. Perhaps due to the introduction of compulsory education—laws that specified that all children must be educated until they reach a certain age—young people were reading more. Writers produced work for the growing market of young readers. Stories about experiences at school were very popular among readers. Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling were two of the leading children's writers of the Victorian era.
Current Perception of Victorian Literature
Victorian literature is sometimes viewed in a negative light because of the era's prudishness, narrow mindedness, and strict conformation to societal rules. While these arguments are a true reflection of the popular beliefs of Victorian era society, many writers of the time criticized this trend in their work, went against social convictions, and created writings that are relevant to and revered by modern society.