Victorian literature

Grace Chalhoub, Staff writer; copy editor

The Victorian Era began in 1837 (the year of Queen Victoria’s ascension) and lasted until her death in 1901. Today it is remembered as a period of rapid industrialization, imperialism and social conservatism, and its literature includes the classic novels of Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy and Oscar Wilde. Here are some things to know about the Victorian era and features of Victorian literature. 

Trends in literature

The 19th century was an exciting time for literary experimentation. Increasingly accessible education led to wider readership, triggering the birth of the serialized novel and ushering in many new genres. Horror, historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, detective/crime fiction and children’s literature were all established by the close of the 19th century, and the Victorian era was privy to several new movements in art and literature, including Romanticism, Gothicism, Realism, Naturalism and Decadence.

Moral codes and social protocol

The Victorian era is perhaps best remembered for its staunch moral codes and complicated social protocol. The reason for tightening of moral codes is multifaceted. The 18th century had been a liberal time, with scientific discoveries, colonization and independent thought causing orthodox Christian thought to fall out of favor. Atheism, agnosticism and other unorthodox or antinomian religious or spiritual schools of thought increased in popularity, causing backlash from orthodox Christian groups. This struggle between devout Christian ethics and nonconformist religious or spiritual views is reflected in many Victorian works. 

The complicated and staunch social order also features as a common motif in Victorian literature. Expect class struggles and complicated social maneuvers, and the intricacies of daily life to change upon the class of the characters. For instance, the aristocrats and gentry of Leo Tolstoy’s novels must contend with endless balls and morning calls, whereas the lower classes that feature in Dickens’s books struggle to live on the streets. Regardless of class, marriage as an economic prospect and heightened difficulties with disease often feature in Victorian works.  

Women’s rights

Long gone were the days when women were not expected to read; in fact, reading novels was considered a “woman’s pastime” during the late 18th century, although they became increasingly popular with both men and women during the 19th century. Women’s education normally consisted of music (limited to the piano or harp), art (limited to drawing and watercolors), embroidery, conversational French and basic history or geography. More academic pursuits or more advanced studies of the arts, humanities and sciences were limited to men, and women were often barred from reading certain texts that were considered inappropriate for women. However, this was not the case in all houses: famous 19th century authors such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters were educated alongside their brothers and reported having free reign in their home library and read widely from texts that would not have been considered appropriate for female readership at the time. As views on women’s education became more liberal throughout the 19th century, upper and middle class women received more education and hence became more vocal on women’s economic, political and social rights. Victorian women’s fiction often discusses the negative consequences of sexist property laws and the double standard. 

Effect of science and Darwinism

Most significantly, industrialization began to dominate Victorian England. The working-classes began migrating out of the rural agricultural sector into the cities for jobs in factories, which was difficult and dangerous work. While many Victorians were enthusiastic about industry and believed it was a sign of English superiority, others feared its negative effects on nature, living conditions and spirituality.

English Victorians, inspired by Darwinism, developed the idea of social Darwinism, or eugenics. As imperialists, the English wished to assert their dominance and used eugenics to stress their supposed superiority over other ethnic groups. Despite Darwin’s rejection of social Darwinism, the idea was highly influential, and Victorian literature both mirrors and mocks the concerns of Darwinian degeneration, as seen in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”

Victorians also explored psychosis and began to inaccurately label so-called neuropsychiatric degenerative disorders that targeted women and homosexual men. For instance, scientists believed in a degenerative disorder called “hysteria,” a disease of the womb that caused women to become depressed or insane and that could only be cured by marriage. This dismissal and undermining of women’s mental health and well-being became the subject of works like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Awakening” and famous plays such as “Miss Julie.” 

Spiritualism

On the other hand, just as Victorians became increasingly staunch believers in science, the Spiritualist movement took root as a result of shifting Christian beliefs. The ouija board, planchette and other horror movie tropes were born, as people sought to reach out to those in the spirit world. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attended seances, which had become a sensation for socialites. 

One of the most infamous instances of how influential Spiritual thought had become was the Winchester House, in which the widow of the late William Winchester, convinced that she had become cursed and that she would remain safe as long as she continued construction of her house, built the largest home in America. Authors such as Henry James, H.P. Lovecraft and ___ reflect this fascination with the Spiritual movement and belief in ghosts and a spirit world.