In this article, you will be introduced to the Victorian Age which is considered the golden age of the English novel. We discuss the historical background of the age and its influence to the development of the English novel. The Victorian Age is acclaimed to be the golden age of the English novel. We will now discuss the novelists, the influences and the developments that gave rise to this claim.
The Victorian Age
Queen Victoria ascended the throne of England in 1837 and died in 1901. Though the Victorian age was named after her, the age is said to have actually started in 1832, the year of the first reform bill which gave limited franchise to lords and led to the gradual decline of the feudal system and the beginning of democracy in England. The Victorian age was an important age in the history of England because of the major changes in political, social and economic systems of the society. It was regarded as the beginning of the modern world because it witnessed the introduction of the major political systems of government – democracy, socialism and capitalism.
The age could be compared to the Renaissance but it was more purposeful in terms of reforms and changes especially in politics and economy. It is seen as the most exciting period in history with its combination of turbulence, problems, inventions and socio- political reforms which were the offshoots of the industrial revolution that changed the lives of the people tremendously. Industry changed the economy of England from domestic – based to factory-based.
Consequently, people rushed to the cities to work in the industries where they were compelled to work long hours. It also brought new ideas, the rise of the middle class, and the conflicts between the agriculturalists; and the industrialists and between Catholicismand Protestantism. The early capitalist manufacturers of the Victorian Age comprised the enterprising and thrifty individuals most of who were uneducated and so complicated the problems with their crudity. It also saw the emergence of the utilitarian philosophy of greatest happiness for the greatest number which was responsible for the institution of democracy through a gradual process.
The elite did not believe that the common man could govern himself; some advocated the education of the common man to make him understand the society it proposes to govern. There was a general campaign for people to realise the need for the use of wealth to build a better society which will afford the individual an opportunity to share in the wealth of the nation. All these changes and conflicts formed the subject matter of the Victorian novelists.
Industrialisation was another great influence on the English novel as we see in the opening passage of Dickens’s Bleak House which is adjudged one of the most famous openings in English novel. The passage is filled with extraordinary bits of description of industrial atmosphere. The
industrial revolution therefore intensified serious social problem that persisted for many years in spite of legislation aimed at addressing it. Air pollution became unbearable and indeed provided more than enough material for the novelists who portrayed it from different perspectives. The Victorian novelists depicted these in their novels though from different perspectives.
Science and Society Another major influence on literature of the Victorian Age was science and its impact on the society. Two major aspects of science which affected the development of Victorian England were the attempt to control natural powers and new conceptions in Biology and Geology. It was through science that the application of mechanical means in production evolved and it affected the hiring of workers and working conditions. With industrial revolution, machines were introduced, fewer people were hired and there was a change from domestic economic system to factory economic system with its attendant changes like population re distribution. New conceptions in Biology and Geology affected man’s attitudes to religion and thought process.
Science, especially Biology, offered explanations for certain concepts that were hitherto regarded as mysterious. Consequently, religious and domestic aspects of life were upset but it was difficult for them to embrace the change. Many people were therefore angry and frustrated. The Victorian era was an important time for the development of science and the Victorians had a mission to describe and classify the entire natural world. One of this writing was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in which he espoused the theory of evolution that almost destabilised many of the ideas the Victorians had about themselves and their place in the world. This also influenced the novelists of the period.
Romantic Element in Victorian Period
In Victorian England, there was a group known as the Oxford Group and who were mainly romanticists. They therefore advocated a return to a more picturesque form of religious observances that were ritualistic before the reformation. They believed that the only way to curb evil, and bring about genuine social reform and sanity in the society was a return to the earlier forms of religious worship and philosophy. They sought an escape from the doubt that plagued the Church of England and security in God that cannot be found in the secular world. This escape is viewed as romanticism.
Social Influence on the Novel
Literature especially during the Victorian age was a product of the writer and the reader. There was a relationship between the writer and the readers in which the latter, to some extent, participated in the creative process and contributed to the outcome of the work. The readers identified themselves with the characters and also read to learn more about the society so they read and made comments which influenced the writer. For instance, Charles Dickens is said to have reversed the ending of his novel Great Expectations due to pressure from the readers. Most of the major writers of the Victorian Age were platform or pulpit men (politicians or clergymen) who preached sermons or delivered lectures.
Some novelists gave readings to numerous audiences because it was an age that developed a rapport between the reader and the writer. Respectability therefore permeates the Victorian novel as novelists wrote with strong moral tones so as not to offend the audience. The novelist wrote to satisfy the Puritan respectable middle class since the Aristocrats and Proletariat were regarded as people with loose morals. (Dawson 1979, 27) The magazines/journals also played a very important role in the development of the novel in the Victorian Age.
The journals and magazines catered for different audiences with some having definite affiliations to particular set of ideas or motives. They also provided a medium for reviews, comments and criticisms on serialised novels. Some writers of this period attached themselves to specific magazines and journals. Before the Victorian Age, most authors published anonymously and were paid for their manuscripts. Later with the establishment of the new copyright law in the 18th and 19th century, the concept of royalty was instituted and it included the sharing of profit for all future editions.
Novelists assumed entirely new roles as public voices in the Victorian Age as they wrote on national issues of social concern which were circulated to a wider audience through the serialisation of the novel. The novelists also assumed higher public status as they spoke through their works, newspapers, public debates and lectures. They were seen as the “conscience of their nation; as national sages and as far sighted judges” (Dawson 1979, 36).
The literary market became enlarged with time and writers started writing difficult texts that needed critical interpretations for it to be understood. New styles of writing emerged and novels addressed contemporary socio-political issues openly. Writers realised that they have a responsibility to their audience; a responsibility to be the
spokesperson of the citizen whose voice is heard; and a responsibility to the future generations who will have to evaluate the artistic work. Each writer employed a unique way of exploring the individual’s perception of reality. This revolutionised the style of the novel as the search for one’s personal style generated a kind of competition among authors especially with the new status of authors as celebrities. History also influenced the Victorian novelists. Some writers of this Age recounted history but in a fictionalised way, that is, they got their materials from history and imaginatively built a story around that fictional account and through it, presented a realistic view of life.
The Victorian Novel The Victorian Age (1837–1901) was the period when the novel became the leading form of literature in English. Most writers were then more concerned with the satisfaction of the reading public, mainly the middle class, than with the satisfaction of the patrons, predominantly, the aristocratic class. The social novel became popular as it portrayed the experiences of the working class, the poorest members of the society and the oppressed.
The novelists, through their works therefore tried to elicit the sympathy of middle class audiences; to arouse the consciousness of the lower groups; and to incite action towards the entrenchment of social justice. The depiction of the deplorable working/living conditions of the poor in contrast to affluence lifestyle of the wealthy class became popular subjects for the novels. The dominant feature of Victorian novels was the concept of verisimilitude as the novelists painted detailed and graphic picture of the incidents to make them very realistic. These novels therefore presented very close representation of the real social life of England at that age reflecting the emerging middle class; their hopes, aspirations, manners, and expectations as opposed to the aristocrat way of life that dominated the preceding ages. Another important feature of the Victorian novel is that most of them are long and presented in closely knit plots.
Most of the Victorian novels were serialised as individual chapters or sections were published in chronological sequence in journal issues. Consequently, it affected the sale of the journals positively as demand was high for each new appearance of the novel to introduce some new elements in form of twists in the plot or a new character which enhanced the suspense and so maintained the interest of the readers. Authors who published serially were often paid on installment basis and this aided the popularity of the three-volume novel during this period. Novels are made up of a variety of plots and a large number of characters, appearing and reappearing according to the dictates of the incidents and action in the novels.
Victorian novels tend to be idealised portraits of difficult lives in which hard work, perseverance, love and luck win in the end; virtue is rewarded and wrongdoers are suitably punished. It appears that the novelists wrote with the intention of imparting moral lessons. However the didactic aspect of the novels of this period did not mar the style as novelists wrote classical novels that are still relevant in contemporary times. Their language was filled with picturesque imageries and the diction in most cases, simple. Children literature emerged also in the Victorian Age. The novelists of this period are credited with ‘inventing childhood’ due to their efforts to stop child labour and the introduction of compulsory education.
As children began to be able to read, literature for young people emerged and became a booming business with renowned writers like Charles Dickens. Other writers like Lewis Carroll, R. M. Ballantyne and Anna Sewell dedicated themselves to writing mainly for children while Anthony Hope and Robert Louis mainly for adults, but their adventure novels are now generally classified for children.
Women as Writers
The Victorian Age saw the emergence of daring, prolific and vivacious women writers. Some of them include George Elliot, the Bronte sisters and others. It is true that women authors dominated the writing and publication of prose fiction from the 1640s into the early 18th century, few of them addressed the woman question through an inquiry into the precepts of their education and their position in the society overtly the way George Eliot did in her works (Vann 1994, 32).
Some Victorian Novelists
This age saw the emergence of Charles Dickens on the literary scene in the 1830s and he wrote vividly about London life and struggles of the poor in his novels. William Thackeray was another great novelist of the Victorian period. He was seen as Dickens’s great rival at the time. He wrote in similar style with Dickens but with “a slightly more detached, acerbic and barbed satirical view of his characters.
He tended to depict situations in a more middle class flavour than Dickens” (Maynard et al 1992, 239). His popular novel Vanity Fair is an example of the historical novel. Other novelists include Anthony Trollope who in his works tilted towards the depiction of landowning and professional classes; The Bronte Sisters –Ann, Charlotte and Emily who in their short lives produced novels though they were masterpieces which were not appreciated immediately by Victorian critics.
Emily’s only work, Wuthering Heights, presented “…violence, passion, the supernatural, heightened emotion and emotional distance, an unusual mix for any novel but particularly at this time” (Maynard et al 1992, 243) it explored the issue of class, myth, and gender; George Eliot whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, used the pseudonym to conceal the fact that she was a woman because she wanted to write novels which would be taken seriously instead of the romances which women of her age were supposed to write; Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) was an epistolary novel which is generally regarded as the first detective novel in English language and his Woman in White as one of the most sensational novels; and Thomas Hardy and others depicted the rural folks and the changing social and economic situation of the countryside. (Stedman 1996, 45) George Eliot’s novels were rated highly because of their combination of high Victorian details with intellectual narrative and her novel Middlemarch was considered the milestone of literary realism.
The Victorian Age believed in a healthy society. The novel in this age was inspired mainly by the industrial revolution in England. It was also influenced by the readers and who to some extent, participated in the creative process and contributed to the outcome of the work as the novels were serialised. The readers identified themselves with the characters and also read to learn more about the society so they read and made comments which influenced the writer. The society therefore exerted a great influence on the Victorian novelists.
In this article, we have presented not just the historical background of the Victorian Age but also the novels, some of the novelists, their style and their influences. The novel in the Victorian age was written from an individual’s point of view and writers assumed the status of celebrities as they are seen as the voice for the voiceless and the conscience of the society. The writers used their works to draw attention to unholy socio- political issues that needed to be addressed for a social justice to reign. Social novels therefore became very popular. The audience also influenced the novels of this age which were serialised. The novelist was seen as an exceptional individual whose perceptions naturally enabled him to produce different views.