Characteristics of Early Victorian Literature

The Victorian period began roughly around the time of the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837 and ended around her death in 1901. Some literature published before Queen Victoria’s reign, such as Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” portend the style and preoccupations of early Victorian literature and are sometimes included in Victorian canons. Similarly, “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte is often considered to have more in common with the Romantic period, though Bronte wrote the novel in 1847.

The Novel

Novels were the most prevalent form of literature in the early Victorian period. Bestsellers such as Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell published lengthy novels in serial form in newspapers, the episodes of which reached a thousand pages in book form. Serial publications and smaller installments were cheap enough for some lower class workers to afford them. Mainly middle-class men and women wrote novels, mainly about middle-class heroes and heroines. Early Victorian novels were highly descriptive and emotionally expressive and strove to be earnest and wholesome.

Poetry Conventions

Early Victorian poems were often long and sometimes followed the form of an epic -- an adventure story about a hero. Many early Victorian poems, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” follow rigid structures in terms of rhyme and rhythm. Some early Victorian poems carry a nostalgic tone, such as in Thomas Hood’s “I Remember, I Remember.”

Typical Concerns

Christianity and God, personal duty and morals concerned early Victorian literature. Many Victorian protagonists struggle with right actions in given situations and move in a world populated by Christians, governed by God and organized by the Church of England. Novels tended to reinforce class hierarchy and the traditional domestic roles of women. However, Victorian literature also grapples with scientific and societal change; the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and the growing movement for rights for laborers, women and children influenced writers such as Gaskell and Tennyson, who expressed sympathy for them in their works. Charles Dickens often wrote about the advance of industrialization in his novels, symbolized by the expansion of the steam engine train.

Societal Perceptions

The views of early Victorian protagonists and narrators often reflected pervasive stereotypes about class, race and gender. Victorians believed that the lower classes and other races were inherently inferior in their physical makeup and were irrational, childlike, superstitious, criminal, extremely sexual and dirty. In contrast, early Victorian literature upheld the Victorian gentleman - - morally upright, respectable, Christian, rational and middle class, as the ideal human being. Middle-class women rarely work in Victorian novels and symbolize the domestic sphere, which they rarely leave.

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