Wednesday 17 July 2013

Misconceptions about Victorian Literature

In a previous post I took on the view that Victorian fiction is by default long and unwieldy by recommending some shorter works you might want to give a go. Today it’s time to debunk a few more myths about nineteenth-century writing which I've come across whenever I tell people what I like to read.

1. There’s no sex: Yes, yes – we all know those Victorians. They fainted at a glimpse of ankle, right, and covered up table legs. They were all so prudish it’s a miracle they had any children at all, regardless of the massive population increase in the UK in the period, and the example of the very fertile monarch herself. Victorian literature is crammed with sex, even if the novels are (thankfully) not quite Fifty Shades of Grey. Try George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893) for discussion of prostitution and bawdry, Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) deals with rape and John Sutherland even detects a reference to sodomy in Hardy’s earlier The Woodlanders (1886-7). Meanwhile, Ellen Wood’s bestselling sensation novel East Lynne (1861) centres on a heroine who commits adultery because she wants to, finds her lover attractive and is bored by her dependable husband, in a initial plotline which could easily be taken from a modern paperback (before a railway disaster, facial disfigurement and high levels of infant mortality situate it firmly in the 1860s!). If you want even more, you can always trust the French to turn things up a notch, but once you've glutted yourself on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1851), I’d suggest turning to Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s A Doctor’s Wife (1863). Laurie Garrison argues surprisingly convincingly that while here the heroine Isabel doesn't commit adultery like her model Emma Bovary, her novel-reading obsession is code for an addiction to masturbation. Erotic rewrites of Victorian novels are hot property for publishers right now, but often the sexual content is already there in the originals.

The Secret Victorianist spots Wuthering Heights erotica on sale at a European airport

2. It’s only for girls: First up, this is sexist. And I very much doubt Dickens, Trollope, Tennyson, Browning and the rest of the century’s celebrated male writers would agree. My guess is when people say this they mean that the literature is all about marriage and relationships, even if these (whisper it) obviously affect men too. But don’t despair, those who’d rather die than wear pink, there are battles (try Walter Scott and Alfred, Lord Tennyson), trade union disputes (Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855)), aliens (H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898)) – all sorts of things girls couldn't possibly understand.

3. It’s very romantic: The reality is that reading nineteenth-century novels has seen my romantic notions disposed of as brutally as Marianne Dashwood’s. Marriage is a mercantile business and the century’s novelists are much more likely to go into the details of household economy (cf. particularly Braddon’s Hostages to Fortune (1875)), than rhapsodise over weddings. Marriage ceremonies are, despite their ubiquitous concurrence with end credits in television adaptations, usually dispensed with in their entirety – to take three famous examples, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2). When they are detailed, it is also for their legal irregularity (Wilkie Collins’s ‘Miss or Mrs?’ (1872) and The Law and the Lady (1875).

4. It’s all about the rich people: It doesn't get much grittier than Arthur Morrison’s tale of London slum life A Child of the Jago (1896), or Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), set the other side of the Atlantic. Inner city life in all its squalor and violence is rendered hyper-realistically, with Morrison’s attention to dialect particularly impressive. Both works are the products of research and firsthand experience – unapologetically un-sanitised and not for the faint-hearted.

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  1. Well done; very informative.

  2. Your list is spot on! (Although rather sulkily I will sometimes think Victorian lit is all guys!) re: #3 -- I think of Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd which has a marriage plot to be sure, but it's hardly romantic. Savage, wild, calculating, crazy -- but no swoony romance! (Gah, I love that book!)

    1. Thanks, Audra! Ha ha - agreed!

      I don't think Hardy's EVER romantic. Creepily incestuous - yes; romantic, no (brewing up a blog post on this to follow shortly!).

    2. Oooh, can't wait to see that post -- I've only just read FFTMC but adored it -- mind blown kind of way. Reminds me of what I love about Victorian lit -- interesting class stuff, kick butt drama, some real dark stickiness about love, life, marriage, identity, etc...

  3. Love this post!

    In grad school, I once dissuaded a friend from attending a party by telling him that the highlight of our last party was when we read the dirty parts of Victorian novels out loud. It was hysterical when we did that and amusing that this was enough to keep my friend from coming.

    In my blog (, I've posted book cover collections for War of the Worlds and Dracula. It's a fascinating visual representation of how views of this work have changed over time.

    1. Thanks for this Tine! Can you remember where any of the passages were from out of interest?

      Great blog - really enjoyed the Wonderland Postage Stamp Case ( as I've been thinking lots about Carroll today! (see latest post) :)

  4. I've read a fair bit of Victorian gothic / horror literature, and the overwhelming impression I get is that the Victorians were the most easily-startled people who ever lived. And it goes beyond the thrice-daily fainting spells of society ladies in corsets. There's this Arthur Machen story, "The Shining Pyramid," where a guy finds some unusual graffiti on a wall near his house, and his reaction is to /question his own sanity./

    Is this just the literary style of the day, or were Victorians really so easily shocked by anything even the slightest bit out of the ordinary?

    1. I think there might be a couple of things at play here.

      First, the continuing popularity of movies/novels inspired by 18th/19th-century Gothic means some of the things Victorians might view as scary we might think of as cliched or predictable.

      Second, Gothic came out of 18th-century Sentimentalism which often used heroes/heroines who were governed by feelings, not reason, and were acutely sensitive to all forms of sensation (Sensation Fiction comes out of these ideas too - playing on the reader's nerves).

      I agree sometimes it can seem ridiculous though!!

      Does that make some sense? :)