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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