I’ve previously defended nineteenth-century literature against a range of allegations, but there’s no use in denying that frequent recourse to the worlds of Hardy, the Brontes and Braddon can have a serious effect on your psyche. Below I sketch out the potential side effects of permanently burying your head in three volume novels. You know you’ve read too many Victorian novels when…
1. Someone marrying their first cousin seems totally normal: And, more than, financially prudent.
2. You feel old before you’re 30: Some time in your early to mid-twenties you’ll be hit by the sudden fear that your looks have lost their lustre and you’re definitively on the shelf.
‘At this time of the morning Mrs Charmond looked her full age and more. She might almost have been taken for the typical femme de trente ans, though she was really not more than seven or eight and twenty’, The Woodlanders, Thomas Hardy (1886-7)
3. Clergymen appear eligible. No further comment.
4. You faint…at ANYTHING: Marriage proposals, unexpected arrivals, even just reading a book…
‘I read the first lines on the title-page—
A COMPLETE REPORT OF THE TRIAL OF EUSTACE MACALLAN.
I stopped and looked up at her. She started back from me with a scream of terror. I looked down again at the title-page, and read the next lines—
FOR THE ALLEGED POISONING OF HIS WIFE.
There, God's mercy remembered me. There the black blank of a swoon swallowed me up.’, The Law and the Lady, Wilkie Collins (1875)
5. You take to your sickbed for weeks or months at a time: Maybe you attempt some fancy work, perhaps you hear about the excitements of the outside world (like this morning’s sermon), most likely do you little but suffer patiently
6. You’d attempt murder and bigamy just to have Lady Audley’s boudoir: Who wouldn’t?
‘the whole of her glittering toilette apparatus lay about on the marble dressing-table. The atmosphere of the room was almost oppressive for the rich odours of perfumes in bottles whose gold stoppers had not been replaced. A bunch of hot-house flowers was withering upon a tiny writing-table. Two or three handsome dresses lay in a heap upon the ground, and the open doors of a wardrobe revealed the treasures within. Jewellery, ivory-backed hair-brushes, and exquisite china were scattered here and there about the apartment.’, Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1861-2)
7. You resort to phrenology when getting to know someone.
8. You refer to items in your wardrobe using the formula ‘my [COLOUR] [FABRIC NAME]’: e.g. ‘my black silk’ or ‘my grey merino’. Your friends meanwhile are referring to ‘that drunken purchase from Asos’ or ‘that dress designed by that girl from TOWIE’.
9. You have limited career ideas: For men: leisured aristocrat, soldier, clergyman, servant, peasant, factory worker, criminal. For women: wife, governess, actress, whore.
10. Your nightmares consist of the following: Railway accidents, consumption, false incarceration in a madhouse, the new curate being too high/low church (delete as appropriate).