Monday 16 March 2015

A Victorian Alphabet: A Retrospect

Eighteen months ago, I began a series looking at twenty-six themes and topics in Victorian literature linked to the letters of the alphabet. Now, having recently posted Z (for Zuleika!), I’ll be recapping what we covered and linking to any posts you might have missed.

In ‘A is for Animals in Agnes Grey’, I look at how cruelty or kindness to animals is often indicative of moral fibre in the works of Emily and Anne Brontë. The fate of animals in literature can often foreshadow or mirror the lives of characters, but can also provide some of the most memorable incidents in a plot, making this theme a powerful tool for philosophical and moral exploration.

In ‘B is for Brownies in the Brain’, I examine Robert Louis Stevenson’s conception of the creative process in his essay ‘A Chapter on Dreams’. Where does literary inspiration come from and what forces could be at work in a writer’s subconscious?

In ‘C is for Caroline’s Coriolanus’, I review the use of Shakespeare in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and in the relationship between two of her characters (Robert and Caroline). Brontë argues for literature as a vehicle for emotional, as well as academic, education.

In ‘D is for Defending Daniel Deronda’, I argue for the complimentary nature of the Jewish and romantic ‘halves’ of George Eliot’s most divisive novel. Gwendolen and Daniel are united in their quest to find a vocation, whether religious or secular.

In ‘E is for the Eloi and Elysium’, I trace the heritage of nineteenth-century science fiction, and in particular H.G. Wells, in a modern flick starring Matt Damon. How does Victorian thinking on class, economics and evolution inform modern cinema?

In ‘F is for Fern Fever’, I write about the strange Victorian phenomenon of ‘pteridomania’ through the lens of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Vixen. How do hot houses relate to social status and what can women’s gardening habits tell us about them?

In ‘G is for Graves in Great Expectations’, I look at the graves which inspired those of Pip’s parents and siblings in Charles Dickens’s most popular novel. The graves also act as signs for the illiterate Pip to ‘read’, signifying the dangers of partial knowledge as well as the virtues of ignorance  - important ideas in a bildungsroman.

In ‘H is for Hardy’s Hair Extensions’, I expose the link between hair and attractive femininity in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders. What does it mean to take another woman’s hair? And how do Victorian ideas of ageing compare with our own?

In ‘I is for Infants, Industrialisation and Imagination’, Victorian novels dealing with factory workers are put under the microscope. What does it mean to infantilise the working classes and why does Dickens choose to deal with the position of workers and the education of children in the same novel (Hard Times)?

In ‘J is for Jealousy in Jewsbury’, I consider how stereotypes about actresses and wives are difficult to reconcile for male characters, but also the author, in Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half-Sisters.

In ‘K is for ‘The Kraken’’, I provide a line-by-line reading of Tennyson’s poem about a fearsome sea monster, helping students approach new poems and dig into this poem in particular.

In ‘L is for Laura’s Landscapes’, I probe the gendered differences between landscape painting and portraiture in the most famous Victorian sensation novels. How comfortable can we be as modern readers with a conclusion to The Woman in White which leaves Laura still deluded about her role as artist as well as object?

In ‘M is for Melodrama, Murder and Maria Marten’, I blog about a real life murder case which inspired a swathe of nineteenth- and twentieth-century creative treatments. Why did Maria Marten capture the imagination of Victorian audiences?

In ‘N is for Nelly as Narrator’, I argue for the unreliability of Nelly as a source of information in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

In ‘O is for Openings’, I dissect the openings of Lady Audley’s Secret and The Woman in White. What can we learn from Braddon and Collins about creating suspense and drama? And how can writing thrill us in ways movies cannot?

In ‘P is for Pregnancy’, I reveal the ‘hidden signs’ a female character you’re reading about may be pregnant. Tuning into Victorian innuendos and pregnancy ‘symptoms’ could help improve your reading experience.

In ‘Q is for Quiz!’, you get to find our which Victorian heroine YOU should be.

In ‘R is for Rome’, my trip to the Italian capital spurs a reconsideration of Dorothea’s trip there in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Dorothea’s sheltered upbringing, Protestantism, and recent marriage all impact on her response to the city and so the chapters here offer valuable insight into her character.

In ‘S is for Swinburne, Sappho and Sadomasochism’, I write about Swinburne’s adaptation of Sapphic fragments in nineteenth-century verse. What is the appeal of Sappho? Is it sexual, sadistic, or poetic?

In ‘T is for Text, Time (and Trains)’, I blog about the skillful way in which Thomas Hardy’s narrative techniques play with the passing of time. Moving from Victorian novels to romantic comedies and horror flicks, I offer my perspective on the manipulation of time in text.

In ‘U is for ‘Ulysses’ and You’, I remind you of the poetry scene in the latest James Bond movie and give a case for the continued appeal of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’.

In ‘V is for Vulnerable Victorian Virginity’, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth acts as an example of how female virginity is often presented in nineteenth-century literature.  

In ‘W is for Witchcraft’, I write about Hardy and Gaskell’s interest in magic and the supernatural. Witchcraft which we might think of as confined to earlier centuries is still very much alive in nineteenth-century rural England and in Victorian literature.

In ‘X is for Xmas’, I analyse the poem (and later carol) ‘Christmas Bells’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Which ideas about the Christmas period span the centuries and what was unique about celebrating the festival during the American Civil War.

In ‘Y is for Why Yellow?’, I answer the question about why this one colour was so important to writers in the 1890s. From fashionable magazines to madness-inducing wallpaper, why does yellow define the decade?

And finally, in ‘Z is for Zuleika’, Max Beerbohm’s letters offer an insight into the creative process which went into writing his novel – Zuleika Dobson.

Thank you so much to those who have stuck with me throughout the series and for all your comments and suggestions! I’m delighted to let you know I’ll be starting a new series in the next weeks, reviewing works of Neo-Victorian literature, so if you have any favourite works which fall into this category then let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!


  1. A great round up post, I need to have a spare hour or two to come back and follow some of the links