1837 - 1901
It spans over six decades of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Literature deals with the issues and problems of the
day: the social, economic, religious and intellectual
issues and problems surrounding the Industrial
Revolution, growing class tensions, the early feminist
movement, pressures toward political and social
reform, and the impact of Charles Darwin’s theory of
evolution on philosophy and religion.
Some of the most recognized authors of the Victorian
era include Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning,
Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot and
Thomas Hardy.
Poetry settled down from the upheavals of the romantic
period and much of the work of the time is seen as a bridge
between this earlier era and the modernist poetry of the next
century. Leading poetic figures include Alfred Tennyson,
Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Matthew
Arnold, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti.
• ALFRED LORD TENNYSON (1809-92) – Poet Laureate of the
UK from 1850 until his death. Greatly admired by Queen
Victoria. Much of his verse was based on classical
mythological themes. One of Tennyson's most famous works
is Idylls of the King (1885), (idyll = descriptive poem) a series
of narrative poems based entirely on King Arthur and the
Arthurian tales The work was dedicated to Prince Albert, the
husband of Queen Victoria.
Tennyson used a wide range of subject matter, ranging from
medieval legends (Arthurian, e.g. The Lady of Shalot) to classical
myths (The Lotus Eaters, Ulysses) and from domestic situations to
observations of nature, as source material for his poetry. The
influence of John Keats and other Romantic poets published
before and during his childhood is evident from the richness of his
imagery and descriptive writing.
On the whole, his shorter poems are better known (Tears, Idle
Tears, Crossing the Bar, The Charge of the Light Brigade – criticism
of establishment)
Tennyson wrote a number of phrases that have
become commonplaces of the English language,
including: "better to have loved and lost, than not
to have loved at all", "Theirs not to reason why, /
Theirs but to do and die", and "My strength is as the
strength of ten, / Because my heart is pure". He is
the second most frequently quoted writer in The
Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare.
ROBERT BROWNING (1812-89) – did not reflect much
the ideas of his time. He found themes for his poetry
in his travels and his studies.
• He tried writing plays, but without success; however,
he is admired for his dramatic monologues; the
meaning in a Browning dramatic monologue is not
what the speaker directly reveals but what he
inadvertently "gives away" about himself in the
process of rationalizing past actions, or "specialpleading" his case to a silent auditor in the poem.
Rather than thinking out loud, the character
composes a self-defense which the reader, as "juror,"
is challenged to see through.
Browning chooses some of the most debased, extreme
and even criminally psychotic characters, no doubt for the
challenge of building a sympathetic case for a character
who doesn't deserve one and to cause the reader to
squirm at the temptation to acquit a character who may
be a homicidal psychopath. One of his more sensational
dramatic monologues is Porphyria's Lover. The opening
lines provide a sinister setting for the macabre events that
follow. It is plain that the speaker is insane, as he strangles
his lover with her own hair to try and preserve for ever the
moment of perfect love she has shown him.
• Other famous dramatic monologues are: Fra Lippo Lippi,
Andrea del Sarto, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, My Last
The reclaiming of the past was a major part of Victorian
literature with an interest in both classical literature but also
the medieval literature of England. The Victorians loved the
heroic, chivalrous stories of knights of old and they hoped to
regain some of that noble, courtly behaviour and impress it
upon the people both at home and in the wider empire. The
best example of this is Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King
which blended the stories of King Arthur, particularly those
by Thomas Malory, with contemporary concerns and ideas.
Victorian novels tend to be idealized portraits of difficult
lives in which hard work, perseverance, love and luck win out
in the end; virtue would be rewarded and wrongdoers are
suitably punished. They tended to be of an improving nature
with a central moral lesson at heart. While this formula was
the basis for much of earlier Victorian fiction, the situation
became more complex as the century progressed.
 On the other hand, moralizing often led to hypocrisy, oversentimentality and false religiousness. Many authors
rebelled against and mocked Victorianism.
 An age of violent contrasts, in literature as in life.
CHARLES DICKENS (1812-70) – the greatest of
Victorian story-tellers.
Faults: unconvincing plots; clumsy,
ungrammatical sentences; sentimentality.
He is a master of the grotesque (unsuitable, odd,
ridiculous, incongruous) ; his characters are
really ‘humours’ – exaggerations of one human
quality to the point of caricature (Mr Micawber is
personified optimism; Uriah Heep mere creeping
hypocrisy; Mr Squeers a monster of ignorance
and tyranny – they are grotesques not human
His world is a kind of a nightmare London of
chop-houses (restaurants serving meat), prison,
lawyers’ offices, and taverns, dark, foggy and
cold but very much alive.
His novels are animated by a sense of injustice
and personal wrong; he is concerned with the
problems of crime and poverty, but he does not
seem to believe that things can be improved by
legislation or reform movements – everything
depends on the individual, particularly a wealthy
philanthropist. Compassion to the weak,
oppressed and abused.
Pickwick Papers – picaresque masterpiece where
the plot is not important, but everything
depends on humorous types and on grotesque
incidents. Humorous adventures of Mr. Pickwick
and his friends as they travel across England.
Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities –
historical novels.
Oliver Twist – concentrate on social conditions;
social evils: the poor, the life of poor children
and the life of London’s petty criminals.
Compassion of the author who condemns the
cruelty and insensitivity of one class to the other.
A Christmas Carol – the miser Scrooge miraculously
transforms into a philanthropist. Christmas
symbolizes the only way in which the world can be
improved – by the exercise of charity.
David Copperfield – autobiographical
Hard Times – the problems of developing industrial
cities in the north; a critique of utilitarianism – only
material things are good and needed
SIGNIFICANCE: novel enormously popular genre;
entertaining but also social commentary; wish to right
the wrongs of society; always compassion to the weak
and the oppressed.
As opposed to Dickens, who wrote of low life
and was a warm-blooded romantic, Thackeray
wrote of upper life and was an anti-romantic. His
most read work is Vanity Fair – it tells of the
career of two girls with sharply contrasted
characters – Becky Sharp, unscrupulous and
clever; Amelia Sedley, pretty, moral but
unintelligent – and draws clever portraits of
officers and gentlemen of the time of Waterloo
SIGNIFICANCE: satirist and parodist of
Victorian society; saw himself as a realist,
without Dickens’ romantic exaggerations and
sentimentality; criticized society but without
the wish or the method to improve it; read
much less than Dickens today; mostly
remembered for Vanity Fair, and his
unscrupulous but charming protagonist
Becky Sharp.
CHARLOTTE BRONTE (1816-55) – Jane Eyre – one of
the really significant Victorian novels; a story of the
governess who falls in love with her master, himself
married to a madwoman.
• EMILY BRONTE (1818-48) – Wuthering Heights – a
story of wild passion set against the Yorkshire moors.
Story about love and antagonism, which last beyond
death. Not concerned with moral or social problems
(like other writers of the period) but with
psychological aspect of her characters.
• ANNE BRONTE (1820-49) – best remembered
because of her sisters; her talent was smaller than
SIGNIFICANCE: A picture of Victorian society from a
woman’s point of view; Victorian picture of a woman
as “an angel in the house”.
 Modern – in a sense that female protagonists try to
make their living by their intelligence and
perseverance, not through marriage; those that do,
bitterly regret it – Catherine in Wuthering Heights.
“Nature vs. culture”. Psychological portraits of
characters – not idealized. Gothic Romanticism violence, passion, the supernatural, heightened
emotion and emotional distance, an unusual mix for
any novel but particularly at this time. Examining
class, myth, and gender.
Within the Victorian period the movement of
Aestheticism and Decadence also gained prominence.
It grew out of the French movement of the same
name. The authors of this movement encouraged
experimentation and held the view that art is totally
opposed to ‘natural’ norms of morality. This style of
literature opposed the dominance of scientific
thinking and defied the hostility of society to any art
that was not useful or did not teach moral values. It
was from the movement of Aestheticism and
Decadence that the phrase art for art’s sake emerged.
A well known author of the English Aestheticism and
Decadence movement is Oscar Wilde.
OSCAR WILDE (1856-1900) – The Picture of Dorian Gray –
hedonism as the way of life. The beautiful Dorian Gray
wishes that he should remain eternally young and
handsome while his picture, painted in the finest flush of
his beauty, should grow old in his stead. The wish is
granted: Dorian remains ever-young, but his portrait
shows signs of ever-increasing age and, moreover, the
scars of the crimes attendant on asking too much (a
murder, the ruining of many women, unnamable
debauchery). Dorian, repentant, tries to destroy his
portrait, symbolically quelling his sins, but – magically – it
is he himself who dies, monstrous with age and ugliness,
and his portrait that reverts to its former perfection of
youthful beauty.
In drama, farces, musical burlesques and comic operas
competed with Shakespeare productions and serious drama.
The famous series of comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan
and were followed by the 1890s with the first Edwardian
musical comedies.
Oscar Wilde became the leading poet and dramatist of the
late Victorian period. Wilde's plays, (The Importance of Being
Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan) in particular, stand apart
from the many now forgotten plays of Victorian times and
have a much closer relationship to those of the Edwardian
dramatists such as George Bernard Shaw, many of whose
most important works were written in the 20th century.
Efforts to stop child labour and the introduction of
compulsory education.
As children began to be able to read, literature for
young people became a growth industry established writers producing works for children
(such as Dickens' A Child's History of England)
a new group of dedicated children's authors.
Writers like Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter wrote
mainly for children, although they had an adult
Other authors such as Anthony Hope and Robert
Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling wrote
mainly for adults, but their adventure novels are
now generally classified as for children.
Other genres include nonsense verse, poetry
which required a child-like interest (e.g. Lewis
Carroll). School stories flourished: Thomas
Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays.
Novels that came out of the late
nineteenth century are the first examples
of the genre of fantastic fiction.
Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Edward Hyde,
The Invisible Man were all created at the
Gothic literature continues to thrive.
Romance and horror in attempt to thrill
and terrify the reader. In Victorian Gothic
monsters sometimes cross over into the
real world, making appearances in cities
such as London and France.
Crime fiction: A.C.Doyle, The Adventures
of Sherlock Holmes, W. Collins, Moonstone
Gothic fiction: B. Stoker, Dracula, R. L.
Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Victorian era was an important time for the
development of science and the Victorians had a mission to
describe and classify the entire natural world.
Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, remains famous.
The theory of evolution contained within the work shook
many of the ideas the Victorians had about themselves and
their place in the world and although it took a long time to
be widely accepted it would change, dramatically,
subsequent thought and literature.
One other important and monumental work begun in this
era was the Oxford English Dictionary which would eventually
become the most important historical dictionary of the
English language.
Matthew Arnold – not only a poet, but also a critic of both
literature and English social and political life
Samuel Butler – wrote satires on the Victorian society and its
belief in its own rightness
The interest in older works of literature led the Victorians
much further - translating of literature from the farthest
flung corners of their new empire and beyond. Arabic and
Sanskrit literature were some of the richest bodies of work to
be discovered and translated for popular consumption.
Writers from the former colony of The United States of
America and the remaining colonies of Australia, New
Zealand and Canada could not avoid being influenced by the
literature of Britain and they are often classed as a part of
Victorian literature although they were gradually developing
their own distinctive voices.
From the sphere of literature of the United States during this
time are some of the country's greats including: Emily
Dickinson, Henry James, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher
Stowe, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.
The problem with the classification of Victorian literature is
great difference between the early works of the period and
the later works which had more in common with the writers
of the Edwardian period and many writers straddle this
divide. People such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling,
H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Jerome K. Jerome and Joseph
Conrad all wrote some of their important works during
Victoria's reign but the sensibility of their writing is
frequently regarded as Edwardian.