Subject Material

Victorian Literature - More than Dickens

Published: 29.08.2012, Updated: 19.06.2013
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Charles Dickens rightfully stands as a landmark in English literature, but the Victorian era was an immensely rich and productive period and musters a line of creative writers whose high quality works are still enjoyed today.

William Thackeray

The Victorian Period was the final breakthrough of the novel and one of the English novelists who by many of his contemporaries was seen as a competitor to Dickens was William Makepeace Thackeray. They were read by the same audience and were in many books occupied with the same themes. But more than competitors, it is more correct to say that they complement each other. Thackeray’s most famous work was “Vanity Fair” and was, like many of the novels at the time, first published in monthly issues, and then came as a book in 1849. It is a humorous and biting satirical presentation of the life of upper-class England in the first half of the 19th century, with an extensive cast of characters and a wide-ranging plot. The novel has by many critics been rated among the best in world literature. One of Thackeray’s early novels, “Barry Lyndon” was in 1975 made into a movie by Stanley Kubrick, a brilliant and highly recommended film which took home four Academy Awards.

The Brontë Sisters

Emily, Anne and Charlotte Brontë grew up in a remote house on the windswept Yorkshire moors, which in many ways has left its mark on their work. One of the most read novels in English literature is Emily Brontë’s "Wuthering Heights",  her only work and a gripping narrative about absorbing and destructive love. (Follow link to a separate presentation of “Wuthering Heights”) Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” was a huge success when it came out in 1847, the same year as "Wuthering Heights". "Jane Eyre" is a kind of Cinderella story but without the happy ending. It is a thrilling narrative of deep and self-sacrificing love, and it is said that it was Queen Victoria’s favourite novel. Anne Brontë was not as famous as her two sisters but her novels and poems were also popular with the reading audience at the time. Both “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre” have been filmed many times.

George Eliot

Marian Evans took the pseudonym George Eliot, and is perhaps after Dickens the writer of the period that has been most read and embraced up until today. She was a prominent intellectual who took a public stand against dogmatic Christianity, which was seen as quite controversial at the time. On top of that she lived “in sin” with a married man, who was separated from his wife, but could not get a divorce. Her most popular novel was “The Mill on the Floss”, but her masterpiece was “Middlemarch” which was published in 1871. It is a deep and sharp analysis of provincial England degenerated in religious and moral disingenuity. The novel is highly acclaimed even today. She sought to understand human instincts and emotions and portrayed her characters with insight and love. Her style is introvert and partly philosophical as she reflects the mind and psyche of her characters.

Robert and Elizabeth Browning

Robert and Elizabeth Browning belong in the front line of Victorian literature. They were established writers when they met in 1845. They married secretly (Elizabeth's father was very dominating and madly jealous) and moved to Italy where they lived for sixteen years until Elizabeth died. Robert Browning’s poetry can in a way be called timeless – that is, it can be truly romantic and at the same time close to what we would call modernist poetry, even though it was written during the Victorian era. His style is said to be deep and difficult, but nonetheless he is one of the most important English poets, and he influenced many modernist poets of the 20th century. One of his most famous poems is called “Home Thoughts from Abroad” and pays homage to his beloved home country in the springtime. Elizabeth Browning wrote the poem “The Cry of the Children” which was a critical comment on the use of child labour in the factories in England.

Thomas Hardy

Another of the prominent late Victorians was Thomas Hardy. His is an acclaimed novelist who still has a huge audience. He wanted to show how man is helplessly corrupted by evil forces beyond his control, forces like dogmatic religious practice and the many conventional routines and what he saw as pointless formalities in different social settings. His themes were often tragic and he was criticised for presenting a pessimistic view on life, though he thought of himself as being realistic. He has written many very popular novels, such as “Far from the Maddening Crowd”, “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, which probably is his most famous work. “Tess” was filmed by Roman Polanski in 1979 and was a huge success, being rated by critics as one of Polanski’s best films.