Victorian Literature

Sunday, Jun 12, 2016

Everything you thought you knew about Victorians...

When you hear about "The Victorians" - what do you think of? Long white dresses, prim and proper etiquette... children held in esteem as angels? There was, of course, much emphasis on what was proper and improper, but there was also a slow-growing movement towards a new kind of living and, therefore, writing.

The Victorian era is so named for Queen Victoria of England, but similar changes were occurring all over the world. The dates we look to are 1837 (the year Victoria became Queen of England) to 1901 (the year of her death). Victorian England experienced growth and a spread of certain political movements (like socialism and feminism), and the population were excited by exploration of new continents and worlds yet to be discovered. Travel was made easier with the expansion of the national railway network and by the late 1870s visits to resorts and hotels around the country was a popular leisure activity. 

But what of the rest of the world? Too often we associate the "Victorian Era" with just one country. True, many of the most famous writers from the period hailed from the United Kingdom (Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, George Elliot [Mary Ann Evans], John Ruskin, Thomas Hardy & Henry James, to name a few), but famous writers also came from places such as France and America, among many others.  What was happening around the world that shaped this era of writing into the Golden Age of Literature we know it as today?

As stated earlier, Britain was experiencing a significant expansion of ideas - philosophical, scientific, and social. This was, no doubt, helped along by the industrial revolution (still going on at the beginning of the Victorian period) and the boom in machinery and scientific/technological advances (like textile machinery, the steam engine, advanced printing presses).  

America, too, was experiencing expansion and industrial growth of its own in the early 1800s, but was stopped short with a "Great Depression" that came along in 1837 (ironically the same year that the Victorian Period began).  Of course, the next few decades of United States history was dominated by the Civil War and the constant fighting over the rights of minorities in the states.  How did these events influence "Victorian Age" American authors in their writings? Take a look at some of the most well-known American authors of the time... Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson... one could argue that at some point in their novels, each of these writers handles subjects close to the American situation - subjects such as inequality, rage, battle and a return to nature (there were still undiscovered pieces of the United States at this time). 

In France, a still-recovering nation saw the end the First French Republic and the beginning of the Second Republic (and the exile of France's last King, King Louis Phillipe), they witnessed a final end to the Franco-Prussian War (and the subsequent exile of Napolean III to the UK), and the construction of the Eiffel Tower.  Authors like Guy de Maupassant, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert all came from this period, and are some of France's most celebrated authors in history as their literature reflects a period of immense change and an understanding of all different classes of humanity at the time (similar to many Victorian authors). 

We can see how current situations influence writers. What does this have to do with our love of authors of the Victorian Era? The Victorian authors are some of the most collected writers in the antiquarian book world. The authors listed above remain immensely popular, along with others such as Edgar Allen Poe, William Makepeace Thackeray, Robert Browning, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Robert Louis Stevenson.  What are your favorites? This month we challenge you to make your way through as many of these authors as you can!  After all, don't you want to see what "the Victorians" had to say?