Minor Victorian Novelists: Novels

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      Novels became very popular in the Victorian era. The rise of the middle class and spread of the periodicals account for the popularity of the novels. The Reform Bill of 1830 gave importance to the middle class that was prospering in commerce and industry. During the next forty years this class became the arbiter of literary taste. It was a self-satisfied but ignorant public for whom the Victorians wrote. It liked to enjoy displays of sentimental pathos and moral didacticism. They were intelligent but not intellectual and they liked to read novels for entertainment and moral edification. It liked to see virtue rewarded and vice punished and insisted on having the line between them sharply drawn. The reading public of the Victorian age resembled those who had welcomed Defoe in the eighteenth century. They were materialistic, eager for sensation and voracious in their appetites.

Victorian novelist had to be able to satisfy a multiplicity of tastes; he had to be a philosopher, humourist and psychologist.
Victorian Novelist

      A Victorian novelist had to be able to satisfy a multiplicity of tastes; he had to be a philosopher, humourist and psychologist. He had to mingle slapstick and sentiment and he had to hold the attention of the readers and entertain them. Even the great Victorian novelists - Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot had to cater to the taste of the Victorian reading public. The general attitude to the novels in the thirties and forties is summed up by Trollope - people read novels as men eat pastry after dinner. "A novel to me is like a dram to others". The novelist's true audience is the common readers the people of ordinary comprehension and everyday sympathies, whatever their rank may be. Dickens novels contain all the features that make him popular with the middle class readers melodrama, sentiment, romance and didacticism - entertainment is the chief purpose of his novels. Yet he has something that transcends these qualities - his humour and his creative vivacity vitalise all his creations. 

      Sentimentalism, melodrama, didacticism and entertainment - these were the most essential features of popular and fashionable novels of the Victorian period. Wilkie Collins and Charles Reade are sensation novelists. Wilkie Collins attained popularity for his The Woman in White, The Moonstone which excelled in arousing the sense of terror and in keeping in suspense the explanation of a mystery. He really anticipated the detective novels of Conan Doyle. Charles Reade followed the reforming ardour ot Dickens in his It is Never too Late to Mend, Hard Cash and Put Yourself in his Place. He criticised the prison conditions, cruel lunatic asylums and trade unions. He made pathological studies in Griffith Gaunt, A Terrible Temptation. He wrote a historical novel, The Cloister and the Hearth on the life of the father ot Erasmus.

      Butwer Lytton wrote novels steeped in the Byronic spirit. Their heroes are brilliant dandies Falkland and Pelhant or attractive criminals Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram. The Last Days of Pompeii is a historical novel with grandiose theatricality. It is remarkable for horrific sensationalism. Like Bulwer Lyton, Benjamin Disraeli began with the portrait of a dandy, Vivian Grey. In Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred, Disraeli was among the first to point to the amelioration of the wretched lot of the working class as a social duty of the aristocracy. He is often pretentious and artificial. But there are eloquent and witty pages in his books. Charles Kingsley is another social novelist. He embodied his generous ideals of reform in the novels Yeast and Alton Locke. In spite of force and eloquence, the works are marred by preaching and theorising. In Westward Ho! he commemorated the adventurous spirit of the Elizabethan navigators. He was an energetic writer but lacked artistic standards.

      The fashionable novels of the day were either social novels or romantic historical novels. Suspense and horror, sentimentality and moral preaching were their stock-in-trade. Rascals were made agreeable in the novels of Ainsworth and Mrs. Gore. Variety of incidents was introduced to amuse the imagination and alarm the credulity. Unmanly pity, Puritanical hypocrisy, artificial conversions, portraiture of upper and middle class men in society were the chief features of many ot these novels.

      Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) is a Victorian novelist whose writings have enjoyed a considerable revival in the twentieth century. He was immune to the upheavals of the age and wrote novels with no other purpose than to entertain the readers. But he avoided violent and dramatic effects in which Charles Reade and others delighted and wrote with ease and regularity and with a sense of humour. His Irish novels gave pictures of contemporary Irish life but his popularity was due to his perfect studies of English clerical life in Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Throne and The Last Chronicle of Barset. The master-piece of the series in Barchester Towers which is rich in finely conceived characters and in the picture of a nineteenth century English town. Twentieth century criticism also exalts the political or parliamentary novels by Trollope - Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister. In these novels, the rural comedy of Barchester is replaced by the deepening gloom of London politics. The way we live now is Trollope's one angry social satire showing the corruption of England's gilded age. Trollope, however, was not thinker, no critic of the age. He identified himself with the nineteenth century governing class and reflected it admiringly. He accepted unquestioningly class loyalties, class tolerance and class distinction and accepted the country gentry and the Church. He was indeed a typical Victorian novelist.

      Samuel Butler and George Gissing presented a contrast to Trollope. Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a rebel against clerical discipline and attacked it with bitter irony. He was bitterly opposed to current morality and tradition and to Darwin's evolution theory. He had much of the critical spirit of Swift and Voltaire. In his Erewhon (1872) and Erewhon Revisited, he attacked the systems and principles of the Victorian society. Erewhon is the anagram of nowhere. It was something unique because so long the social novels were content to expose the follies of individuals and criticise the workings of society. The Way of All Flesh is the first attempt to debunk the Victorians by subjecting one of their most cherished institutions, the family, to a merciless scrutiny. Behind the imposing facade of family love Butler found hypocrisy, deceit, malice, cruelty and ignorance-Butler influenced the writings of Shaw, Galsworthy and others of the twentieth century.

      Gissing (1857-1903) is another rebel although his writings are conventional in form. He is a realistic like Dickens but his realism is drab. He has no vision of social betterment, no humour to light up his pictures. The Unclassed (1884) describes the tragedy of those who have gone down in the world; Demos deals with the uselessness of socialist agitation; The Nether World with the degradation of the slums; New Grub Street with the penniless writer's hopeless effort to make his way. Odd Women deals with the dreary lot of the unmarried woman struggling to live in a society that cares nothing for her. His stern objectivity curbs that sentimentality that colours the pictures of sordid life in Victorian England in many novels. He is a true humanist and his unaffected sober prose lends edge to the gloomy pictures of social life.

      Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) is the pioneer of the romantic revival of the late nineteenth century novel. His novels were a reaction against the novels of gloomy social criticism and stern realism. He came to satisfy the love of an energetic life which was ingrained in the English temperament. He wrote tales of travel and adventure and cared little for morbid analysis of states of mind. In An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, he describes his wanderings in France. In Treasure Island, Stevenson supplied the younger generation with a prime favourite. With Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantra and Catriona, he returned to the Scottish novel of Sir Walter Scott. In The Strange Case of Mr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he writes a symbolic tale of man's dual nature, good and evil.

      But it owes its peculiar forces less to its psychology than to bold outline and to the ingenuity with which it is told. Stevenson's distinction lies in his power of story telling and in creating romance with modern realism. His skill and ease in composition are as remarkable as his style. His cultivation of style was influenced by France, though he did not support art for art's sake. He will remain a vital and attractive writer whose reputation is less likely to be disturbed by changing fashions in philosophy and politics.

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