Victorian Era: Novel and Novelists

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      The English novel, since its origin in the hands of Richardson and Fielding, had swept along on a tide of creative energy till it reached its full powers in the Victorian age. It had now established itself as a dominant form of literature and enjoyed an unbounded popularity, which brought in a rich gallery of writers of fiction. This popularity of the novel is to be attributed to the growth of an enormous reading public, due to the spread of compulsory education. Education was no longer a sacred preserve of the privileged class but it was brought within the reach of all - including the lower strata of the society. This lower middle class wanted to see pictures of itself in literature. Poetry was a hard fate to them, because it demands a more sophisticated taste. The cheapening of print and paper had already given a fresh impetus for productions of books, journals, magazines, etc.

A Victorian novelist has to mingle slapstick and sentiment. The readers wanted virtue rewarded and vice punished at the end. Novels became very popular, and melodramatic sensational novels were written by many
Victorian Novelist


      Since the novel is the most popular form of literature, writers came forward to cater for this public demand. The middle class readers were the arbiters of taste. The Reform Act of 1832 gave a semblance of power and importance to the middle class that was prospering in commerce and industry. These readers dictated the materials and their treatment of the novelists. They were intelligent but unintellectual they were eager for sensations and voracious in their appetites. A Victorian novelist has to mingle slapstick and sentiment. The readers wanted virtue rewarded and vice punished at the end. Novels became very popular, and melodramatic sensational novels were written by many. The stock of the Victorian novel is a prodigious one. The names of the novelists of the age are many and it is difficult to exhaust the list. Indeed, in fertility and variety of kinds the novel of the age is amazingly rich. The primary task of a novelist, since the start of novel-writing has been to tell an interesting story, to present a number of people whom the reader can see as clear-cut characters, who in their manners, features, dress, etc. resemble their own friends and acquaintances. But mere story-telling was not enough; something of a philosophy of life was demanded of a novel and a novelist could not avoid it at the risk of his popularity. This had been the traditional aspect of the novel since its inception. Many of the Victorian novelists broke fresh grounds, 'explored fresh fields and pastures new', which we shall strive to illustrate.

      Charles Dickens is easily the first of the Victorian novelists both in point of time and quality. His most important predecessors in the English novel were Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Scott and Jane Austen. Richardson was 'sentimental' and aimed at moral edification through novels by a strong appeal to feelings, especially of pathos. Fielding, more masculine and sophisticated, wrote fictions to prove the superiority of healthy good nature over theories and principles. The individual influence of the two on the course of the English novel was great. Jane Austen was the chronicler, faithful and minute, of the quiet life of the country gentry. Scott was a romancer, who reproduced bygone ages with the glow of the rich and colourful imagination. Dickens made use of the novel as an instrument of social reform, his novels are novels with a purpose. He makes a powerful exposure of, many of the social evils of the time. He was,the most genuine story-teller of the complex life of London of his time. He was the romancer of the life of the streets, workshops, factories, slums, of which he had a direct personal knowledge. And in depicting this life he brought a rich and fertile imagination an inimitable humour and pathos, and a personal style. To quote Cazamian: "As a creator, Dickens is prodigious. The picture he has painted of the social world is one of the richest in the whole range of English literature. His perception of things and characters is remarkable for its direct keenness and fresh vigour and incomparable liveliness. "His novels - The Pickzoick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hani Times, Great Expectations testify to his social realism and power as an artist.

      Thackeray, with whom Dickens is often contrasted, is the first of the English novelist who hating rank and privilege, bites with his bull-dog teeth into every abuse of rank and privilege. His scope is vast; the church, the army, the civil service, the government, the fashionable public school, Fleet Street, in short the whole world of London spreading to the continent and even to India - against all this he hurls his satirical arrow. The evils of self-interest, of parasitism and of snobbery make him savagely irate. He has the quick observer's eye and the dramatist's skill in capturing individualised speech and idiom and these make his characters, his rogues, scoundrels, and fools, astonishingly alive and interesting. But Thackeray is no conscious moralist; he envisages no moral change in social, political or religious institutions. Vanity Fair is his greatest novel which exposes with devastating irony the snobbery and hypocrisy of the Victorian age.

      In the development of Victorian novels, the achievements of the women novelists particularly George Eliot, Charlotte and Emily Bronte are vastly important and deserve special note. Their works show a considerable social value of the novel as a picture of English life and an increase in its capacity to analyse moral and emotional shades of character. The novel in their hands too, very often comes close to poetry in imagination, vision and conceptions.

      George Eliot (The pen-name of Mary Ann Evans) heralds a new force in English fiction. She was the first novelist to lay stress wholly upon character rather than incidents. "Her serious concern with the problems of human personality and its relationship with the forces outside itself, her interest in detailed psychological analysis of the realms of inner consciousness, did much to determine the future course of the English novel" - (Albert). Indeed, a whole series of distinguished novelists of the latter times, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf may be said to be her inheritors in the craft of fiction. Essentially a keen observer of life and richly humorous, she is never content with the mere chronicling of the results of her observation. She was a profound thinker on life and her novels art often overweighted with speculative elements. Her canvas is wide and varied. Florentine scholars, half-witted rustics, cultured free-thinkers, wayward passionate. natures, shallow and insincere ones, mystics, men of the world - all jostle together in the pages of her novels and her psychological imagination gives them a life and reality which is astounding. Her characterisation is subtle; her exploration of the delicate nuances of character is amazing in its psychological power, and in this she has no rival and few peers in fiction. She was in touch with the intellectual life of the time as no other novelist was. She was essentially a Puritan and the tone of her novels is one of moral earnestness. A rich and genial humour and sometimes a caustic irony light up her pages, to the infinite delight of the readers. Adam Bede, the Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, Felix Holt, Daniel Deronda are her great novels in which she shows her power as a social critic, as a philosopher and as an artist who made the novels intellectual as well as coherent in structure.

      The story of the Bronte sisters reads like a romance. They are aptly described as the 'stormy sisterhood'. The daughters of an Irish curate of an untamable and barbaric nature, they were bred in the atmosphere of stern self-repression by the father. Frail and delicate, and bereft of the society of other children, Charlotte and Emily grew up to be unnaturally reserved and silent. Living in the Yorkshire moorland they absorbed the silence of the lonely moors in their aversion to society and the passion for the moors in all seasons made them, particularly Emily a part and parcel of the moorlands. In this respect Emily foreshadows the heroines of Hardy's novels. In the English fiction they were the pioneers, as Albert has said, of the romantic movement that had transformed the English poetry at the beginning of the century. The hereditary strain of consumptive disease in the family, leading to their premature death reminds us of Keats. Love was the breath of life to Charlotte, the elder sister and her novels are pre-occupied with the theme of love. The tragedy of the unloved woman was never felt more keenly than in her two great novels - Jane Eyre and Villette. She is the champion of the lonely and repressed womanhood. "Until she began to write no woman had ever dared to write of life from the woman's point of view, as Fielding had done from the man's. The masculine convention, that whatever, a woman may feel is bad for her to express it and that while the man may do and care, the woman must wait meekly and patiently, held good in fiction. This convention Charlotte broke down." She revealed woman as a human being with her passions and desires and proclaim the right of her sex to give expressions to those desires instead of meekly awaiting. But there is no trace of lawlessness in her passion, her outlook on life being Puritanical. She is almost volcanic in this passionate intensity. Thus she "presented a new conception of the heroine as a woman of vital strength and passionate feelings" in English novel for the first time. In her concern for baring the human soul, for psychological analysis and dissection she foreshadows George Eliot, Meredith and many of the twentieth century novelists. Her novels are as much the product of imagination as of the intellect and some of their powerful descriptive passages border on poetry.

      Emily Bronte, the younger is in some ways greater than Charlotte Bronte. She seems to be an embodiment of the storm-swept moor, more of an elemental spirit than a creature of flesh and blood. She lived a lonely life, shunning society and grimly fighting the encroaching disease that took her life so early. Swinburne pays an eloquent tribute to her in words, which are worth quoting:

"Whose soul
Knew no fellow for might,
Passion, vehemence, grief,
Daring, since Byron died"

      AIl this finds expression in her only novel, Wuthering Heights, which is unique in English literature. "It breathes the very spirit of the wild, desolate moors." Its chief characters are conceived on gigantic scales. They are rather the primal force of Nature, the incarnations of passion, rather than human beings. They defy all psychological standards. In its tragic splendour, poignant beauty underlying all its horrors, its lyrical tone and imaginative pictures of nature, it more resembles a Shakespearean tragedy, say King Lear than any other novel in English literature. In the words of an eminent critic, "It is a strange, amazing and terrible book."

      The appeal of George Meredith is limited to a narrow circle of readers. He has not the popularity of Dickens or Trollope. He has been described as a 'high-brow'. As a Shrewd observer of life Meredith is unsurpassed. His pictures of contemporary life particularly the high life, are not equalled by any Victorian novelist. His attitude is that of a satirist and he exposes the hypocrisy, insincerity, egoism with are realism. His humour is not broad or genial. It is, to quote his words, "with the springing delight of a hound after fox" that he chases his preys, never allowing them to rest. He knew his characters well and clearly saw where they are wanting. In the, Egoist his genius and art reach the climax. Its theme is the gradual education of an egoist sir Willoughby is an immortal creation in English fiction. Meredith has stripped off with relentless hands the gloss of romance with which his contemporaries had invested their studies of men and women. He has desentimentalised them and showed them in their stark and ugly reality. As a painter of woman, he is almost like Hardy. His best women are attractive (not wayward like some of Hardy's women) and are not the less feminine for being clear-headed and sound hearted. His characters reveal that a psychologist is at work in their creation. As a stylist Meredith is self-conscious and almost eccentric. The defects of his style accounted for the slowness with which his novels were received. It is a hard fare for a hasty novel-reader to swallow easily. It is over-compressed and over-brilliant, complex in meaning or sense. But at its best it is direct and evocative. Many of his descriptive passages reach the lyrical heights of poetry. Thus, despite his scanty contemporary popularity, Meredith's ultimate fame is assured. Other novelists of the period are Anthony Trollope, Bulwar Lytton, Charles Reade, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Kingsley, William Collins etc. Trollope's The Warden and Barchester Towersare important social novels for the period. Lytton's The Last Days of Pampeii, Gaskell's Cranford and Kingsley's Westward Ho, call for special mention.

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