The Victorian Age (1832-1900)

The Victorian Age in English literature began in second quarter of the nineteenth century and ended by 1900. Though strictly speaking, the Victorian age ought to correspond with the reign of Queen Victoria, which extended from 1837 to 1901, yet literary movements rarely coincide with the exact year of royal accession or death. From the year 1798 with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads till the year 1820 there was the heyday of Romanticism in England, but after that year there was a sudden decline.

Wordsworth who after his early effusion of revolutionary principles had relapsed into conservatism and positive opposition to social and political reforms, produced nothing of importance after the publication of his White Doe of Rylstone in 1815, though he lived till 1850. Coleridge wrote no poem of merit after 1817. Scott was still writing after 1820, but his work lacked the fire and originality of his early years. The Romantic poets of the younger generation unfortunately all died young—Keats in 1820, Shelley in 1822, and Byron in 1824.

Though the Romantic Age in the real sense of the term ended in 1820, the Victorian Age started from 1832 with the passing of the first Reform Act, 1832. The years 1820-1832 were the years of suspended animation in politics. It was a fact that England was fast turning from an agricultural into a manufacturing country, but it was only after the reform of the Constitution which gave right of vote to the new manufacturing centres, and gave power to the middle classes, that the way was opened for new experiments in constructive politics. The first Reform Act of 1832 was followed by the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 which gave an immense advantage to the manufacturing interests, and the Second Reform Act of 1867. In the field of literature also the years 1820-1832 were singularly barren. As has already been pointed out, there was sudden decline of Romantic literature from the year 1820, but the new literature of England, called the Victorian literature, started from 1832 when Tennyson’s first important volume, Poems, appeared. The following year saw Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, and Dickens’ earliest work, Sketches by Boz. The literary career of Thackeray began about 1837, and Browning published his Dramatic Lyrics in 1842. Thus the Victorian period in literature officially starts from 1832, though the Romantic period ended in 1820, and Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837.
The Victorian Age is so long and complicated and the great writers who flourished in it are so many, that for the sake of convenience it is often divided into two periods—Early Victorian Period and Later Victorian Period. The earlier period which was the period of middle class supremacy, the age of ‘laissez-faire’ or free trade, and of unrestricted competition, extended from 1832 to 1870. The great writers of this period were Tennyson, Browning, Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, Ruskin, Dickens and Thackeray. All these poets, novelists and prose-writers form, a certain homogenous group, because in spite of individual differences they exhibit the same approach to the contemporary problems and the same literary, moral and social values. But the later Victorian writers who came into prominence after 1870—Rossetti, Swinburne, Morris, George Eliot, Meredith, Hardy, Newman and Pater seem to belong to a different age. In poetry Rossetti, Swinburne and Morris were the protagonists of new movement called the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, which was followed by the Aesthetic Movement. In the field of novel, George Eliot is the pioneer of what is called the modern psychological novel, followed by Meredith and Hardy. In prose Newman tried to revolutionise Victorian thought by turning it back to Catholicism, and Pater came out with his purely aesthetic doctrine of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, which was directly opposed to the fundamentally moral approach of the prose-writers of the earlier period—Carlyle Arnold and Ruskin. Thus we see a clear demarcation between the two periods of Victorian literature—the early Victorian period (1832-1870) and the later Victorian period (1870-1900).
But the difference between the writers of the two periods is more apparent than real. Fundamentally they belong to one group. They were all the children of the new age of democracy, of individualism, of rapid industrial development and material expansion, the age of doubt and pessimism, following the new conceptions of man which was formulated by science under the name of Evolution. All of them were men and women of marked originality in outlook and character or style. All of them were the critics of their age, and instead of being in sympathy with its spirit, were its very severe critics. All of them were in search of some sort of balance, stability, a rational understanding, in the midst of the rapidly changing times. Most of them favoured the return to precision in form, to beauty within the limits of reason, and to values which had received the stamp of universal approval. It was in fact their insistence on the rational elements of thought, which gave a distinctive character to the writings of the great Victorians, and which made them akin, to a certain extent, to the great writers of the neo-Classical school. All the great writers of the Victorian Age were actuated by a definite moral purpose. Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold wrote with a superb faith in their message, and with the conscious moral purpose to uplift and to instruct. Even the novel broke away from Scott’s romantic influence. Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot wrote with a definite purpose to sweep away error and reveal the underlying truth of humanity. For this reason the Victorian Age was fundamentally an age of realism rather than of romance.
But from another point of view, the Victorian Age in English literature was a continuation of the Romantic Age, because the Romantic Age came to a sudden and unnatural and mainly on account of the premature deaths of Byron, Shelley and Keats. If they had lived longer, the Age of Romanticism would have extended further. But after their death the coherent inspiration of romanticism disintegrated into separate lines of development, just as in the seventeenth century the single inspiration of the Renaissance broke into different schools. The result was that the spirit of Romanticism continued to influence the innermost consciousness of Victorian Age. Its influence is clearly visible on Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Dickens, Thackeray, Ruskin, Meredith, Swinburne, Rossetti and others. Even its adversaries, and those who would escape its spell, were impregnated with it. While denouncing it, Carlyle does so in a style which is intensely charged with emotional fire and visionary colouring. In fact after 1870 we find that the romantic inspiration was again in the ascendent in the shape of the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements.
There was also another reason of the continuation of Romanticism in the Victorian Age. There is no doubt that the Reform Act set at rest the political disturbances by satisfying the impatient demand of the middle classes, and seemed to inaugurate an age of stability. After the crisis which followed the struggle against the French Revolution and Napoleon, England set about organizing herself with a view to internal prosperity and progress. Moreover, with the advent to power of a middle class largely imbued with the spirit of Puritanism, and the accession of a queen to the throne, an era of self-restraint and discipline started. The English society accepted as its standard a stricter conventional morality which was voiced by writers like Carlyle. But no sooner had the political disturbances subsided and a certain measure of stability and balance had been achieved then there was fresh and serious outbreak in the economic world. The result was that the Victorian period, quiet as it was, began to throb with the feverish tremors of anxiety and trouble, and the whole order of the nation was threatened with an upheaval. From 1840 to 1850 in particular, England seemed to be on the verge of a social revolution, and its disturbed spirit was reflected, especially in the novel with a purpose. This special form of Romanticism which was fed by the emotional unrest in the social sphere, therefore, derived a renewed vitality from these sources. The combined effect of all these causes was the survival and prolongation of Romanticism in the Victorian Age which was otherwise opposed to it.
Moreover, Romanticism not only continued during the Victorian Age, but it appeared in new forms. The very exercise of reason and the pursuit of scientific studies which promoted the spirit of classicism, stirred up a desire for compensation and led to a reassertion of the imagination and the heart. The representatives of the growing civilization of the day—economists, masters of industry, businessmen—were considered as the enemies of nobility and beauty and the artisans of hopeless and joyless materialism. This fear obsessed the minds of those writers of the Victorian Age, to whom feelings and imagination were essentials of life itself. Thus the rationalistic age was rudely shaken by impassioned protestations of writers like Newman, Carlyle and Ruskin who were in conflict with the spirit of their time.
The Victorian Age, therefore, exhibits a very interesting and complex mixture of two opposing elements—Classicism and Romanticism. Basically it was inclined towards classicism on account of its rational approach to the problems of life, a search for balance and stability, and a deeply moral attitude; but on account of its close proximity to the Romantic Revival which had not completely exhausted itself, but had come to a sudden end on account of the premature deaths of Byron, Shelley and Keats, the social and economic unrest, the disillusionment caused by industrialization and material prosperity, the spirit of Romanticism also survived and produced counter currents.

Poets of the Early Victorian Period

The most important poets during the early Victorian period were Tennyson and Browning, with Arnold occupying a somewhat lower position. After the passing away of Keats, Shelley and Byron in the early eighteen twenties, for about fifteen years the fine frenzy of the high romantics subsided and a quieter mood ensued. With the abatement of the revolutionary fervour, Wordsworth’s inspiration had deserted him and all that he wrote in his later years was dull and insipid.


There appeared a host of writers of moderate talent like John Clare, Thomas Love Peacock, Walter Savage Landor and Thomas Hood. The result was that from 1820 till the publication of Tennyson’s first important work in 1833 English poetry had fallen into the hands of mediocrities. It was in fact by the publication of his two volumes in 1842 that Tennyson’s position was assured as, in Wordsworth’s language, “decidedly the greatest of our living poets.” Browning’s recognition by the public came about the same time, with the appearance of Dramatic Lyrics (1842), although Paracelsus and Sordello had already been published. The early Victorian poetry which started in 1833, therefore, came to its own, in the year 1842.

The early poetry of both Tennyson and Browning was imbued with the spirit of romanticism, but it was romanticism with a difference. Tennyson recognised an affinity with Byron and Keats; Browning with Shelley, but their romanticism no longer implied an attitude of revolt against conventional modes. It had itself become a convention. The revolutionary fervour which inspired the poetry of the great Romantic poets had now given place to an evolutionary conception of progress propagated by the writings of Darwin, Bentham and their followers. Though the writers of the new age still persisted in deriving inspiration from the past ages, yet under the spell of the marvels of science, they looked forward rather than backward. The dominant note of the early Victorian period was therefore, contained in Browning’s memorable lines: “The best is yet to be.” Tennyson found spiritual consolation in contemplating the
One far off divine event
To which the whole creation moves.
Faith in the reality of progress was thus the main characteristic of the early Victorian Age. Doubt, scepticism and questioning became the main characteristic of the later Victorian Age.
(a)       Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)
Tennyson is the most representative poet of the Victorian Age. His poetry is a record of the intellectual and spiritual life of the time. Being a careful student of science and philosophy he was deeply impressed by the new discoveries and speculations which were undermining the orthodox religion and giving rise to all sorts of doubts and difficulties. Darwin’s theory of Evolution which believed in the “struggle for existence” and “the survival of the fittest” specially upset and shook the foundations of religious faith. Thus there was a conflict between science and religion, doubt and faith, materialism and spirituality. These two voices of the Victorian age are perpetually heard in Tennyson’s work. In In Memoriam, more than in any other contemporary literary work, we read of the great conflict between faith and doubt. Though he is greatly disturbed by the constant struggle going on in Nature which is “red in tooth and claw”, his belief in evolution steadies and encourages him, and helps him to look beyond the struggle towards the “one far off divine event to which the whole creation moves.”
Tennyson’s poetry is so much representative of his age that a chronological study of it can help us to write its history. Thus his Lockslay Hall of 1842 reflects the restless spirit of ‘young England’ and its faith in science, commerce and the progress of mankind. In Lockslay Hall Sixty Years After (1866) the poet gives expression to the feeling of revulsion aroused against the new scientific discoveries which threatened the very foundations of religion, and against commerce and industry which had given rise of some very ugly problems as a result of the sordid greed of gain. In The Princess, Tennyson dealt with an important problem of the day—that of the higher education of women and their place in the fast changing conditions of modern society. In Maud, he gave expression to the patriotic passion aroused on account of the Crimean War. In Idylls of Kings, in spite of its medieval machinery, contemporary problems were dealt with by the poet. Thus in all these poems the changing moods of the Victorian Age are successively represented—doubts, misgivings, hopefulness etc.
Taking Tennyson’s poetry as a whole, we find that in spite of varieties of moods, it is an exposition of the cautions spirit of Victorian liberalism. He was essentially the poet of law and order as well as of progress. He was a great admirer of English traditions, and though he believed in divine evolution of things:
The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world,
he was, like a true Englishman, against anything that smacked of revolution.
But the real greatness of Tennyson as a poet lies in his being a supreme artist. The ideas contained in his poems are often condemned by his critics as commonplace, and he is berated as a shallow thinker. But no one can deny his greatness as an artist. He is, perhaps, after Milton, the most conscientious and accomplished poetic artist in English literature. He is noteworthy for the even perfection of his style and his wonderful mastery of language which is at once simple and ornate. Moreover, there is an exquisite and varied music in his verse. In poetic style he has shown a uniform mastery which is not surpassed by any other English poet except Shakespeare. As an artist, Tennyson has an imagination less dramatic than lyrical, and he is usually at his best when he is kindled by personal emotion, personal experience. It is his fine talent for lyric which gives him a high place among the masters of English verse. Some of his shorter pieces, such as Break, break, break; Tear, idle tears; Crossing the Bar are among the finest English songs on account of their distinction of music and imagery.
Tennyson is a master of imaginative description, which is seen at its best in The Lotos Eaters. Words can hardly be more beautiful or more expressive than in such a stanza as this:
A land of stream! some, like a downward smoke,
Slow-dropping, veils of thinnest lawn did go;
And some thro’ wavering lights and shadows broke,
Rolling a slumberous sheet of foam below.
They saw the gleaming river seaward flow
From the inner land; for off, three mountain tops,
Three silent pinnacles of aged snow,
Stood sunset flush’d and dew’d with showery drops.
Up clomb the shadowy pine above the woven copse.
During his lifetime Tennyson was considered as the greatest poet of his age, but after his death a reaction started against him, and he was given a much lower rank among the English poets. But with the passage of time Tennyson’s poetry regained its lost position, and at present his place as one of the greatest poets of England is secure mainly on account of the artistic perfection of his verse.
(b)       Robert Browning (1812-1889)
During his lifetime Browning was not considered as great a poet as Tennyson, but after that the opinion of the critics has changed in favour of Browning, who, on account of his depth and originality of thoughts, is ranked superior to Tennyson. Browning and Tennyson were contemporaries and their poetic careers ran almost parallel to each other, but as poets they presented a glaring contrast. Whereas Tennyson is first the artist and then the teacher, with Browning the message is always the important thing, and he is very careless of the form in which it is expressed. Tennyson always writes about subjects which are dainty and comely; Browning, on the other hand, deals with subjects which are rough and ugly, and he aims to show that truth lies hidden in both the evil and the good. In their respective messages the two poets differed widely. Tennyson’s message reflects the growing order of the age, and is summed up in the word ‘law’. He believes in disciplining the individual will and subordinating it to the universal law. There is a note of resignation struck in his poetry, which amounts to fatalism. Browning, on the other hand, advocates the triumph of the individual will over the obstacles. In his opinion self is not subordinate but supreme. There is a robust optimism reflected in all his poetry. It is in fact because of his invincible will and optimism that Browning is given preference over Tennyson whose poetry betrays weakness and helpless pessimism. Browning’s boundless energy, his cheerful courage, his faith in life and in the development that awaits beyond the portals of death, give a strange vitality to his poetry. It is his firm belief in the immortality of the soul which forms the basis of his generous optimism, beautifully expressed in the following lines of Pippa Passes:
The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill side’s dew pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snails on the thorn,
God’s in his heaven—
All’s right with the world.
Thus is an age when the minds of men were assailed by doubt, Browning spoke the strongest words of hope and faith:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be.
The last of life, for which the first was made.
(Rabbi Ben Ezra)
In another way also Browning presents a contrast to Tennyson. Whereas Tennyson’s genius is mainly lyrical. Browning’s is predominantly dramatic, and his greatest poems are written in the form of the dramatic monologue. Being chiefly interested in the study of the human soul, he discusses in poem after poem, in the form of monologue or dialogue, the problems of life and conscience. And in all of them Browning himself is the central character, and he uses the hero as his own mouthpiece. His first poem Pauline (1833) which is a monologue addressed to Pauline, on “the incidents in the development of a soul’, is autobiographical—a fragment of personal confession under a thin dramatic disguise. His Paracelsus (1835) which is in form a drama with four characters, is also a story of ‘incidents in the development of a soul’, of a Renaissance physician in whom true science and charlatanism’ were combined. Paracelsus has the ambition of attaining truth and transforming the life of man. For this purpose he discards emotion and love, and fails on account of this mistake. Browning in this poem also uses the hero as a mouthpiece of his own ideas and aspiration. Paracelsus was followed by Sordello, (1840) which is again ‘the study of a soul’. It narrates in heroic verse the life of a little-known Italian poet. On account of its involved expression its obscurity has become proverbial. In Pipa Passes (1841) Browning produced a drama partly lyrical and consisting of isolated scenes. Here he imagined the effect of the songs of a little working girl, strolling about during a holiday, on the destiny of the very different persons who hear them in turn.
It was with the publication of a series of collections of disconnected studies, chiefly monologues, that Browning’s reputation as a great poet was firmly established. These volumes were—Dramatic Lyrics (1842), Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), Men and Women (1855), Dramatis Personae (1864), Dramatic Idylls (1879-80). The dramatic lyrics in these collections were a poetry of a new kind in England. In them Browning brings the most varied personages to make their confessions to us. Some of them are historical, while others are the product of Browning’s imagination, but all of them while unravelling the tangled web of their emotions and thoughts give expression to the optimistic philosophy of the poet. Some of the important dramatic lyrics are Bishop Blougram’s Apology, Two in a Gondola, Porphyria’s Lover, Fra Lippo Lippi, The last Ride Together, Childe Roland to a Dark Tower Came, A Grammarian’s Funeral, Rabbi Ben Ezra, Prospice and My Last Duchess. All of them have won for Browning the applause of readers who value “thought” in poetry. In (1868-69) Browning brought out four successive volumes of The Ring and the Book, which is his masterpiece. Here different persons concerned in a peculiarly brutal set of murders, and many witnesses give their own versions of the same events, varying them according to their different interests and prejudices. The lawyers also have their say, and at the end the Pope sums up the case. The ten long successive monologues contain the finest psychological studies of characters ever attempted by a poet.
During the last twenty years of his life Browning wrote a number of poems. Though they do not have much poetic merit, yet they all give expression to his resolute courage and faith. In fact Browning is mainly remembered for the astonishing vigour and hope that characterise all his work. He is the poet of love, of life, and of the will to live, here and beyond the grave, as he says in the song of David in his poem Soul:
How good is man’s life, the mere living! how fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses for ever in joy.
The chief fault of Browning’s poetry is obscurity. This is mainly due to the fact that his thought is often so obscure or subtle that language cannot express it perfectly. Being interested in the study of the individual soul, never exactly alike in any two men, he seeks to express the hidden motives and principles which govern individual action. Thus in order to understand his poems, the reader has always to be mentally alret; otherwise he fails to understand his fine shades of psychological study. To a certain extent, Browning himself is to be blamed for his obscurity, because he is careless as an artist. But in spite of his obscurity, Browning is the most stimulating poet, in the English language. His influence on the reader who is prepared to sit up, and think and remain alert when he reads his poetry, is positive and tremendous. His strength, his joy of life, his robust faith and his invincible optimism enter into the life of a serious reader of his poetry, and make him a different man. That is why, after thirty years of continuous work, his merit was finally recognised, and he was placed beside Tennyson and even considered greater. In the opinion of some critics he is the greatest poet in English literature since Shakespeare.
(c)       Matthew Arnold (1822-88)
Another great poet of the early Victorian period is Matthew Arnold, though he is not so great as Tennyson and Browning. Unlike Tennyson and Browning who came under the influence of Romantic poets, Arnold, though a great admirer of Wordsworth, reacted against the ornate and fluent Romanticism of Shelley and Keats. He strove to set up a neo-classical ideal as against the Romantic. He gave emphasis on ‘correctness’ in poetry, which meant a scheme of literature which picks and chooses according to standards, precedents and systems, as against one which gives preference to an abundant stream of original music and representation. Besides being a poet, Arnold was a great critic of poetry, perhaps the greatest critics during the Victorian period, and he belongs to that rare category of the critic who is a poet also.
Though Arnold’s poetry does not possess the merit of the poetry of Tennyson and Browning, when it is at its best, it has wonderful charm. This is especially the case with his early poetry when his thought and style had not become stereotyped. Among his early poems the sonnet on Shakespeare deserves the highest place. It is the most magnificent epigraph and introduction to the works of Shakespeare. Another poem of great charm and beauty is Requiescat, which is an exquisite dirge. In his longer poems—Strayed Reveller, Empedocles on Etna, Sohrab and Rustum, The Scholar Gipsy, Thyrsis (an elegy on Clough, which is considered of the same rank as Milton’s Lycidas and Shelley’s Adonais)—it is the lyrical strain into which the poet breaks now and then, which gives them a peculiar charm. It is the same lyrical note in the poems—The Forsaken Morman, which is a piece of exquisite and restrained but melodious passionate music; Dover Beach which gives expression to Arnold’s peculiar religious attitude in an age of doubt; the fine Summer Night, the Memorial Verses which immediately appeals to the reader.
Most of the poetry of Arnold gives expression to the conflict of the age—between spontaneity and discipline, emotion and reason, faith and scepticism. Being distressed by the unfaith, disintegration, complexity and melancholy of his times, Arnold longed for primitive faith, wholeness, simplicity, and happiness. This melancholy note is present throughout his poetry. Even in his nature poems, though he was influenced by the ‘healing power’ of Wordsworth, in his sterner moods he looks upon Nature as a cosmic force indifferent to, or as a lawless and insidious foe of man’s integrity. In his most characteristic poem Empedocles on Etna Arnold deals with the life of a philosopher who is driven to suicide because he cannot achieve unity and wholeness; his sceptical intellect has dried up the springs of simple, natural feeling. His attitude to life is very much in contrast with the positive optimism of Browning whose Ben Ezra grows old on the belief that “The best is yet to be!”
As a critic Arnold wants poetry to be plain, and severe. Though poetry is an art which must give aesthetic pleasure, according to Arnold, it is also a criticism of life. He looks for ‘high seriousness’ in poetry, which means the combination of the finest art with the fullest and deepest insight, such as is found in the poetry of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. Arnold’s own poetry was greatly affected by his critical theories, and we find that whereas Tennyson’s poetry is ornate and Browning’s grotesque, Arnold’s poetry on the whole is plain and prosaic. In setting forth his spiritual troubles Arnold seeks first of all to achieve a true and adequate statement, devoid of all non-essential decorations. The reader gets the impression that the writing is neither inspired nor spontaneous. It is the result of intellectual effort and hard labour. But there are occasions in the course of his otherwise prosaic poems, when Arnold suddenly rises from the ground of analysis and diagnosis into sensuous emotion and intuitions, and then language, imagery, and rhythm fuse into something which has an incomparable charm and beauty.
(d)       Some Minor Poets
Besides Tennyson, Browning and Arnold there were a number of minor poets during the early Victorian period. Of these Mrs. Browning and Clough are well-known. Elizabeth Berrett (1806-61) became Mrs. Browning in 1846. Before her marriage she had won fame by writing poems about the Middle Ages in imitation of Coleridge. She also gave voice to sensitive pity in Cowper’s Grave and to passionate indignation in The Cry of Children which is an eloquent protest against the employment of children in factories. But she produced her best work after she came in contact with Browning. Her Sonnets from the Portuguese, which were written before her marriage with Browning, tell in a most delicate and tender manner her deep love for, and passionate gratitude to Browning who brought her, who was sick and lonely, back to health of life. The rigid limit of the sonnet form helped her to keep the exuberance of her passion under the discipline of art. Her other great work, Aurora Leigh (1857), is written in the form of an epic on a romantic theme. Written in blank verse which is of unequal quality, the poem is full of long stretches of dry, uninteresting verse, but here and there it contains passages of rare beauty, where sentiment and style are alike admirable.
Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861), a friend of Arnold, came under the influence of Wordsworth in his early years, but later he cut himself off from Wordsworthian narrow piety, and moved towards a religious faith free from all dogma. He searched for a moral law which was in consonance with the intellectual development of the age. In his Dipsychus, ‘the double-sould’ (1850), he attempted to reconcile the special and the idealistic tendencies of the soul. His best known work, however, is The Bothie of Toberna Vuolich, in which he has given a lively account of an excursion of Oxford students in the Highlands. Here he, like Wordsworth, emphasises the spiritualising and purifying power of Nature. The importance of Clough as a poet lies mainly in the quality of his thought and the frank nobility of his character which is beautifully expressed in the following memorable lines:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul!

Novelists of the Early Victorian Period

In the early Victorian period the novel made a rapid progress. Novel-reading was one of the chief occupations of the educated public, and material had to be found for every taste. The result was that the scope of the novel, which during the eighteenth century dealt mainly with contemporary life and manners, was considerably enlarged. A number of brilliant novelists showed that it was possible to adapt the novel to almost all purposes of literature whatsoever. In fact, if we want to understand this intellectual life of the period.


We need hardly go outside the sphere of fiction. The novels produced during the period took various shapes—sermons, political pamphlets, philosophical discourses, social essays, autobiographies and poems in prose. The theatre which could rival fiction had fallen on evil days, and it did not revive till the later half of the nineteenth century. So the early Victorian period saw the heyday of the English novel.

The two most outstanding novelists of the period were Dickens and Thackeray. Besides them there were a number of minor novelists, among whom the important ones were Disraeli, Bronte Sisters, Mrs. Gaskell, Charles Kingsley, Charles Reade, Wilkie Collins and Trollope. All these novelists had a number of points of similarity. In the first place, they identified themselves with their age, and were its spokesmen, whereas the novelists of the latter Victorian period were critical, and even hostile to its dominant assumptions. This sense of identity with their time is of cardinal importance in any consideration of the early Victorian novelists. It was the source alike of their strengths and their weaknesses, and it distinguished them from their successors. It is not that these novelists were uncritical of their country and age, but their criticisms are much less radical than those of Meredith and Hardy. They accepted the society in which they criticised it as many of their readers were doing in a light hearted manner. They voiced the doubts and fears of the public, but they also shared their general assumptions.
Now let us examine these general assumptions of the early Victorians which these novelists shared. In the first place, in spite of the fact that they were conscious of the havoc caused by the industrial revolution, the presence of mass poverty, and accumulation of riches in a few hands, yet they believed like the common Victorians that these evils would prove to be temporary, that on the whole England was growing prosperous, which was evident from the enormous increase in material wealth and the physical amenities of civilization, and that there was no reason why this progress should not continue indefinitely.
Another important view which these novelists shared with the public was the acceptance of the idea of respectability, which attached great importance to superficial morality in business as well as in domestic and sexual relations. ‘Honesty is the best policy’, ‘Nothing for nothing’ were the dictums which the Victorians honoured in their business relations. Their attitude to sex had undergone a great change. Frank recognition and expression of sex had become tabooed. Fielding’s Tom Jones was kept out of way of women and children, and in 1818 Thomas Bowlder published his Family Shakespeare which contained the original text of Shakespeare’s plays from which were omitted those expression which could not be with propriety read aloud in a family. The novelists were not far behind in propagating the Victorian ideal. Trollop wrote in his Autobiography:
The writer of stories must please, or he will he nothing. And he must teach whether he wish to teach or not. How shall he teach lessons of virtue and at the same time make himself a delight to his readers? But the novelist, if he have a conscience, must preach his sermons with the same purpose as the clergymen, and must have his own system of ethics. If he can do this efficiently, if he can do this efficiently, if he can make virtue alluring and vice ugly, while he charms his readers instead of wearying them, then I think Mr. Carlyle need not call him distressed…
I think that many have done so; so many that we English novelists may boast as a class that such has been the general result of our own work…I find such to have been the teaching of Thackeray, of Dickens and of George Eliot. Can anyone by search through the works of the great English novelists I have named, find a scene, a passage or a word that would teach a girl to be immodest, or a man to be dishonest? When men in their pages have been described as dishonest and women as immodest, have they not ever been punished?
The reading public of the early Victorian period was composed of ‘respectable’ people, and it was for them that the novelists wrote. As the novelist themselves shared the same views of ‘respectability’ with the public, it gave them great strength and confidence. As they were artists as well as public entertainers, they enjoyed great power and authority. Moreover, as they shared the pre-occupations and obsessions of their time, they produced literature which may be termed as truly national.
(a)       Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Dickens is the chief among the early Victorian novelists and is in fact the most popular of all English novelists so far. It was at the age of twenty-five with the publication of Pickwick Papers that Dickens suddenly sprang into fame, and came to be regarded as the most popular of English novelists. In his early novels, Pickwick (1837) and Nickolas Nickleby for instance, Dickens followed the tradition of Smollett. Like Smollett’s novels they are mere bundles of adventure connected by means of character who figure in them. In his Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), Domby and Son (1846-48), and David Copperfield (1849-50) he made some effort towards unifications but even here the plots are loose. It was in Bleak House (1852-53) that he succeeded in gathering up all the diverse threads of the story in a systematic and coherent plot. His later novels—Dorrit (1855-57), A Tale of Two Cities (1864-65), and the unfinished Edwin Drood—were also like Bleak House systematically planned. But, on the whole Dickens was not every successful in building up his plots, and there is in all of them a great deal of mere episodical material.
During the early Victorian period there was a swing from romance or a coldly picturesque treatment of life to depicting the heart had the affections. The novels which during the Romantic period and passed through a phase of adventure, reverted in the hands of Dickens to the literature of feeling. Too much emphasis on feelings often led Dickens to sentimentalism as it happened in the case of Richardson. His novels are full of pathos, and there are many passages of studied and extravagant sentiment. But Dicken’s sentimentalism, for which he is often blamed, is a phase of his idealism. Like a true idealist Dickens seeks to embody in his art the inner life of man with a direct or implied moral purpose. His theme is the worth of man’s thought, imaginings, affections, and religious instincts, the need of a trust in his fellowmen, a faith in the final outcome of human endeavour and a belief in immortality. He values qualities like honour, fidelity, courage magnanimity. The best example of Dickens’s idealism is found in A Tale of Two Cities, where he preaches a sermon on the sublime text: “Greater love path no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Another phase of Dickens’s idealism was his implicit belief that this is the best of all possible worlds. In spite of pain, dirt and sin with which his novels are full, they leave an impression on the reader of the unwavering optimism and buoyant temper of Dickens. He shared to the full, the sanguine spirit of his age, and despite the hardness of heart and the selfishness of those in high places, their greed and hypocrisy, and the class prejudices which had divided man from man, Dickens believed that the world was still a very good world to live in. He had faith in the better element of human beings who live and struggle for a period, and then fall unremembered to give place to other. All his characters come out of the pit of suffering and distress as better men, uncontaminated and purer than before.
But the most delightful manifestation of the idealism of Dickens is his humour, which is almost irresistible. It is clearly manifest in his first novel, Pickwick, and in the succeeding novels it broadened and deepended. Dickens has the knack of uniting humour with pathos in a sort of tragic-comedy, which is especially noticeable in certain sections of Old curiosity shop and Martin Chuzzlewit. The best examples of Dickens pure comedy are the Peggotty and Barkis episodes in David Copperfield.
It is especially in the delineations of characters that the humour of Dickens is supreme. Like Smollett he was on the lookout for some oddity which for his purpose he made more odd than it was. All his characters are humours highly idealised and yet retaining so much of the real that we recognise in them some disposition of ourselves and of the men and women we met. The number of these humorous types that Dickens contributed to fiction runs into thousands. In fact there is no other writer in English literature, except only Shakespeare, who has created so many characters that have become permanent elements of the humorous tradition of the English race.
Besides being an idealist, Dickens was also a realist. He began his literary career as a reporter, and his short Sketches by Boz have the air of the eighteenth century quiet observer and news writer. This same reportorial air is about his long novels, which are groups of incidents. The main difference is that, while in his sketches he writes down his observation fresh from experience, in his novels he draws upon his memory. It is his personal experiences which underlie the novels of Dickens, not only novels like David Copperfield where it is so obvious, but also Hard Times where one would least expect to find them. One very important aspect of Dickens’s realism is this richness of descriptive detail, based upon what Dickens had actually seen.
It was Dickens’s realism which came as a check to medievalism which was very popular during the Romantic period. He awakened the interest of the public in the social conditions of England. The novels of Dickens were full of personal experiences, anecdotes, stories from friends, and statistics to show that they were founded upon facts. The result was that after Dickens began writing, knights and ladies and tournaments became rarer in the English novel. They were replaced by agricultural labourers, miners, tailors and paupers.
The novels of Dickens were also the most important product and expression in fiction of the humanitarian movement of the Victorian era. From first to last he was a novelist with a purpose. He was a staunch champion of the weak, the outcast and the oppressed, and in almost all his novels he attacked one abuse or the other in the existing system of things. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that humanitarianism is the key-note of his work, and on account of the tremendous popularity that he enjoyed as a novelist, Dickens may justly be regarded as one of the foremost reformers of his age.
(b)       William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)
Thackeray who was Dickens’s contemporary and great rival for popular favour, lacked his weaknesses and his genius. He was more interested in the manners and morals of the aristocracy than in the great upheavals of the age. Unlike Dickens who came of a poor family and had to struggle hard in his boyhood, Thackeray was born of rich parents, inherited a comfortable fortune, and spent his young days in comfort. But whereas Dickens, in spite of his bitter experiences retained a buoyant temperament and a cheerful outlook on life, Thackeray, in spite of his comfortable and easy life, turned cynical towards the world which used him so well, and found shames, deceptions, vanities everywhere because he looked for them. Dickens was more interested in plain, common people; Thackeray, on the other hand, was more concerned with high society. The main reason of this fundamental difference between the two was not, however, of environment, but of temperament. Whereas Dickens was romantic and emotional and interpreted the world largely through his imagination; Thackeray was the realist and moralist and judged solely by observation and reflection. Thus if we take the novels of both together, they give us a true picture of all classes of English society in the early Victorian period.
Thackeray is, first of all, a realist, who paints life as he sees it. As he says of himself, “I have no brains above my eyes; I describe what I see.” He gives in his novels accurate and true picture especially of the vicious elements of society. As he possesses an excessive sensibility, and a capacity for fine feelings and emotions like Dickens, he is readily offended by shams, falsehood and hypocrisy in society. The result is that he satirises them. But his satire is always tempered by kindness and humour. Moreover, besides being a realist and satirist, Thackeray is also a moralist. In all his novels he definitely aims at creating a moral impression and he often behaves in an inartistic manner by explaining and emphasising the moral significance of his work. The beauty of virtue and the ugliness of vice in his character is so obvious on every page that we do not have to consult our conscience over their actions. As a writer of pure, simple and charming prose Thackeray the reader by his natural, easy and refined style. But the quality of which Thackeray is most remembered as a novelist is the creation of living characters. In this respect he stands supreme among English novelists. It is not merely that he holds up the mirror to life, he presents life itself.
It was with the publication of Vanity Fair in 1846 that the English reading public began to understand what a star had risen in English letters. Vanity Fair was succeeded in 1849 by Pendennis which, as an autobiography, holds the same place among his works as David Copperfield does among those of Dickens. In 1852 appeared the marvellous historical novel of Henry Esmond which is the greatest novel in its own special kind ever written. In it Thackeray depicted the true picture of the Queen Anne period and showed his remarkable grasp of character and story. In his next novel Newcomes (1853-8) he returned to modern times, and displayed his great skill in painting contemporary manners. By some critics Newcomes is considered to be his best novel. His next novel, The Virginians, which is a sequal of Esmond, deals with the third quarter of the eighteenth century. In all these novels Thackeray has presented life in a most realistic manner. Every act, every scene, every person in his novels is real with a reality which has been idealised up to, and not beyond, the necessities of literature. Whatever the acts, the scenes and the personages may be in his novels, we are always face to face with real life, and it is there that the greatness of Thackeray as a novelist lies.
(c)       Minor Novelists
Among the minor novelists of the early Victorian period, Benjamin Disraeli, the Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell, Charles Kingsley, Charles Reede, Wilkie Collins and Trollope are well known.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81) wrote his first novel Vivian Grey (1826-27), in which he gave the portrait of a dandy, a young, intelligent adventurer without scruples. In the succeeding novels Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845) and Tancred (1847) Disraeli was among the first to point out that the amelioration of the wretched lot of the working class was a social duty of the aristocracy. Being a politician who became the Prime Minister of England, he has given us the finest study of the movements of English politics under Queen Victoria. All his novels are written with a purpose, and as the characters in them are created with a view to the thesis, they retain a certain air of unreality.
The Bronte Sisters who made their mark as novelists were Charlotte Bronte (1816-55) and Emily Bronte (1818-48). Charlotte Bronte depicted in her novels those strong romantic passions which were generally avoided by Dickens and Thackeray. She brought lyrical warmth and the play of strong feeling into the novel. In her masterpiece, Jane Eyre (1847), her dreams and resentments kindle every page. Her other novels are The Professor, Villette and Shirley. In all of them we find her as a mistress of wit, irony, accurate observation, and a style full of impassioned eloquence.
Emily Bronte was more original than her sister. Though she died at the age of thirty, she wrote a strange novel, Wuthering Heights, which contains so many of the troubled, tumultuous and rebellious elements of romanticism. It is a tragedy of love at once fantastic and powerful, savage and moving, which is considered now as one of the masterpieces of world fiction.
Mrs. Gaskell (1810-65) as a novelist dealt with social problems. She had first-hand knowledge of the evils of industrialisation, having lived in Manchester for many years. Her novels Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855) give us concrete details of the miserable plight of the working class. In Ruth (1853) Mrs. Gaskell shows the same sympathy for unfortunate girls. In Cranford (1853) she gave a delicate picture of the society of a small provincial town, which reminds us of Jane Austen.
Charles Kingsley (1819-75) who was the founder of the Christian Socialists, and actively interested in the co-operative movement, embodied his generous ideas of reform in the novels Yeast (1848) and Alton Locke (1850). As a historical novelist he returned to the earliest days of Christianity in Hypatia (1853). In Westward Ho! (1855) he commemorated the adventurous spirit of the Elizabethan navigators, and in Hereward the Wake (1865) of the descendants of the Vikings.
Charles Reade (1814-84) wrote novels with a social purpose. It is Never too Late to Mend (1853) is a picture of the horrors of prison life; Hard Cash (1863) depicts the abuses to which lunatic, asylums gave rise; Put Yourself in his place is directed against trade unions. His A Terrible Temptation is a famous historical novel. His The Cloister and the Hearth (1867) shows the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
Wilkie Collins (1824-89) excelled in arousing the sense of terror and in keeping in suspense the explanation of a mystery of the revelation of crime. His best-known novels are The Woman in White and The Moonstone in which he shows his great mastery in the mechanical art of plot construction.
Anthony Trollope (1815-88) wrote a number of novels, in which he presented real life without distorting or idealising it. His important novels are The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857) and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) in which he has given many truthful scenes of provincial life, without poetical feeling, but not without humour. Trollope has great skill as a story-teller and his characters are lifelike and shrewdly drawn. His novels present a true picture of middle class life, and there is neither heroism nor villainy there. His style is easy, regular, uniform and almost impersonal.