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.

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