History of English literature (from Victorian Age to Modernism)
From Victorian High Victorian Literature 1830-1880
During the long reign of queen Victoria (1837-1901) Britain is experiencing a
Age to period of stability, economic prosperity, trade and colonial expansion. This was
also a period of explanations and theories, pessimism, progress, tensions are
Modernism evident in literature. In 1832 the “reform bill” expanded the right to vote, it
includes many more middle class voters.
The progress of the British is spectacular: expansion of industrial cities, growth of the middle class, overpopulation of
cities, poverty, lack of sanitation.
In these years there is the so called “Victorian compromise”; a policy of total no-interference by the economic state,
rejecting the imposition of any rule to the market, but also inhuman conditions imposed on the workforce. The conflicts
between religion and science increase: the theory of evolution by C.Darwin in the essay “The origin of the species”
shook the traditional beliefs. In literature the novel became the main genre: readers want to see themselves in the novel,
novelists had social and moral responsibility. Features are the omniscient narrator, city as setting, a long and
The condition of England: Carlyle and Dickens
Thomas Carlyle attacked the Victorian tradition criticizing democracy and the new industrial civilization. His career
began with the translations of Schiller, Novalis,Goethe, on which he wrote several essays. “French Revolution” (1837)
opens with Louis XV death
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth at the beginning of the 19th century, his autobiographical novels are Oliver
Twist, David Copperfield, while Bleak house, Hard Times and Great Expectations are about social issues.
Dickens learned to direct his fiction to social priorities and inequalities, he talks against what he saw as injustice. His
success comes from the theological framework of Christianity as a moral basis for his thought and action.
He condemned the rigidity of the Victorian morality, he denounced the evils of his society.
Dicken’s novels reflect the nature of Victorian urban society with all its conflicts and disharmonies.
“Oliver Twist” is a child of unknown parents, born in a workhouse. The narrators of Dickens are usually third person
and omniscient, then in the end there is the triumph of justice. In this case he was reacting to the supporters of the New
Poor Law (workhouses for poor people), he talks about the criminal life. The attack to the effects of the workhouses are
only in the first chapters.
“Nicholas Nickleby”, which was serialized, is about the exploitation of unwanted children in a bleak Yorkshire school,
but the novel also attacks a do-nothing aristocracy, the inefficiency of Parliament and capitalism. Between the chapters
there are some short stories.
“Dombey and Son” use the semi-autobiographical material and a first person narrator, like “David Copperfield”, which
is the evocation of sufferance of Dickens’ boyhood. The novel analyses relationships, marriages, social problems too.
Dickens talks about the effects of the Industrial Revolution in northern England in Hard Times.
About his style, the language is full of analogies, he has a sense of humor, the style is fluent and effective.
Dickens’ Hard Times remained the most important novel which deal with the social and industrial problems of mid-
Thomas Macaulay is famous because of the five volumes of “The history of England”, which talks about the revolutions
of the seventeenth century, in particular of the origins and effects of the glorious revolution. The reader of Macaulay has
to be active.
William Thackeray’s most important work is “Vanity Fair”, the novel without a hero, monthly serialized. It’s about
Becky Sharp’s ambitions. The narrator is a sort of showman or preacher.
The Brontë Sisters
Their first fictions were about the fantasy kingdoms of Angria and Gondal. Emily, Anne and Charlotte decided to use
pseudonyms, Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte is a realist fiction and a training novel, because the reader follows the growing up of the
protagonist. The story sees Jane from childhood to maturity. There’s a first person narrator and because of the plot it can
be considered an autobiography. Jane and Charlotte are both orphans, they went to cheap schools and they’re teachers.
There are also gothic elements: the sense of imminent danger, the mystery in Thornfield Hall and the mysterious past of
Mr. Rochester. Jane is an unusual heroine compared to those of the Victorian novels. She’s got a lot of moral qualities,
but not physical ones.
Emily’s Wuthering Heights could be considered a gothic novel. The novel is built around two houses, Wuthering
Heights of Heathcliff and Trushcross Grange of Lintons family. The narration is complex, there are shifts of time and
the viewpoints of two major and five minor narrators. Everything is wuthering, the nature too, during the entire
narration. Only in the last chapter, there is the church under a benign sky, but a glass of it has been broken by the storm.
Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelite Poets
Tennyson’s early poetry derived from the emotional norms of the second generation of Romantics, especially from
Shelley and Keats. After the death of one of his friend, Hallam, he wrote “In memoriam”, which is an evocation of a
desperate sense of exclusion from a community, he talks about the love for God and the humanity and the author doubts
about religion. It insists on the benign inevitability of progress.
In 1848 a group of six painters founded an art movement called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They were in
opposition to the nineteenth-century academic painting and consider as inspiration the primitive Italians, who lived
before Raphael. They want the right to choose the subjects of their painting and be free to paint as they preferred. There
is a return to nature with an accurate representation and in literature there is a link btw the romance and the aesthetic
Elizabeth Browning deals with love poetry in the “Sonnets from the Portuguese”, addresses from a woman to a man.
She married Robert Browning. Her novel “Aurora Leigh” is about two careers, one male and one female, one
philanthropic and one artistic, it is a digression into other lives from that of the heroine. The poem ends with the vision
of a new dawn reflecting the heroine’s name.
Robert Browning “The Ring and the Book” obliges the reader to play a role of investigator. The source of the poem are
a collection of documents, concerning a sensational Roman murder trial. It explores the contortions of the minds of
sinners and criminals. The novel appeared in four volumes.
The Drama, the Melodrama and the Sensation Novel
The influence of Shakespeare is present in Victorian writers, who tried to evolve a modern equivalent to his tragedies
and history plays.
In the Victorian melodrama there are frequent excesses, a popular taste, misrepresentations of Shakespeare and some
absurd plots. Novels are adapted for theatre, e.g. Dickens stories were dramatized too.
William Collins was interested in detective stories, his novels are the “sensation fiction”, centered on theft, murder.
The new Fiction of the 1860s: Meredith and Eliot
George Meredith ‘s volume of poetry “Modern Love” maybe emerged from a personal crisis and situation, it’s a modern
work because of the circumstances of marital breakdown and the incompatibility of unloving partner. He consoles
himself with a mistress. Meredith’s female characters have a particular distinctive quality, impulsive, independence.
So this writer had a sort of appeal for critics and readers of the 19 Century who wanted to escape from the restrictions
of mid-Victorian moral earnestness.
George Eliot is a female writer. One of her work called “Adam Bede” was read by Queen Victoria too. It is a detailed
representation of a rural working community, free of the confusions and contradictions of the industrial and urban
present. There is a new kind of heroism, which emerged from the conditions and the morality of ordinary country life.
The writer was not escaping into a rural idyll. She explores a society on changing, divided by war and industrialization,
but still held together by religion and class-interdependence. Despite her male pseudonym and a narrator with opinions
and clothes of a man, Dickens e.g. perceived something strange and new. No one had ever been so capable to think like
a woman like in this case. She dedicated herself to an historical novel too, “Romola”. The main character is a true
feminist heroine and her world is the Renaissance Florence, she rejects the obligation of the church. It is clearly an
The strange disease of modern life: Mill, Arnold and Ruskin
After 1860s the Macaulayan confidence concerning the benefits of progress had been disturbed by an increasing
consciousness of the more worrying consequences of intellectual and social development.
In this period there’s the publication of Charles Darwin “On the origin of species” (1859), about humankind and his
place in the order of creation. After 1880s pessimism emerged in literature; Darwin deleted the idea that humankind
stood at the pinnacle of the universe as the lord of creation and the master.
John Mill leader of liberalism, supporter of the Reform Bill of the 1867, he was a supporter of the individual liberty.
One of his essays “On Liberty” is about the freedom of citizens and non-interference of government.
Matthew Arnold was a representative of the middle class intellectuals. He was opposed to utilitarianism, materialism
and optimism of the Victorian Age. As a social critic, he wrote “Culture and anarchy”, he defined the culture as a study
of spiritual perfection, opposed to the idea of progress. This work divided English society into three classes: a barbarian
aristocracy, a philistine bourgeoisie and unlettered populace. The strictures of an inherited Hebraism, needed the
balance of a softer and sweeter art of the ancients Greeks. The satire is barbed and the vision of the future offers a bright
escape in a world, which has abolished the tyranny. His criticism of the culture and institutions of the time emerged
from an interest in education too and from his practice as poet and student of the European poetic tradition.
Arnold is very ambiguous about the present and he felt nostalgia about an easier and idealized past, e.g. in “Thyrsis”,
with an Oxfordshire landscape and reminiscences of the Greek and Roman pastoral tradition. Thyrsis represents the
dead poet soul, which could bring joy to a world,which, despite its beauty, lost its spiritual way
John Ruskin ‘s agnosticism consists in a rejection of the Protestantism of his childhood. He deals with economic and
social integrity of mid-Victorian Britain, the essays try to redefine value by moving beyond economic theory into moral
speculation. His basis is Christian, from which he derives its language, e.g. from Jesus’ parables. “Unto this last”
applies Christianity to a urban civilization that he found morally and aesthetically repugnant. It later became one of the
most important English untheoretical Socialism work. “Modern Painters” essay is about the painter Turner and
definitions of truth, beauty, imagination, representation and nature.
He talks about modern society problems especially in the second volume of “The stones of Venice”. His discussion of
the triumph and decline of Venice links geography to geology, urban history to economic and social history. Venice is
observed in its historical context and it’s a paradigm for Victorian Britain.
So he accused the industrial society to degrade the human personality and to make men like machines, then the
deterioration of the English landscape caused by the industrial revolution and the horror of the inhuman conditions in
which working men and women. The economic life of a nation should not be governed by the idea of profit, but by the
interests of the entire society. As a solution to the ills of the world, Ruskin proposed art, which is the product of the
human spirit inspired by the vices or virtues, and so closely connected with morality.
The second spring and Hopkins
Despite the post-Darwinian accentuation of the so-called Victorian “crisis of faith”, the nineteenth century remained a
profoundly religious age.
In the early 1830s there’s the origin of the “Oxford Movement”, a reaction against State interference in religious affairs
in the Age of Reform. The dominant figure is John Newman.
To Dickens and other Victorian progressives, the assertiveness of the Oxford Movement and the magnetism of the
Roman Church seemed to be a dangerous example of Ecclesiastic Dandyism.
Gerard Hopkins converted to Roman Catholicism at Oxford and he entered the Society of Jesus, which cut him off
from the conventional of contemporary English life. His world is collected in Poems, which shows a complex religious
experience and the inadequacy of the human being to express the ineffable aspects of a goddess perceptible only by
mystical intuition. Manifestation of the beauty of divinity is the truth, which is in everyone’s heart. To express these
concepts he uses a style full of alliteration and assonance; it’s a new poetic language, independent of the Victorian
tradition. His particular observation of the nature is an influence of Pre-Raphaelite poets. Most of his poems are God
centered. Hopkins saw order where Victorians saw Anarchy.
Lewis Carroll (Charles Dogson) in 1865 published Alice’s Adventures Underground, renamed Alice’s Adventures in
Wonderland. The followings are Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There and The Hunting of the
Snark. It is an exploration of the nonsense, because it offers a new way of viewing things. The emergence of a
children’s literature was one result of the revolution. These works transformed the adults by considering them through
children’s eyes. Victorian literature doesn’t exclude adult concerns, but that world remained a space in which the playful
and the joyfully absurd could triumph. There is sadness in Carroll’s works, he was lonely and frustrated. The childhood
seems to offer release. The Alice’s books have the same main protagonist, a child insistent on the rightness of the values
of middle-class society, she survives her nightmares.
Late Victorian and Edwardian Literature 1880-1920
Although Queen Victoria reigned until January 1901, Victorian values, beliefs were already been challenged by a new
generation of intellectuals and writers. There is the naissance of New Woman, a movement for women rights
The Agnostic Fiction of the Late Century th
Henry James American novelist of the late 19 Century, the first period of his fiction is in “The Portrait of a Lady”,
about the contrast between Europe and America, it’s a study of a young woman from Albany who brings to Europe her
provincialism and her refusal to be treated in the Victorian world like a marriageable object. “Washington Square” is the
story of a young American heroine whose hopes for love and marriage are frustrated by her father’s rejection of an
Samuel Butler one of his book is the utopian fantasy “Erewhon”. He treats religion with irreverence, rendering
ridiculous the narrator’s desire to convert to Christianity the natives of the country he discovered. Erewhon is no ideal
alternative to England, it’s a land without machines. It denounces the Victorian family values and attempts to stress the
significance of social evolution and family influence.
Walter Peter suggests the cultivation of the momentary appreciation of the beautiful and of the truthful. He’s considered
the father of aestheticsm. He affirms that only the impressions are real, not theories, because the experience is a crowd
The letter Killeth: Hardy, Gissing and Moore
The Church of England is rooted in a rural society and its authority has been subtracted. After the work of Charles
Darwin there’s an idea of a nature which had to be understood without recourse to the idea of a benevolent Creator,
there’s no comforting belief in providence.
** is interested in changing social and economic situation of the countryside. A Victorian realist was
influenced by Romanticism too and Charles Darwin. Like him, Hardy is critical to Victorian Society, but he focuses
more on the declining rural society. In a first period Hardy is devoted to fiction, during the second to death. His novels
e.g. Far from the madding crowd, Wessex Tales, tell of human beings brought to ruin by forces that they are not able to
control nor understand. Hardy described the nature with precision, this nature had to be understood without recourse to
the idea of a benevolent creator. His plots and protagonists reflect these concerns. It is against any comforting belief in
providence. History emerges in his work, as a partial realization of universal consciousness, as a process misunderstood
by conventional historians and by romantically speculative poets. One of his historical novel is “The trumpet major”.
There’s a study of characters choosing and making the wrong choices.
In “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure” there is a complex view of the woman. Hardy’s women are more
sophisticated than the male characters. Tess Durbeyfield, the pure woman, and instinctive fatalist. In Jude the Obscure
Arabella Donn is presented exploitative and a survivor against the odds. Jude the obscure suggests that it is not only the
letter that killeth, but that there remains a general human inability to grasp the implications of the modern spirit, a spirit
which offers a painful, but more clear-sighted freedom.
Hardy’s discussion of sexuality scandalized the late Victorian England.
George Moore ** wrote novels inspired by French naturalism, e.g. Zola. “Esther Waters” has a working class heroine,
forced out of her home by a drunken stepfather and obliged to work as a servant. Esther is seduced, made pregnant, and
abandoned. Then there is the return of her former lover, by marriage. Her final poverty is relieved by a return to the now
corroded racing stables where Esther finds a modicum of happiness.
** combined the influence of the great French novelists and Russian and the English tradition,
especially Dickens and Meredith. His novels are realistic elements and a clever psychological analysis. His admiration
of Dickens seems to be in contrast with the gloomy and disillusioned nature of his own fiction. Gissing had generally
rejected social panaceas and any optimistic prospect of a political dawn. “The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft” is the
resentment of a middle class outsider, whose sympathies are drawn to those who have been denied a chance of
prosperity and self-improvement.
He deals with the emancipation of the woman in “The Odd Woman”, it’s about the story of three sisters who cling
desperately to respectability in their shabby-genteel quarters in London. The novel’s subplot offers a striking contrast to
the plain limitations of the sisters in the form of the independent career of Rhoda Nunn, a strong-minded woman.
Mystery and History: Conan Doyle, Stoker and Stevenson
+1 anno fa
I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher alesia.calanca di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di English literature e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università Verona - Univr o del prof Battisti Chiara.
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