Updated October 10, 2022
The work of Victorian Novelists is characterized by certain elements on account prevailing socio- economic factors at the time. Factually, the novels of the Victorian Age witnessed the complexities and social evils of the era.
And, it was the sweeping socio-economic changes and social forces that motivated the complexities of the era. It was an Age of Idealism and materialism, an Age of Morality and Hypocrisy, an Age of faith and Doubt, an Age of Progress and Decline, an Age of prosperity and Poverty, an Age of splendor and Squalor and many more.
Moreover, the novelists of the Victorian Age started the realist art movement. They attempted to represent the reality of English society by portraying earthly world, everyday experiences as they are in real life.
Realism became the characteristic of the Victorian novels. Novelists like Disraeli, Trollope, Dickens, Thackeray, Samuel Butler, George Gissing, R.L. Stevenson, Charles Reade etc. portrayed the very status of the era.
Victorian Novel- A Short Overview
The Victorian Age was essentially the age of Novel. During this period novel made a phenomenal progress. One of the main reasons of this was the rise of the middle class in power and importance. Apart from this, the growth of leading libraries, the development of publishing houses in the modern sense and growth in reading habit increased the popularity of the form. The writing novel was the vehicle best suited to present the picture of life being lived in a given society.
Even, it was a highly complex era. It was an age of rapid-flux and bewildering complexities. While analyzing the complexity of the Victorian Age, one must keep in mind the sweeping socio-economic changes which the age witnessed and the complex social forces operating during the time. One must keep in mind that it was an Age of faith and Doubt, an Age of Morality and Hypocrisy, an Age of prosperity and Poverty, an Age of Idealism and materialism, an Age of Progress and Decline, an Age of splendor and Squalor and what not. The literature of time not only reflects the complexity but is also influenced by it.
The early Victorian novelists like Disraeli, Trollope, Dickens, Thackeray, Mrs. Gaskell and Charles Reade concentrated on the social, political, economic aspects of the Victorian society. Realism became a characteristic feature of Victorian novels. The novelists came across the problems facing Victorian Society and sought to find a solution to the prevailing evils of the age. Thus, the Victorian novels became a social force.
The later Victorian novelists also contributed significantly to the development of this form. To them, novel was one of the most important means of effecting reforms and changes in English society. This was an age of intense activity in commerce, industries and finances. Hence, they gave a realistic picture of commercial exploitation such as appalling social conditions of the new industrial cities, the squalid and stinking slums inhabited by discontented labourers, oppressed classes, the exploitation of cheap labour, often of women and children.
A critical evaluation of the major novelists of the 19th century will give us a fair idea of the status of novels and novelists of the time. Some of the major novelists of the 19th century:
Victorian Novelists of the 19th – 20th Century
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)-
Dickens was perhaps the greatest Victorian novelist. In depicting the life of London in the early 19th century, he is second only to Shakespeare. Humour and pathos and a deep sympathy for human nature coloured his work. He incorporated the painful experiences of his youth in London, particularly in “David Copperfield”, “Oliver Twist”, “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Great Expectations”.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)
William Makepeace Thackeray excelled in the novels of ideas in which the plot was subordinated to the philosophy of life which it intended to convey. “Convey fair” is his masterpiece. Here the novelist portrayed realistically and graphically the life of the upper middle class people. In “Henry Esmond”, he brought a new depth, feeling and realism to the historical novel.
George Eliot (Original Name- Mary Anne Ivans) (1819-1880)
She widened the scope of the novel to include philosophical dissatisfaction on current topics particularly those dealing with religion, politics and the social conventions. At least four of her books are still read today “Adam Bede”, “The Mill on the Floss”, “Silas Marner” and “Middle March”.
Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855)-
Charlotte Bronte was a major woman novelist of the Victorian Age. Her well known novels are “Jane Eyre”, “Shelley’, ”Villette” and “Professor”. She was highly emotional and imaginative. In all her novels, the main interest centre on the heroines. Her sister Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” is also a masterpiece.
George Meredith (1828- 1845)
He was a satirist with reformative purpose. His famous novels include “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” and “The Egoist”. In some ways, he anticipates psychological methods in searching the heart and mind of his characters.
Thomas Hardy (1840- 1928)
He became a successful novelist in no time. His comments on human life and destiny are grave disillusion. He took his characters from the farmers and peasantry and some of the gentlefolk of his native Wessex. Probably the four tragic novels, “Return of the native”, “The mayor of Casterbridge”, “Tess of the Durbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure” are his best works.
Henry James (1843-1916)
Henry James was both a Victorian and Modern novelist. The most popular novel of James which at once brought him great ovation is “Portrait of a lady”. His other famous novels are “The tragic Muse”, “the Spoils of Poynton” and “The Awkward Age”.
The writing of the minor Victorian novelists has also reflected the economic, social and religious conditions of the society. So, the contributions of certain minor novelists cannot be ignored in this regard. The list of minor novelists includes some prominent names of time such as Samuel Butler, George Gissing, R.L. Stevenson (Treasure Island), Wilkie Collins, Charles Kinsley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Charles Reade. All these novelists had great talent, and wrote some remarkable novels. But compared to their celebrated contemporaries, they are minor novelists.
The list of novels and novelists of the Victorian Age is very long particularly the contributions in this regard by the minor novelists are unfathomable. We can conclude that it was the most powerful medium of expression of the Victorian Age.