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Victorian Period

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English Literature

What do you think of when you hear 'Victorian period'? Perhaps you think of pretty corsets, a chaotic London marketplace with carriages rushing past, the TV series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), Jack the Ripper, or other things you may have come to associate with the Victorian period culture. Let's have a look at some of the Victorian period's characteristics to find out why readers and audiences remain so fascinated with it on the page, stage, and screen.

Historical background and culture of the Victorian Period

The Victorian Period, which is identified as the period between years 1832 to 1901, was named after the reigning monarch at the time, Queen Victoria of England. The Victorian period saw many changes and innovations which shaped the modern world.

Politically, the British Empire was powerful and had many colonies all over the world. Due to political expansion and colonisation, trade was facilitated across international waters.

Tea was imported to England from the British colonies of Sri Lanka and India.

As different religious communities gained more followers, these religious groups began fighting for religious dominance in England. These religious institutions include the Church of England, the Methodists, the Evangelicals, and the Protestants. As they fought for prominence, the Victorian people were held to higher moral standards. Austerity and adherence to social norms were encouraged while breaking from convention was highly discouraged.

In the Victorian Period, the family was a central unit in Victorian society. The roles of each member of the family were clearly defined. As a result of this, women were strictly confined to domestic duties. They were expected to be austere, delicate, and deferent to their husbands, fathers, and brothers. They could not inherit property.

Education and literacy progressed a great deal during the Victorian Age. Since the printing technology was firmly established and easy to replicate, the number of publications was on the rise. Serialised publications became immensely popular as large groups of people, including the newly emerged middle-class, subscribed to periodicals.

Science and medicine advanced significantly during the Victorian Period. On the other hand, superstition and medical malpractice were also on the rise. This is captured, for example, in numerous Victorian Period literary texts featuring the asylum, where individuals were locked up and poorly treated, with little to no hope of freedom.

Texts such as Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1859) and Lady Audley's Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon reflect the state of science, medicine, and asylums in Victorian Britain.

Victorian Period in English literature

The increase in literacy during the Victorian Period meant that the popularity of literature produced during this period was heightened. Children's literature and works featuring characters that were children surged in fame. There was a renewed interest in prose, with Gothic fiction and the sensation novel being widely read. Due to the popularity of these genres, as well as progress in medicine, there was an increasing fascination with death, spirituality, mysticism, and the macabre. The Victorian Period also gave us the most widely read and beloved fictional detective of all time - Sherlock Holmes.

  • Gothic fiction: fiction written within the Gothic genre, which features supernatural occurrences and hauntings, uncanny atmospheres, and settings like mansions or manor houses that seemingly take a life of their own. Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier is a Gothic novel.
  • Sensation novel: a genre of novels that rely on descriptions of sensory experiences and heightened drama to entertain its audiences. Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1877) is a sensation novel.
  • Macabre: in literature, the macabre refers to the feeling of being disturbed or horrified due to death or ghastly events.

Let's look at some of the most popular literary works and figures of the Victorian Period.

Victorian poetry

The Victorian Period produced many great poets. These include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, and Alfred Tennyson.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an immensely talented poet who rivalled the poet Alfred Tennyson for Poet Laureate. She was introduced to many great poets in her lifetime, including Wordsworth and Coleridge. She was a staunch opposer of slavery, and she also aligned with the feminist beliefs of Mary Wollstonecraft. Elizabeth Barrett Browning later influenced many poets and writers, including Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe. Some of her most famous poems include:

  • 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point' (1850).
  • 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways' (1850).
  • Aurora Leigh (1857), a novel written in blank verse.

Poet Laureate: an honour bestowed upon an accomplished poet by the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom. They are often called upon to write verses of nationalism and patriotism.

Robert Browning

The husband of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, wrote poems often featuring the dramatic monologue, giving them a conversation-like feel. He often exchanged poems with his wife, which were full of passion and affection for her. Some of Robert Browning's popular poems include:

  • 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin' (1842).
  • 'Porphyria's Lover' (1836).
  • 'The Laboratory' (1844).
  • 'Love Among Ruins' (1855).

Dramatic monologue: a poetic device wherein the lines of poetry are written as if spoken by an individual who is addressing another. They have a conversation-like feel despite the fact that we never 'hear' the addressee.

Alfred Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson was Poet Laureate from 1850 to 1892. He produced numerous poems during his lifetime, and one of his most famous poems is 'Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington' (1852). Some of Tennyson's famous poetry includes:

  • 'Break Break Break' (1842).
  • 'Godiva' (1847).
  • 'Crossing the Bar' (1889).
  • 'Tithonus' (1859).

Victorian prose

With increased readership, a large number of literary works and figures emerged during the Victorian period. Among these important literary figures of the Victorian period, Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters are the most popular.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is arguably the most important literary figure in the English literary canon from the Victorian Period. He not only wrote influential, canonical texts, but he also encouraged and aided several writers and poets during the time, including Wilkie Collins. Dickens ran several publications, which published serialised works. Dickens often engaged in critical commentary through his literary works, such as commenting on child abuse or the state of orphanages. His famous works include:

  • The Pickwick Papers (1836–37).
  • Hard Times (1854).
  • A Christmas Carol (1843).
  • Oliver Twist (1837–39).

Brontë Sisters

The three Brontë sisters that produced famous literary works are Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, and Anne Brontë. Their works often contained Romantic and Gothic elements. These include:

Victorian drama

Because of advances in photography and visual tools, as well as more sophisticated art sets and talented personnel, dramas and theatre pieces were hugely popular with Victorian audiences. Genres such as satire, farce, comedies, and musical masquerades were adapted to theatre and performed before audiences. Edwardian playwrights, such as George Bernard Shaw, were greatly inspired by Victorian theatre performances. One of the most important playwrights of this period is Oscar Wilde.

  • Satire: a genre that uses literary devices such as irony or exaggeration to ridicule certain behaviourisms and attributes.
  • Farce: a type of comedy that includes unrealistic depictions, mockery, caricatures, and horseplay.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde is recognised as one of the most prolific playwrights of the age. He is known for the sarcasm and wit in his writings. He is linked to the movement of Aestheticism.

Aestheticism: a literary movement that peaked during the Victorian period. As the name suggests, the movement maintained a focus on the aesthetic value of works of art.

Oscar Wilde's popular plays include:

  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).
  • A Woman of No Importance (1893).
  • An Ideal Husband (1895).

Characters in Victorian fiction

With the increased consumption of fictional stories and the surge in literary criticism and reviews, authors strived to create larger-than-life characters and memorable narratives. Some of these characters withstood the test of time and continue to be read and enjoyed today. These characters include:

Sherlock Holmes

As the brainchild of the surgeon and author Arthur Conan Doyle, this consulting detective set the tone for countless detective stories that would be written in the future. Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet (1887). His character has been adapted to stage, film, television, board games, cosplay, and many other media formats. Audiences and readers continue to be entertained by Sherlock Holmes even today.

Alice

Lewis Carroll wrote a number of children's stories featuring a young girl named Alice, who encounters exotic creatures, animals, and fantastical beings on her adventures. Children's literature was quickly gaining popularity during the Victorian period. Stories like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) allowed young readers to exercise their imagination.

Dracula

Not only was Bram Stoker's Count Dracula an important character during the Victorian period, but it also set trends for future narratives in the area of vampire fiction and Gothic fiction. Stoker's Dracula (1897) contains popular tropes characteristic of Gothic fiction, including a dark, rich setting, a sense of foreboding and suspense, and a tense atmosphere.

Victorian literature timeline

Authors across the Victorian period timeline can be credited with contributing significantly to English literature, especially in regard to the kind of narratives contemporary audiences enjoy reading. The fascination with the Victorian period persists, so much so that contemporary authors today write stories set during the Victorian Period, otherwise known as Neo-Victorian Literature.

Neo-Victorian literature includes Sarah Waters' Fingersmith (2002) and Possession by A. S. Byatt (1990).

Victorian Period - Key takeaways

  • The Victorian period is named after the reigning English monarch, Queen Victoria.
  • The Victorian period is marked by religious communities fighting for dominance, progress in science and technology, and industrialisation.
  • Major Victorian poets include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, and Alfred Tennyson.
  • Major Victorian prose authors include the Brontë sisters and Charles Dickens.
  • Oscar Wilde was an important figure among playwrights emerging from the Victorian period.
  • Beloved fictional characters from works of the Victorian period include Sherlock Holmes, Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and Count Dracula.

Victorian Period

The Victorian period is dated from 1832 to 1901

The Victorian period was approximately 69 years long.

The Victorian period is known for religious communities fighting for dominance, progress in science and technology, and industrialisation. The Victorian Era also produced important literature.

The Victorian Period, which is identified as the period between years 1832 to 1901, was named after the reigning monarch at the time, Queen Victoria of England. The Victorian period saw many changes and innovations which shaped the modern world.

The Victorian Era was time of innovation and change. While religious factions fought for dominance, there was immense scientific progress, as well as advancements in medicine and technology. Women were restricted to the domestic sphere. In literature, the Victorian period is known for the development of the genres of Gothic fiction, the sensation novel, and the macabre.

Final Victorian Period Quiz

Question

When did the Victorian Era begin?

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1832

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When did the Victorian Era end?

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1901

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Question

Who is the Victorian Period named after?

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Queen Victoria

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Question

True or False: Gothic fiction was immensely popular during the Victorian Period

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Answer

True

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Which of the following is a famous playwright of the Victorian Period?

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Oscar Wilde

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Who wrote Jane Eyre?

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Charlotte Brontë

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Who created the famous fictional consulting detective Sherlock Holmes?

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Arthur Conan Doyle

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Which of the following progressed during the Victorian Era

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Medicine

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Who is the most famous novelist of the Victorian Era?

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Charles Dickens

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Which of the following won the Poet Laureate?

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Alfred Tennyson

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Which of the following is a member of the Transcendental Club?

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George Putnam

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True or False: Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the founding members of Romanticism

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False

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True or False: Empiricism is one of the central tenets of transcendentalism

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False

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Transcendentalism is inspired by ______

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Bhagvat Gita

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When was Leaves of Grass published?

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1855

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What is the seminal work of Margaret Fuller, which advocates women's rights called?

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Woman in the Nineteenth Century

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True or False: Transcendentalists believed in immersing oneself in nature

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True

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What is the seminal work of Henry David Thoreau called?

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Walden

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True or False: Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay Collection includes an essay titled 'Self-Reliance'

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True

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Question

Transcendentalism was greatly inspired by German Romantics, which include ______

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Answer

Johann Gottfried Herder

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