In this post, which is a follow-up to yesterday’s post which proposes a description and definition of what neo-Victorian fiction is, I’d like to discuss what’s the point of reading neo-Victorian novels in the first place. Why not read the real thing?
I hope that many of my readers have read or will read some real Victorian fiction at some point in their lives, because it’s like taking a walk in the past in a guided tour by some of the most privileged minds of the times. Who could let that opportunity slip by?
On the other hand, I’m well aware that most readers aren’t going to read ‘real’ Victorian fiction, which was written 200 years ago, and these are some of the reasons why:
Victorian novels are too long for modern tastes and often dwell generously on details which will often exasperate the modern, and often impatient reader. It takes a lot of dedication to read a dense, three volume novel, when you have tons of things to do and need to wind down after a hard day at work, after coping with a family and daily chores.
Contemporary novels are shorter and use economical prose. There are hundreds of articles and editors telling writers, for example, to use adverbs and adjectives sparingly, something no-one ever told Victorian writers! Many of us try to follow Vonnegut’s maxim:
These are our maxims today, and it’s what most readers want. Tell me your story as efficiently and beautifully as possible, but don’t waste my time. Show me what you want me to see, don’t tell me. None of this fits in with Victorian writing style, so it’s understandably tough for a modern reader.
Victorian novels were naturally written for a Victorian audience. They knew what they ate, how they obtained their products, what they wore, what their routines were like, why they used candles and lived amidst shadows and darkness, how a message could take a month to arrive, and how a 50 mile journey would take a whole day by horse and carriage, or over two hours by steam train. All these, and plenty more facts, are so obvious, they’re ignored, and the modern reader can easily get lost, bored, or frustrated.
Neo-Victorian writers have to make sure, subtly, that modern readers understand and appreciate that life was slow, dark, extremely tough, and unsafe. A badly healed cut, a flu, or a hungry thief could kill you, not to mention cholera, smallpox, or rampant venereal diseases. Clothes were so heavy and complex to put on, due to the laces, strings, ribbons, and layers, that time and help were needed to get dressed. That there were no antibiotics, dentists, electric lights, or bathrooms, and that most people, including children worked from dusk to dawn, and ate plenty of stale bread and drank watered down ale.
Life was hard, look at these pictures of Dickens and Lord Tennyson in their twenties and in their fifties! Check out any other prominent Victorians and you’ll see how old and tired they looked in their forties and fifties.
Finally, the contemporary writer has one great and undeniable advantage over the Victorians themselves. They had a lack of perspective of their own times that we have gained over the past 200 years. We can observe them in hindsight in their glory and their misery. We can stand back and understand and appreciate their struggle and their message in the bigger picture and transmit a more global, albeit biased, picture of their lives.
The obvious disadvantage is that we will be comparing them to us, which is unfair and biased, we must look at them from a distance, but we must make sure we are walking in their shoes as we do so.
In summary, reading Victorian fiction is like watching a black and white movie or photo, like the one above, it has a unique beauty, attraction, and value, but too much of it can tire a modern audience.
The pace, style, and richness of language are often unappealing to a contemporary audience, because it has become fixed, whereas neo-Victorian prose is alive and adapted to the taste and needs of a modern audience.
Do you read Victorian fiction? If so why?
Can you think of other reasons why contemporary readers struggle with Victorian fiction?
Have you read neo-Victorian fiction?
I’d love to know what you think.
8 thoughts on “Why Read Neo-Victorian Novels Instead of real Victorian Novels?”
To answer your questions,
1 – Yes, both for pleasure and also as a useful window on the past, for example the best description of how to use ‘Patterns’ the wooden overshoes worn by women in wet or muddy conditions, can be found in Bleak House (Dickens) and The Woodlanders (Hardy).
2 – Length. There is plenty of nineteenth century literature still read for pleasure, most of the novels of Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, the stories of Sherlock Holmes. But much of Dickens and Trollop is ignored by modern readers, put off by the length and complexity of the stories. Unfortunately contemporary publishing methods are a cause of this, the books were published in parts, with frequently a long gap between them. This could lead to the plot being changed in mid novel, Trollop once heard a character being severely criticised and killed her off in the next part, whilst Dickens was famously unmoved by a campaign to save Little Nell, and killed her off anyway.
3 – Yes for fun, and self inflicted irritation. I hate it when the author hasn’t done their homework, but like the clever use of props to both give information, suggest the period and show the author knows their stuff. For example.
‘She glanced at the clock, it was nearly ten, was it possible to get there in time?
Opening a draw she rummaged for her husband’s Bradshaw. Flicking though the pages she soon found the information she needed. There was a train which left in little over an hour, which would get her to Liverpool by four.
She called for her maid,
“Mary,” she snapped, “pack my bag we need to leave for the station in half an hour.”
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Self inflicted irritation! That made me laugh and tremble! Would my novel pass the test? Oh dear 😦 I did lots if research, but it’s daring and irreverent of me (or any contemporary) to compete with the masterful Victorians. They win and I/we lose always, but the fun/challenge is in trying and spreading some interest in the topic.
Thank you so much for your invaluable contribution to my post 🙂
You’ve convinced me! Perfect reasoning. You understand your audience well. That’s important for an author at any time.
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Interesting points that explain for me why many modern readers prefer neo-Victorian literature. I have to say I prefer the original though.
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So do I! But I was trained at a young age. I’m not sure most contemporary readers are prepared to read authentic Victorian very often. Thank yoy for dropping by and commenting 🙂
I also was introduced to it at a young age. I think it requires a level of literacy, as you say in your post, that not a lot of people have today.
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Hi – I know I’m very late to this, but I have read your articles with a great deal of interest and, personally, validation! I had written a neo-Victorian novel before I found the definition for one, having indulged for years an exclusive diet of Hardy, Dickens, Bronte and Stevenson. I know have Fingersmith and Mary Reilly to read to start getting a feel for this niche genre.
My own novel (currently in edit at 140k), set in 1885, is very much adventurous in its themes, with a youthful protagonist sentenced to a reformatory school. To query it for an agent, however, it’s better to give an indication of some comparison works on the metaphorical bookshelf, and I can’t really find one. In the vein of Treasure Island, my protag is thrown into an adult race for a McGuffin in order to escape the reformatory, using his wit and enterprise to turn the tables.
As an authority on this marvellous historical category, can you recommend the titles of any books similar to mine? Or even in the adventure genre?
Many thanks in advance and for your brilliant blog.