Love and the Victorians
The Victorians wrote about love and life and the torments and pleasures of loving and living in such a timeless way that we are still eager to read their original works (and of course contemporary neo-Victorian works such as Sarah Walters who has chosen her top ten Victorian novels) and replicate and adapt them to modern popular culture through audio-visual mass media. Many twenty-first century readers may not have read Jane Eyre, or Treasure Island, or Great Expectations, or Vanity Fair, but few have not seen a film representation or a television series.
Victorian literature which was produced during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) represents the transition between the 18th century Romantics and the defiant and innovative 20th Century writers. The Victorians witnessed the consolidation of the novel, which was made possible by the contribution of pre-Victorian authors such as Jane Austen and Walter Scott who had already begun to incorporate realism through social satire which authors such as Thackeray and Trollope excelled at, and adventure; a tradition carried on by Conrad and Kipling. The 19th century led to a peak in English literature, however we should also bear in mind that other countries such as; France, the United States and Russia were also producing books of similar stature and endurance (Tostoy, Balzac, Twain).
The Victorian Age produced an enormous amount of memorable poetry and prose. Literature of this age begins to deal with daily life with its practical problems and interests. Novels and poems are about real people who have authentic and very practical problems to solve (Jane Eyre needs to find a job, De Quincy needs to give up opium, Fagin needs to manage a criminal organization, and Dinah Morris prepares sermons and preaches). Art is endowed with a greater moral value; it is no longer an end in itself “art for art’s sake”. Art is an instrument which can be used to educate, improve and change society. Writers are using their pen purposefully as an instrument for a much needed social reform arising mainly from industrialism and issues such as child labour, workhouses, were up front in most Victorian authors, especially Dickens.
The expression of human conflict and emotions were also being discussed with far greater frankness than ever especially themes such as the traumas surrounding love and death. The Victorians were the first to seriously, openly, and collectively doubt the previously held “Universal truths” such as the existence of God, that is why it is also considered an age of doubt and pessimism. This mainly occurred due to the influence of science; our previously conceived relation to the universe was challenged mainly by the idea of evolution and also by rapid scientific advances in medicine and technology (H. G. Wells, Conan Doyle, R. L. Stevenson).
The Victorian public was able to read installments of popular authors’ novels in literary and popular periodicals. They could also use Lending libraries as well as circulating libraries, and readers could even exchange their books at railway bookstalls. Never before had reading been so widespread and the readers were avid to get their hands on as many different types of fiction as possible.
The so called Sensation Novel was also popular at the time. These novels included crime, mystery, horror and gothic novels written in the 1860s such as Wilkie Collins The Woman in White, and Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. In spite of the moralistic veneer, the Victorian era was also a period of much erotic fiction and clandestine erotic periodicals published in London between 1879 and 1883. Although vampire tales such as the Twilight series are popular today, tales of vampires had their origin in the 18th century, however it was in the 19th century that Vampire tales became popularized, by works of fiction such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The Victorians wrote the greatest love stories of all time, here are just a few unforgettable lovers:
Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre),
Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)
Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak (Far from the Madding Crowd)
David Copperfield and Stella (Great Expectations)
Elizabeth Barrat Browning wrote the most famous love poem of all time: How do I love thee? Let me count the way, and her successor Christina Georgina Rossetti begged her lover: “When I am dead, my dearest, / Sing no sad songs for me;
However some Victorians were themselves protagonists of enduring and passionate love stories such as Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barret Browning whose letters give ample testimony of their passion. Queen Victoria herself and her husband Prince Albert were also part of one of the greatest love affairs of the period as we can read in Queen Victoria’s diaries.
Finally, Victorian writers exalt a purely ideal life. It is an idealistic age where the great ideals like truth, justice, love, brotherhood are emphasized by poets, essayists and novelists of the age. Most novels, however harsh, are endowed with happy and idealized endings in which difficulties are overcome because honesty, perseverance, virtue, and love are rewarded and triumph in the end. On the other hand, the strong moralistic tone makes sure villains are suitably punished and order is restored. Isn’t that neat?