Outlines of English and American Literature Other Victorian Novelists byLong, William J.
We have followed literary custom rather than individual judgment in
studying Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot as the typical Victorian
novelists. On Dickens, as the most original genius of the age, most people
are agreed; but the rank of the other two is open to question. There are
critics besides Swinburne who regard Charlotte Brontė as a greater genius
than George Eliot; and many uncritical readers find more pleasure or profit
in the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope than in anything written by
Thackeray. It may even be that the three or four leading novels of the age
were none of them written by the novelists in question; but it is still
essential to know their works if only for these reasons: that they greatly
influenced other story-tellers of the period, and that they furnish us a
standard by which to judge all modern fiction.
To treat the many Victorian novelists adequately would in itself require a
volume. We shall note here only a few leading figures, naming in each case
a novel or two which may serve as an invitation to a better acquaintance
with their authors.
The Brontė sisters, Charlotte and Emily, made a tremendous sensation in
England when, from their retirement, they sent out certain works of such
passionate intensity that readers who had long been familiar with novels
were startled into renewed attention. Reading these works now we recognize
the genius of the writers, but we recognize also a morbid, unwholesome
quality, which is a reflection not of English life but of the personal and
unhappy temperament of two girls who looked on life first as a gorgeous
romance and then as a gloomy tragedy.
Charlotte Brontė (1816-1855) was perhaps the more gifted of the two
sisters, and her best-known works are Jane Eyre and Villette.
The date of the latter novel (1853) was made noteworthy by the masterpiece
of another woman novelist, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), who was the
exact opposite of the Brontė sisters,--serene, well-balanced, and with a
fund of delicious humor. All these qualities and more appeared in
Cranford (1853), a series of sketches of country life (first
contributed to Dickens's Household Words) which together form one of
the most charming stories produced during the Victorian era. The same
author wrote a few other novels and an admirable Life of Charlotte
Charles Reade (1814-1884) was a follower of Dickens in his earlier novels,
such as Peg Woffington; but he made one notable departure when he
wrote The Cloister and the Hearth (1861). This is a story of student
life and vagabond life in Europe, in the stirring times that followed the
invention of printing. The action moves rapidly; many different characters
appear; the scene shifts from Holland across Europe to Italy, and back
again; adventures of a startling kind meet the hero at every stage of his
foot journey. It is a stirring tale, remarkably well told; so much will
every uncritical reader gladly acknowledge. Moreover, there are critics
who, after studying The Cloister and the Hearth, rank it with the
best historical novels in all literature.
Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) began as a follower of Thackeray, but in the
immense range of his characters and incidents he soon outstripped his
master. Perhaps his best work is Barchester Towers (1857), one of a
series of novels which picture with marvelous fidelity the life of a
cathedral town in England.
Another novelist who followed Thackeray, and then changed his allegiance to
Dickens, was Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873). He was essentially an imitator, a
follower of the market, and before Thackeray and Dickens were famous he had
followed almost every important English novelist from Mrs. Radcliffe to
Walter Scott. Two of his historical novels, Rienzi and The Last
Days of Pompeii, may be mildly recommended. The rest are of the popular
and somewhat trashy kind; critics jeer at them, and the public buys them in
One of the most charming books of the Victorian age was produced by Richard
Blackmore (1825-1900). He wrote several novels, some of them of excellent
quality, but they were all overshadowed by his beautiful old romance of
Lorna Doone (1869). It is hard to overpraise such a story, wholesome
and sweet as a breath from the moors, and the critic's praise will be
unnecessary if the reader only opens the book. It should be read, with
Cranford, if one reads nothing else of Victorian fiction.
Two other notable romances of a vanished age came from the hand of Charles
Kingsley (1819-1875). He produced many works in poetry and prose, but his
fame now rests upon Hypatia, Westward Ho! and a few stories
for children. Hypatia (1853) is an interesting novel dealing with
the conflict of pagan and Christian ideals in the early centuries.
Westward Ho! (1855) is a stirring narrative of seafaring and
adventure in the days of Elizabeth. It has been described as a "stunning"
boys' book, and it would prove an absorbing story for any reader who likes
adventure were it not marred by one serious fault. The author's personal
beliefs and his desire to glorify certain Elizabethan adventurers lead him
to pronounce judgment of a somewhat wholesale kind. He treats one religious
party of the period to a golden halo, and the other to a lash of scorpions;
and this is apt to alienate many readers who else would gladly follow Sir
Amyas Leigh on his gallant ventures in the New World or on the Spanish
Main. Kingsley had a rare talent for writing for children (his heart never
grew old), and his Heroes and Water Babies are still widely
read as bedtime stories.
Of the later Victorian novelists, chief among them being Meredith, Hardy
and Stevenson, little may be said here, as they are much too near us to
judge of their true place in the long perspective of English literature.
Meredith, with the analytical temper and the disconnected style of
Browning, is for mature readers, not for young people. Hardy has decided
power, but is too hopelessly pessimistic for anybody's comfort,--except in
his earlier works, which have a romantic charm that brightens the obscurity
of his later philosophy.
In Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) we have the spirit of romance
personified. His novels, such as Kidnapped and David Balfour,
are stories of adventure written in a very attractive style; but he is more
widely known, among young people at least, by his charming Child's
Garden of Verses and his Treasure Island (1883). This last is a
kind of dime-novel of pirates and buried treasure. If one is to read
stories of that kind, there is no better place to begin than with this
masterpiece of Stevenson. Other works by the same versatile author are the
novels, Master of Ballantrae, Weir of Hermiston and Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; various collections of essays, such as
Virginibus Puerisque and Familiar Studies of Men and Books;
and some rather thin sketches of journeying called An Inland Voyage
and Travels with a Donkey.
The cheery spirit of Stevenson, who bravely fought a losing battle with
disease, is evident in everything he wrote; and it was the author's spirit,
quite as much as his romantic tales or fine prose style, that won for him a
large and enthusiastic following. Of all the later Victorians he seems, at
the present time, to have the widest circle of cultivated readers and to
exercise the strongest influence on our writers of fiction.