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The Victorian Age is essentially the age of the novel or fiction. During this period, the novel made rapid progress.
This was partly because this middle-class form of literary art was bound to flourish increasingly as the middle class rose in power and importance, partly because of the steady increase of the reading public with the growth of lending libraries, the development of publishing in the modern sense and other events which accompanied this increase, and partly because the novel was the best means to present a picture of life, lived under the stable background of social moral values by people who were like the people encountered by readers, and this was the kind of picture of life, the middle-class readers wanted to read about.
1st Generation Victorian Novel and Novelists
The early Victorian or first-generation novelists comprised of William Thackrey, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Mrs Gaskell etc.
Although there were several more novelists of the time, only the ones mentioned here have survived the test of time and are considered representative of the early phase of the Victorian fiction in England.
One of the prominent features, that the novel of the early Victorian era, had, was the concern with the “condition of England question”.
They chose for their themes the specific contemporary problems of the Victorian society caused by the predominance of industrialism and utilitarianism and wrote about them sometimes as satirists, sometimes as humanists, sometimes as moralists.
Imaginative Rendering of Reality
In spite of the fact that they were conscious of the havoc caused by the industrial revolution, the presence of mass poverty and accumulation of riches in a few hands, yet they believed like the common Victorians that these evils would prove to be temporary, that on the whole, England was growing prosperous, which was evident from the enormous increase in material wealth and there was no reason why this progress should not continue indefinitely.
A significant shift in the English Novel in its movement from the 18th to the 19th century was the change of emphasis from action to character. They gave primacy to the character as opposed to Neo-classical novelists who gave more importance to action.
The early Victorian novel, unlike both the novel of the preceding era as well as the following novel of the later phase of the Victorian period, was rather formless.
One of the reasons was the new reading public (the masses of the middle and lower middle class) for whom they were being written.
Like the Elizabethan drama, the novel in the early Victorian phase was written more for any entertainment than for any artistic purpose. But in spite, it contained the large purpose of offering a picture and criticism of contemporary life.
The second and real cause of the lack of organization in these novels was that they were serialized in the monthly and weekly magazines.
Quite often, a novel took 25 serials to complete in the magazine. Now in between the beginning and end of a novel, hundreds of readers would give their suggestions. Thus the Victorian reader had in a way a share in the composition of the novel.
First Generation Novelists
- CHARLES DICKENS: His famous novels are Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.
- WILLIAM THACKERAY: He is famous for Vanity Fail.
- MRS. ELIZABETH GASKELL: She has written novels like Mary Barton and North-South as the instrument of social reforms.
2nd Generation Novel and Novelists
If the novels of the early Victorians were written in the 40s and 50s, those of the later Victorians were published in the 60s and 70s. George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy all these major novelists of the period started publishing around the end of the 50s or later.
Lack of High Artistic Standard
The second-generation Victorian novelists were more ‘literary’ and less ‘popular’ than the first generation. They had more academic flavours in their writings, more poetic imagination.
They did not have the breadth and variety (with the exception of Middlemarch) of the early novelists but they certainly had a greater depth of characterization and greater intensity of presentation.
The novelists of the later Victorian era, were not entertainers and reformers, as were their elders. Instead, they were more serious composers with greater involvement in the deeper passions of life particularly love.
Moreover, their main concern was with the rural England, which was being destroyed by industry and commerce rather than the city working class and its masters, the mill-owners etc. They depicted the tragedy of transition from the agrarian way of life to the industrial order.
Shift From Industrialism and Utilitarianism
Another change that took place in the English novel around the year 1860, was the shift in its focus from the city with its industrialism and utilitarianism to the village with its vision of destruction under the threat of the new scientific rationalism and evolutionism, which started new ethics and human relations inspired by the Darwinian concepts of “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest”.
These new ideas made the novelists look at human society from a new perspective, not as a static Biblical model existing between the dynamic tension between good and evil, but as an evolutionary process of human nature, society and civilization, growing on the Darwinian principles.
Shift Towards Intellectualism
Another significant change that took place in this era, was the shift towards intellectualism. Although Dickens and Thackeray were ‘educated’ enough to grasp the crosscurrent of ideas in their time, but were not ‘learned’ in the sense Meredith and Hardy were. The Novelists of this era were well-learned.