Victorian Literature

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This article covers literature written in English in the British Isles during the reign of Victoria.

Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. Around that time, Carlyle, Dickens and Thackeray were publishing some of their earliest writings, Wordsworth was still putting out new poems, and Lockhart was bringing out his life of Scott who had died in 1832. Tennyson and Browning had been heard of in a minor way, and Elizabeth Barrett was about to make her reputation. Around the mid-point of the reign, the Brontes had been and gone, Thackeray was dead, and Dickens died about this time, but Trollope and George Eliot were in full flow. Tennyson was Poet Laureate, and Browning had just brought out his masterpiece. Arnold had virtually stopped writing poetry and moved on to criticism. At Victoria's death in 1901, the poets now most regarded were Hardy and Yeats. The Poet Laureate was Alfred Austin. There were no dominant novelists, but many different trends, with the short story beginning to assert itself. The era was tinged with what was termed fin-de-siècle decadence. The literary scene had changed greatly and was continuing to change.

As the middle class expanded and education was extended to all, so the readership grew. In England and Wales the percentage of the population considered literate grew from about 58% in 1840 to about 97% in 1900.[1] New books were comparatively expensive, but developments in printing reduced its costs, and the abolition of perpetual copyright in 1774 had enabled publishers to bring out cheap editions of classic authors from previous centuries. There was an extensive readership for the magazines in which novels were serialised, and other forms of writing appeared. Circulating libraries also put books within reach of a wide audience. The final abolition of taxes on newspapers in 1861 helped to promote a wide range of publications for all levels of reading ability, so that there was the possibility of progression.



Thackeray and the Brontes were the last major novelists who did not deal with social issues in some way. Dickens, George Eliot, Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, Hardy and even Disraeli, together with others, all tackled them in their own particular fashion.. Storylines were mainly domestic at the start of the reign, but never exclusively so. As time passed there was a broader outlook, and both orientalism and medievalism became popular.

Plotting and style

The practice of serialising novels in magazines, or sometimes of issuing them in part-works, had an effect on the author's control over the plot and characters. Trollope boasted (prematurely) that the public never saw the start of one of his works until he himself had seen the end of it, but he was an exception. Others had to rush to meet deadlines, and they could not go back and change an incident or character trait which later proved inconvenient. Likewise there might be an inconsistency of style, or of viewpoint, with the author moving between the omniscient observer and other possible stances, or even starting off with a first person narrative and then cheerfully abandoning it. However, the effect was modified by the readers also getting the story in instalments, and some inconsistencies could be ironed out in the book version (usually in three volumes). If the authors could be colourfully descriptive, could depict characters who demonstrated villainy, pathos, goodness or determination, and could deliver plots with plenty of incident, they would maintain their popularity.

Development of genre

Whereas the mainstream novelists mainly continued in the British tradition, in fantasy George MacDonald was influenced by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and William Morris by Norse/Germanic myth.

Sheridan LeFanu became famous for his ghost stories.

In detective stories, Wilkie Collins dominated the first part of the reign, and by the end Conan Doyle had launched Sherlock Holmes upon the scene.

Scott's origination of the historical novel was followed up, in a less genteel form, by Harrison Ainsworth, Bulwer Lytton, and others including, later, Conan Doyle.

In 1895 H.G. Wells published the first of his science fiction stories.

What was before the public

Many authors not mentioned in this overview are given in the Timeline.

By and large the novelists now considered the best of their time were also the best-sellers. Charles Reade, now known mainly for a single book, The Cloister and the Hearth, was in his time considered as the natural successor to Dickens, though his output soon faltered. In the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s, Sheridan LeFanu sold very well.



The male poets, unlike the novelists, paid little attention to social issues. Although they did deal with whatever they conceived to be the malaise of the age, there was little interest in Victorian squalor. That was mostly left to the women poets, such as L.E. Landon, Caroline Norton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Victorian prudery had its effects on literature. In 1866 Swinburne's publisher decided to withdraw his Poems and Ballads because of the uproar over its supposed licentiousness, and he never again wrote anything so good. Later, Michael Field withdrew a poem from the notorious magazine The Yellow Book when they[2] realised the sensuality of some of the other contributions. Housman's coded protests against the criminalisation of homosexuality did not appear in A Shropshire Lad but had to wait till 1922. But there were protests against hypocrisy, as in Augusta Webster's The Castaway.

Striving for the epic

At this time, anyone who wanted to be thought of as a major poet felt it necessary to write an epic, or at least a substantial narrative poem which would stand comparison with the Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost. Tennyson, Browning, Arnold and Hardy all made attempts in this direction. Tennyson had minor successes with The Princess, Maud, Enoch Arden and the Arthurian stories collected in Idylls of the King. Arnold's longest poem, Balder Dead probably convinced him that the form was not for him. Hardy worked for 30 years on The Dynasts, published in 1904, but it is not considered to be among his best work. Only Browning, having had a disaster with Sordello, achieved undoubted success with The Ring and the Book. The other great poem of the century, The Prelude, though not published till after Wordsworth's death in 1850, really belonged to the previous generation.

What was before the public

Many authors not mentioned in this overview are given in the Timelines.

At the opening of the period, the best-selling poets were Felicia Hemans, who had just died, and John Keble. Felicia Hemans was in fact the best-selling poet of the century, a position achieved by her publishing a book of poems nearly every year for a quarter of a century and her large following in America. Although the poets now most remembered are nearly all male, women writers such as Jean Ingelow (known particularly for The High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire) and Adelaide Anne Procter (A Lost Chord) had a large following.

In 1861 Palgrave published The Golden Treasury of the best songs and lyrical poems in the English language. This helped to confirm and influence the taste of the reading public, but contained no living poets, and among the dead it did not include anything from Donne and Blake.

Celtic revival

The interest in Celtic literature, which sprang up during the reign and intensified towards its end, consisted in translations of old works and in the production of new work (in English) using the stories, themes and characters of Celtic myth. Although the first significant publication was Charlotte Guest's translation of the Mabinogion and other tales from the Welsh, Irish writers came to dominate - see Irish literary renaissance.


The Victorian theatre is more noted for its actors than for its playwrights. Poets had a go at producing verse dramas, but though some of these were staged, with no great success, that is not how they are remembered. It is only towards the end of the period that names now familiar to us occur: Pinero, Wilde, Barrie, and Shaw, who was writing very much under the influence of Henrik Ibsen. They brought in the modern British and Irish theatre which began to flourish in the 20th century. Towards the end of the century also, Yeats and his circle were working to create an Irish national theatre.

Essays and criticism

Much of the best-known criticism written in the Victorian era tended to have a strong social element. Arnold, who had introduced the word "Philistine" to the English language, denounced the soul-destroying effects of current ways of thinking in his Culture and Anarchy. Ruskin started off writing about painting, but because of his interest in art and society, ended up writing more about society than about art.

Likewise Carlyle used his conceptions of history and historical personages to comment on contemporary social issues. His Past and Present helped to encourage the romanticised view of the Middle Ages which was one of the strong features of the Victorian era, manifested in Ruskin, Tennyson, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Criticism in book reviews overlapped with the essay form in Macaulay's Essays, in which he used the book he was reviewing as the starting point for a lengthy discourse on its subject, setting out his own ideas.

Arnold was the great critic of the age, demonstrating perceptiveness and sound judgement. Swinburne, who helped to rescue William Blake and Robert Herrick from obscurity, Walter Pater and Leslie Stephen were also influential.


A variety of magazines catered for the reading public. They contained essays, criticism, poetry, serialised novels, short stories, jeux d'esprit, and humour, and might appear quarterly, monthly, or even weekly. They had their political attitudes, and some were set up in opposition to others. Thus, both the Quarterly Review (London-based) and Blackwood's Magazine (Edinburgh-based), both Tory, were set up in opposition to the Whig Edinburgh Review, and the New Monthly Magazine had been a reaction to the Monthly Magazine. Several were edited for a while by well-known authors, including Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope. Some of the more important ones were

• Edinburgh Review, 1802—1929. Highly influential.
• Quarterly Review, 1809—1967. Also influential.
• Blackwood's Magazine, 1817—1918. Given to jeux d'esprit, of which the first was the deliberately provocative Chaldee Manuscript, and to mystification.
• New Monthly Magazine, 1818—1884.
• Athenaeum, 1828—1921. Another heavyweight.
• Frazer's Magazine, 1830—1882.
• Punch, 1841—1992. Mostly humorous.
• Household Words, 1850—1859. Weekly. Dickens's magazine, with a reformist agenda.
• Cornhill Magazine 1860—1975.

Children's literature

It was only in the previous century that authors had begun to write books for children that were neither obviously moralising nor obviously didactic. Some of the moralising continued, and was parodied by Lewis Carroll in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. But there were other new developments, catering for a range of ages: adventure stories produced by Marryat, Ballantyne, and later Stevenson; school stories such as Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes; and animal stories such as Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. By 1855 the fairy story had become sufficiently well established for Thackeray to parody it in The Rose and the Ring. Stevenson also published A Child's Garden of Verses, and Kipling wrote variants on the animal theme, accompanied by poems, in the Jungle Books and the Just So Stories. The Victorians established a strong tradition, accompanied by a strong demand, to be carried on into the next centuries.

Travel writing

There was nothing new about travel writing, but it enjoyed a boom in the Victorian era. Established writers such as Dickens and Trollope could take advantage of any journeys they made in order to turn out another work. More significantly, there were also authors such as Alexander Kinglake (Eothen) and Amelia Edwards (A Thousand Miles up the Nile) who are now known chiefly for their travel books. At the time their descriptions of the exotic were probably the main appeal, but they survive because of the combination of observation, reflection, humour, and projection of the author's personality. Stevenson's early successes (outside periodicals) were in this genre.


The byways of Victorian literature include a variety of minor classics of humour in both verse and prose, from Barham's Ingoldsby Legends and Thackeray's Yellowplush Papers at the beginning of the period, to Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat towards the end, taking in Edward Lear's limericks and W S Gilbert's Bab Ballads along the way.


  1. The percentage of those able to sign their names in the marriage register is widely considered a reliable proxy for basic literacy (Stephens, W B. Education in Britain 1750—1914. Macmillan Press. 1998. chs 2 & 8.)
  2. Michael Field was the pen name of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper

Additional reading

  • Warwick A, Willis M. The Victorian literature handbook. London ; New York: Continuum; 2008. xiv, 258 p.
  • Joseph Black and Leonard Conolly. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Volume 5: The Victorian Era (The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, Volume 5) (Vol 5). Broadview Press (July 31, 2006). ISBN-13: 978-1551116136. ISBN-10: 1551116138
  • Margaret Drabble (ed.), The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 6th ed., rev. (2006).
  • John Buxton and Norman Davis (eds.), The Oxford History of English Literature, 15 vol. (1945–90)
  • Jonathan Bate (ed.), The Oxford English Literary History (2002– ).
  • Lionel Stevenson, The English Novel (1960, reprinted 1978);
  • Peter Conrad, Cassell’s History of English Literature (2003);
  • Carl Woodring and James Shapiro (eds.), The Columbia History of British Poetry (1994);
  • Christopher Ricks (ed). The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1987);
  • Isobel Armstrong & Joseph Bristow with Cath Sharrock (eds). Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: an Oxford Anthology (1996).