Nothing But the Truth: The Victorian Era & Literary Realism

The long 19th century and the developments that came in the Victorian era.

William Thackeray
Lewis Carroll
Literary Realism
Russian Realism
Picaresque novel
In Memoriam A.H.H.

Defining Victorian Literature

The term ‘Victorian literature’ describes English literature written during the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901. Although this seems like a short amount of time compared to other literary eras, this period is often considered the ‘Golden Age of English Literature.’

Victorian literature is defined by the period of time in which it was written, not a central philosophy or style. However, a lot of Victorian literature does have particular themes or showcases similar forms and styles.

This was caused by changing trends in thinking and taste. Following the Romantic period, writers of the Victorian age turned away from the abstract expressionism of the former period and focused on realism, with an attention towards social issues and the sciences.

Both poetry and fictional prose were popular throughout the Victorian age, producing some of the greatest writers in English. And during this time, the novel became the leading literary genre in English!

In the theater, farces, extravaganzas, and comedic operas were popular but there were no particularly notable literary dramas until the end of the century.

Historical Context of Victorian Literature

Victorian literature reflects many transformations to English life. From class structure and politics to science and religion, almost every aspect of daily life and thought was affected during this time.

Scientific advancements like Charles Darwin’s discoveries on evolution changed the way people understood the world around them and created tension between the church and the academy.

Technology advanced at an alarming rate, with the introduction of the telegram and later telephone, the train and automobile, even the bike and camera. For Victorians, the pace of life increased suddenly – causing some people to even have nervous breakdowns!

In the cities, life was also more crowded. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and people poured into the cities looking for work. Social reform became critical, bringing about child labor laws and an awareness of class disparity.

Class divisions also came under scrutiny politically, as workers fought for direct representation in the government and began to strike and unionize.

The Victorian Influence on Western Culture and Texts

Though the label ‘Victorian literature’ specifically describes British works written under the reign of Queen Victoria, the styles and central themes of Victorian literature can be found around the globe. In Europe and America, cities were undergoing the same changes to industry, urbanization, and invention as in England.

And intellectual discoveries and advancements were quickly shared across the globe. Due to growing railway systems, steam-powered ships, and expanding telecommunications, news and ideas could be easily and quickly transmitted across Europe, and later with America following the installation of the trans-Atlantic telegraph.

British colonialism was also well underway, spreading cultural, religious, and intellectual influence around the globe, and by the 19th century it became popular to say that the ‘sun never set’ on the British Empire.

In this way, globalization impacted Victorian literature, and Victorian literature impacted the globe. For better or worse, the world was becoming smaller and the arts more homogenous.

The Golden Age of the British Novel

The Victorian era is widely considered the ‘Golden Age of the British Novel.’ While the novel form had been in use previously, it was during this time that it became a mainstay of literary fiction. The novel’s ubiquity today can be traced back to its popularity in Victorian England.

Both printing technology and literacy improved under Queen Victoria, creating the perfect atmosphere for an increased interest in long-form fiction. Novels were often printed serially – in sections over a series of months – before being collected into complete editions. The serial format helped grow excitement and anticipation for readers, leading to improved popularity. Charles Dickens is particularly remembered for the buzz his serialized novels would generate.

Other famous novelists of the period include William Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell. Today, the greatest Victorian novelists are remembered for their overall artistry and their social observations and critiques.

Poetry in Transition

Poetry underwent tectonic shifts during the Victorian era in both content and form. Serving as the bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, poetry in the late 19th century would have been unrecognizable to an 18th century critic.

During this era poets began experimenting with meter and rhyme, often prioritizing internal rhyme and alliteration (the repetition of consonant sounds within a line) over end rhymes. They also began writing without meter or with inconsistent meter.

An example of both of these are in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘Pied Beauty’: ‘Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; / Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough’ (ll 4-5).

Despite these changes, very little Victorian literature is actually in free verse, which eschews both rhyme *and* meter. Victorian poetry is often recognized for its melancholy and its nostalgia for simpler times, though it does not completey idealize the past in the way of many Romantics.

Writing for Children

A new genre arose during the Victorian era – children’s literature. Although children had always been an audience for certain stories and tales, until the 1800’s authors had not written commercially with the goal of entertaining child readers.

Both Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm collected and preserved traditional tales at the beginning of the century. And as literacy began to improve and social programs fought to protect childhood and ban child labor, children became increasingly popular as a commercial focus, leading to a boom in children’s literature.

Lewis Carroll’s *Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland* was one of the earliest English texts to tap into this new market, and certainly the most popular. Despite its social commentary, the illustrations and overall youthfulness of the book drew a lot of children readers. Its success inspired others including *Black Beauty* by Anna Sewell and *The Coral Island* by R. M. Ballantyne. This new genre was also the first time children were included as central characters and main problem-solvers.

Defining Realism

Literary Realism is part of a large artistic movement of the 19th century that sought to represent subject matter truthfully and to depict life as it truly is – even the boring parts.

Realism in the arts was partly inspired by the Enlightenment and closely aligned with the scientific advancements of the time. It wanted to apply the scientific method to the arts, rejecting the pastoralism and fantasy of Romanticism, or Gothic speculative or supernatural elements.

In practice, literary Realism shone a new light on everyday people, moving away from the aristocracy as a focus. These works look at the lives of middle class and working class people; sometimes this is to a social end, wanting to highlight individual struggles and draw attention to larger societal issues.

The writing style is very detailed and often attempts to capture the sound of spoken language in its dialogue – to mixed success.

Russian Realists

From around 1840 to 1880, literary Realism thrived in Russia, inspiring some of the greatest Russian literature in history. Writers were called up to realistically approach their country’s social problems, and they rose to the occasion, focusing particularly on issues of class disparity and serfdom.

19th-century Russian Realism is particularly known for its nuanced approach to realism and its thoughtfully balanced presentation. While in other parts of the world, writers overemphasized the banality of life, often to the detriment of their work, the Russian realists depicted the full spectrum, supplementing serious inquiry with satire and humor. While using a direct and factual style, these writers prioritized character development over plot and action, displaying a nuanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit.

Key Russian realists include Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of *Crime and Punishment* and *The Brothers Karamazov*, and Leo Tolstoy, author of *War and Peace* and *Anna Karenina*.

American Literary Regionalism

During and after the American Civil War, the nation’s most popular literary genre was regionalism, also known as ‘local color.’ This style is considered a type of realism and was used for both poetry and prose, maintaining its popularity into the early 20th century.

In regionalism, a work’s location plays an important role in every aspect of the writing: from detailed landscape descriptions to carefully copied dialect. The locale can also take on elements of character, sometimes serving as the main character, or even the narrator, as is the case in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’

Regionalist texts are most often set in rural or provincial settings, focusing on the lives of agricultural workers and the working class. They also address conflicts with ‘outsiders,’ especially those who want to exploit the region either economically or for its popularity as a subject matter. Key authors include William Faulker, Mark Twain, and Kate Chopin.

Key Figure: Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens continues to be one of the most widely read authors today, but did you know he also experienced unprecedented popularity in his own lifetime?

Dickens led a difficult childhood and began his writing career as a journalist; both experiences that influenced his writing and subject matter. He’s best known as an English novelist and short story writer. He was born in 1812, and died when he was 58 as the result of a stroke.

Widely considered the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, Dickens is best known for his memorable and iconic characters like Miss Havisham and Ebenezer Scrooge. He was skilled at depicting both caricatures and realistic, nuanced people – even within the same work.

Dickens’ works are often social commentary, even though they also feature comedy and irony. His writing was heavily inspired by the picaresque novel tradition, which features roguish but appealing heroes, usually lower class, fighting against a corrupt society; like the writing of Dickens, the picaresque often features a blend of realism, comedy, and satire.

Key Figure: Alfred Tennyson


The English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson lived from 1809 to 1892 and is one of the most celebrated poets in history. He served as the Poet Laureate for most of Queen Victoria’s reign and was an influential writer throughout the Victorian era.

Tennyson’s work spans genres, with influences from both Romanticism and Realism, leading some contemporaries to criticize him for being overly sentimental. His early poetry’s powerful medieval imagery served as a major influence for the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of mid-century artists dedicated to reviving the Italian Renaissance and adopting intense detail and color.

Much of Tennyson’s work was based on mythological themes from ancient Greece and Rome. This can be seen in his famous poem ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ – a long-form work written as an elegy to his close friend Arthur Hallam.

Expanding the Canon: Ida B. Wells

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an acclaimed American journalist and civil rights leader. She was born in 1862 into slavery in Mississippi and was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, a result of the American Civil War.

As an adult Wells co-owned and wrote for the *Memphis Free Speech and Headlight* newspaper, where she developed her skills in investigative journalism, reporting on racial inequality and segregation. Wells’ writings against lynchings and the wrongful death of Black men drew national attention, and in 1892 a mob attacked and destroyed the Free Speech office where she worked.

Wells had been carefully researching lynchings across the South and in late 1892 published the first of her findings in *Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases*. She later also published *The Red Record* – additional findings on the same subject. Throughout her life Wells worked tirelessly to champion the rights of African Americans and to combat prejudice and violence.

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