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The 19th Century Novel

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The 19th Century Novel

A Novel is defined as a long story about fictitious characters,
written in prose as opposed to poetry. Novels were first written in
the 18th Century so by the 19th Century, the novel, often in
serialised form was an established form of entertainment which was
also helped by the increased adult literacy rate over the whole of the
1800s. The idea of the novel had changed from being purely for the
amusement of women to being available to a wider audience, covering a
wider variety of issues. It was also over this century that it began
to be increasingly acceptable, if not usual to write novels with an
underlying moral tone, particularly towards social standards among the
lower classes. Another theme of many 19th Century novels was the
creation and depiction of strong and great female characters, many
through the new generation of female writers.

Walter Scott, born in Scotland in 1771 was famous for his escapist
literature such as ‘Waverley’ (1814) and ‘Ivanhoe’ (1819), both of
these escapist in their setting further back in the past (1745 and
Norman Times respectively). Scott had been a poet until he turned to
novel writing having been outsold by Lord Byron's poetry. ‘Ivanhoe’, a
historical romance is credited as being meticulously researched and
seemed to make the novel genre acceptable for men. He attracted a wide
range of people through setting it in Scotland and delving into the
past, capturing early Victorian’s imaginations with his eight hundred
year old characters, seeking refuge in the past and firing their
imaginations. ‘Ivanhoe’ famously sold ten thousand copies within its
first two weeks and led to a gothic revival, most famously Sir Charles
Barry’s Houses of Parliament in London and the famous Scott Memorial
on Princes Street in Edinburgh. Thomas Hardy, a later 19th Century
Novelist even trained in gothic architecture, and retaining the
interest all his life. William Scott detailed history with conviction
and energy, firing the multitude of reader’s imaginations and is a
good example of an early 19th Century writer because it seemed to step
outside of the boundaries set by previous writers. As said at the time
of ‘Ivanhoe’ ‘…it will please the public because it is uncommon’, a
phrase that could be attributed to many of the 19th Century novels
that have survived the test of time and are still popular today,
largely because of this quality of ‘uncommonness’.

Charles Dickens was only born seven years before the publication of
‘Ivanhoe’. It is said that where Scott’s novels provided the material
of dreams, Dickens explored the territory of society’s nightmares,
with his books largely based around the detritus of 19th Century
London as inspired by the time he spent in blacking factories as a
child. He is said to be the great chronicler of 19th Century London. A
lot of his books feature extraordinarily sensitised children damaged
by their surroundings and upbringing and opens up childhood
psychological complexity. ‘Great Expectations’ (1860) is described by
A S Byatt as ‘a most horrible representation of childhood’. A picture
painted of Dickens sitting in his chair surrounded by imaginary
phantoms is a good metaphorical representation for how his mind
worked. He seemed to be obsessed with the changing British society,
which he often portrayed as an animate world, and a nervous, hostile
and hysterical universe. A recurring and ongoing theme throughout his
novels seemed to be a great desire to give a moral and social message
to society, exposing the middle and upper classes to the apparent
horrors endured by the lower classes. Strong and interesting
characters, as are characteristic of 19th Century Novels were extreme
in Dickens novels, often seeming unrealistic, all aptly named to
create the impression that he hoped. Names such as ‘Fagin in ‘Oliver
Twist’; ‘Steerforth’ in ‘David Copperfield’; ‘Miss. Havisham’ in
‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Mr. Bounderby’ in ‘Hard Times’ all haunted
Victorian imaginations at the mere sound, showing his ability to
provoke strong feelings towards characters merely through their names.
He drew readers in through his sympathetic, melodramatic and humorous
delineation of a world peopled with characters of all social classes,
and by his condemnation of various social abuses. The impact that
Dickens’ novels seemed to have was to continue a Victorian obsession
and addiction to novels through serialised forms and expose social
conditions and his strong yet subtle moral beliefs through his
timeless and vivid characterisation.

Mrs. Gaskell was another renowned social exposer. ‘Mary Barton’ in
1845 was seen as an innovation because of the almost entirely working
class cast of characters which seemed to give insight to the readers
as to why poor people would hate the rich people. Despite not being of
the lower classes herself in her position married to a utilitarian
minister, she scrupulously researched her novels first hand by
speaking to parents of dying children in the slums of Manchester.
Using accents throughout her novels it was said that it was through
‘Mary Barton’ that the voice of the poor was heard in the drawing
rooms of England. Mrs. Gaskell said that she felt her role as a writer
was to move and to mend society and in many ways she did achieve both,
raising consciousness leading many readers to take action by going and
meeting the real life versions of her characters.

Unlike Mrs. Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë and her sisters Anne and Emily
felt forced to write under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Acton and
Ellis Bell. Sent to a boarding school as children with their two other
sisters who died there of tuberculosis gave Charlotte Brontë the
inspiration for the first part of ‘Jane Eyre’ where Jane is sent to
Lowood School where following an outbreak of the same disease, her
beloved friend Helen Burns dies. The rest of ‘Jane Eyre’ tells the
rest of Jane’s story featuring the infamous volcanic Edward Fairfax
Rochester. It is described as a fully fleshed portrait of women’s
desires and a candid portrayal of a woman’s longing. The novel is
extremely passionate, talking of deepest fears and longings, which
seemed to open up new emotional landscapes for 19th Century Novels.
The outpouring of feeling even made William Thackeray, a peer of the
Brontës, cry. The fact that such feelings and longings were of Jane
Eyre, a simple governess, described as plain looking aroused a fear of
women and at the time was denounced for being brutal, coarse and
vulgar leading even Mrs. Gaskell to forbid her daughters to read it.
Her character of Rochester, like Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy of ‘Pride and
Prejudice’ (1814) provided a kind of template for brooding and
handsome romantic heroes ever since. Unlike Mrs. Gaskell or Charles
Dickens, all three Brontës with their respective masterpieces
concentrated on the passion and love of women, which seemed extremely
modern at the time. However, it is through the way in which they
portray their heroes and their deepest interior feelings that they
have survived as considered essential reading for young women today,

William Thackeray returning to the genre set by Austen earlier in the
century wrote ‘Vanity Fair’ (1847), a novel famous for dissecting and
satirizing London Society. Its heroine, Becky Sharpe was portrayed as
a female player on a male stage as she survives the London Society
through courage and awareness of her sexuality and is reputedly the
most intelligent woman in 19th Century Novels. Still popular today,
‘Vanity Fair’ is a respected 19th Century Novel, it is said to offer a
wider scope than Austen with its heroine described as complex as the
society in which she lives.

Marianne Evans or infinitely more famously known as George Eliot, one
of the most talented novelists of her century was admired for her
acute powers of observation and in-depth characterisation within her
novels. Her considered masterpiece ‘Middlemarch’ (1871-2) was
described by Virginia Woolfe as ‘one of the few English Novels written
for grown ups’ in which Dorothea hopes to marry well and to make a
difference. The novel is credited for remaining scrupulously grounded
giving no false promises. Through the setting in the 1830s, she seems
to be able to write accurately, surveying the past from a vantage
point of the 1870s. The Novel is described as capturing the whole
society and world of that time through portraying the inner life of
people.

Thomas Hardy is not considered strictly a 19th Century novelist due to
the years in which he lived, however, his novels were all written
before 1896 and both his novels and poetry can be described as
characteristically Victorian. He is best known for his vivid portrayal
of his beloved Wessex. Hardy is one of the few writers to succeed as
both a writer and poet, having turned to poetry following criticisms
of his later novels. He was famously inspired by interesting snippets
of news stories such as dripping blood from a ceiling (Tess) and a
child hanging himself and his siblings to save his parents (Jude). His
novels generally cover a long period of time and he allows complete
insight into his characters and their feelings, many never achieving
true love or happiness despite their life-long struggle. Both ‘Jude
the Obscure’ and ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ were highly criticised at
his time of writing, the brutality of his stories shocking the
Victorian Public. However, he remains popular due to the strength of
his stories and characters.

Beyond the six authors that I have touched upon, the 19th Century
literature collection is vast, many surviving and others falling into
obscurity. Although the early 20th Century writers felt revolutionary
in their casting off of the old Victorian novel style, I feel that the
19th Century Novelists were equally revolutionary in what they did for
the novel. They created similar novel genres to what exists today and
entertained and often shocked an uptight century. They introduced the
art of observance and intricacy to the novel form and have formed the
basis for the inspiration of novelists ever since.

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