When we speak of the Victorian novel we do not mean that there was a conscious school of the English novel, with a consciously common style and subject-matter, a school which began creating with the reign of Queen
and which came to an end with the end of that reign. The English are too individualistic for such conformity. However, there can be no denying the fact that the English novel during second half of the nineteenth century, with the exception of one or two novelists, shows certain common characteristics. We have now to study those common characteristics. Victoria
The Conventional Plots
For one thing, the Victorian novel continues to be largely in the Fielding tradition. The plot is generally loose and ill-constructed. The main outline of the Victorian novel is the same. The story consists of a large variety of characters and incidents clustering round the figure of the hero. These characters and incidents are connected together rather loosely by an intrigue, and the ending is with ringing of wedding bells.
Secondly, the Victorian novel makes an extraordinary mixture of sentiment, flashy melodrama and lifeless characters. There is much that is improbable and artificial in character and incident. Speaking generally, the Victorians fail to construct an organic plot in which every incident and character forms an integral part of the whole.
Still, the Victorian novel makes interesting reading. The novelists may not construct a compact plot, but they tell the story so well. They are so entertaining that children still love to read and enjoy a novel of Dickens or Thackeray. The plot may be improbable, but there is enough suspense, and the readers’ attention is not allowed to slag even for a single moment. They do not like to give it up unfinished.
The Victorian novelists may miss the heights and depths of human passion, there may be no probing of the human heart and no psycho-analysis—we do get such probing in George Eliot—as in the modern novel, but they cast their nets very wide. Novels like Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, etc., are not, like most modern novels, concentrated wholly on the life and fortunes of a few principal characters; they also provide panoramas of whole societies. In the Victorian novel, “A hundred different types and classes, persons and nationalities, jostle each other across the shadow screen of our imagination.”
The Victorian novelist is a man of varied moods. His range of mood is as wide as his range of subject. Just as he deals with all aspects of society, so also he renders human moods in all their manifold variety. He is not a specialist in any one mood or temper. The novelists of the age cannot be categorised. As David Cecil puts it, “They write equally for the train journey and for all time; they crowd realism and fantasy, thrills and theories, knock-out farce and effects of pure aesthetic beauty, check by jowl on the same page; they are Mr. Galsworthy and Mr. Huxley and Mrs. Woolf, Mrs. Christie and Mr. Woodhouse, all in one.” A book like David Copperfield is a sort of vast school boy hamper of fiction with sweets and sandwiches, pots of jam with their greased paper caps, cream and nuts and glossy apples, all packed together in a heterogeneous deliciousness.
Not only have the Victorian novelists width and range of subject and mood, not only are they entertaining story-tellers, they have also creative imagination in simple measure. Their imagination works on their personal experiences and transforms and transmutes them. Their renderings of the real world are not photographs, but pictures, coloured by their individual idiosyncrasies, vivid and vital. Often the picture is fanciful and romantic. At other times, it sticks close to the facts of actual existence, but these facts are always fired and coloured by the writer’s individuality. The act of creation is always performed. Dickens is, “the romancer of
streets” and Thackeray, too, transports us to an entirely new world, call it vanity fair or Thackeray land or what you will. The creative imagination of the Victorian novelists works on the setting of his story and transforms it. London
This creative imagination is also seen at work on the incidents or the stories of the Victorian writer. They linger long in the memory because they have been made dramatic and picturesque by the imagination of the novelists. They abound in dramatic and picturesque scenes as in Vanity Fair. “As a picture is an ‘invention’ of line and colour, so are these, brilliant ‘inventions’ of scene and action.” —(David Cecil)
This creative imagination is also seen in the humour of the Victorian novelists. Each of the great Victorian novelist is a humorist, and each is a humorist in style of his own. They have created a number of immortal figures of fun, each comic in his own different way. There are hundreds of fine jokes and witty remarks spread all over the Victorian novel. Mr. Micawber and Mrs. Payser are immortal figures of fun.
The most important expression of this creative imagination is to be seen in the most important part of the novel, i.e. in the characterisation. The Victorians are all able to make their characters live. Their characters may not always be real, there may be much in them that is improbable and false, but they are amazingly and indomitably alive. They are wonderfully energetic and vital. They are all individuals, living their own existence, and lingering long in the memory once we have formed an acquaintance with them. They act in their own characteristic way; they have their own tricks of speech, their own way of saying and doing things. A Victorian novel is a crowd of breathing, crying, living, laughing people. It has a crowded canvas, crowded with living, breathing individuals.
The Victorian novel lacks uniformity. It is extremely unequal; it is an extraordinary mixture of strength and weakness. It is technically faulty. This is so because it is still in its infancy, it is still considered as a light entertainment, and not a serious work of art, and the laws of its being, have not yet evolved. In this connection David Cecil observes, “Because it was in its first stage, it was bound to be technically faulty. It had not yet evolved its own laws; it was still bound to the conventions of the comic stage and heroic romance from which it took its origin, with their artificial intrigues and stock situations and forced happy endings. Because it was looked on as light reading, its readers did not expect a high standard of craft nor did they mind it if it had occasional lapses; especially as they themselves had no traditions of taste by which to estimate it.” On the other hand, they strongly objected to spending their hours of light reading on themes that were distressing or put intellectual strain on them.
One-sided View of Life
Then again the Victorian prudery comes in the way of a free and frank treatment of the animal side of life. In this respect, the Victorian novel shows a definite decline from the earlier English novel. Any lapse from virtue is shrouded in an atmosphere of, “drawing the blinds and lowering the voice.” Free and uninhabited treatment of the animal side is lacking. The Victorian novel gives only a partial, one-sided view of life.
Its Real Greatness
For these reasons, the Victorian novelists cannot be ranked with the very great, yet they have greatness in them. They have their imperfections. Their plots are improbable and melodramatic, their endings are conventional and their construction is loose. They do not have any high artistic standards. But their merits also are many. They are very entertaining, they can capture and hold the attention, they have creative imagination, and they have the incomparable gift of humour. And these are the qualities which only the great have.
Its Two Phases
The novel in the Victorian era is so abundant and prolific that it is usual to divide the Victorian novelists into (a) Early Victorian Novelists, and (b) the Later Victorian Novelists. Writes Walter Allen in this connection, “Thackeray was born in 1811, Dickens in 1812, Trollope in 1815, Charlotte Bronte in 1816, Emily Bronte in 1818, George Eliot in 1819. Mrs. Gaskell had been born in 1810, and lesser novelists born in the Regency period include Charles Reade (1814) and Charles Kingsley (1819). Together, they are the names that first came to mind when we think of the Victorian novel. They do not form a coherent body; and Emily Bronte will prove an exception to all generalizations we care to make about the rest of them. Yet if we set them beside the chief novelists born in the generation after the Regency, Samuel Butler (1835), George Meredith (1828), Thomas Hardy (1840) and Henry James, we shall see that they have much more in common with one another than they have with the younger men. What they have in common is a special climate of ideas and feelings, a set of fundamental assumptions. It was this special climate, these assumptions, that the later novelists of the century were to question, even though the great mass of the reading public still took them for granted.”
And this points to another main difference between the novelists of the first half of the Victorian age and those of the second half. The former were at one with their public to a quite remarkable degree; they were conditioned by it, as of course any novelist must be, but for the most part were willingly conditioned by it. They identified themselves with their age and were its spokesmen. They may criticise their age as do Dickens and Thackeray, but on the whole they accept the prevalent customs and social institutions. The later novelists, however, were writing in some sense against their age; they were critical, even hostile, to its dominant assumptions. Thus Hardy attacks Victorian morality and the institution of marriage; Samuel Butler scandalised his age by flouting Victorian taboos and conventions, and Henry James went against the literary canons of the age by his advocacy of the novel as an art-form. George Eliot’s novels reflect the rationalism of the age. The relation of these novelists to the reading public was nearer to that of the twentieth-century novelists than to that of the early Victorians.