The literary period known as Victorian spanned many years, yielding many authors writing in a variety of styles on a rich variety of subjects. To understand the history and culture of this time of rapid change, it is convenient to break the timelines into three sections, as listed just below. However, to divide the works of particular authors into these three categories is less convenient, since many authors wrote throughout two or three of these periods. Therefore, authors are listed according to their genres, in the approximate order that they began publishing.
I suggest reading over the “TIMELINE / Significant Historical Dates” first; then going on to check out the list of authors and their works. Look back at these dates to see what was happening when each particular work was written or published.
SEE THIS POST for historical background and literary trends of English Victorian Literature.
Reading Resources—Find Free Texts Online:
This site is a rich repository of all things Victorian. Click on the menu item “Victorian texts” for links both to original texts and to critical commentary on many of them. A fun and informative site to explore.
This site is a treasure trove of free ebooks, downloadable in multiple formats. Most major Victorian authors are represented here.
Includes information on many aspects of Victorian life and culture, including a section on Victorian dress. It can help readers imagine what characters in famous novels must have looked like.
A quick and readable overview of Victorian history and culture.
Significant Historical Dates:
1832-48: Early Victorian–Rapid Industrialization and Economic Struggle
1830: Liverpool and Manchester Railroad opens, first steam-powered public railway in the world
1832: First Reform Bill expanded the vote to males owning smaller amounts of property than formerly required; result was to transfer more political power to cities and towns and away from old country landed interests
1833: Abolition of Slavery Act; Factory Act (began to reform working conditions for child laborers and others)
1837: Victoria becomes Queen
1840: Victoria marries Prince Albert.
1842: Chartist Riots (born of working-class reform movement); Copyright Act; Mudie’s Circulating Library founded.
1845-6: Potato Famine in Ireland
1846: Repeal of Corn Laws (ending tariffs that increased cost of grain, thus helping the poor)
1849-70: Mid or “High” Victorian—Prosperity and Empire
1850: Tennyson succeeds Wordsworth as Poet Laureate
1851: Great Exhibition of Science and Industry at the Crystal Palace
1854: Crimean War; Florence Nightingale organizes nurses to care for the wounded
1857: Indian Mutiny
1861: Death of Prince Albert
1865: Jamaica Rebellion
1867: Second Reform Bill; extended the vote to many workingmen in towns and cities
1868: Opening of Suez Canal
1870-1901: Late Victorian—Skepticism and Debate on Victorian Values
1870: Married Women’s Property Act (allows married women to own their own property); Germany becomes world power following victory in Franco-Prussian War
1877: Victoria is made Empress of India
1878: Electric Street lighting in London
1890: First subway in London
1891: Free elementary education
1898: Discovery of radium
1899-1902: Anglo-Boer War
1901: Victoria dies. Edward VII succeeds to the throne
ANNOTATED READING LIST
A note on Victorian fiction:
The Victorian era was the great age of the three-volume novel; therefore, few of the classic works are short reads. However, many of them, especially the works of Dickens, were originally published in serial format, meaning that two or three chapters would come out every month or so, and readers would have to wait two weeks or a month to find out what happened next.
For today’s readers, that means it is perfectly fine to read these great works a few chapters at a time—IF you ever find yourself able to lay the book aside! The Victorians knew how to tell stories, rich in characters, descriptions, and sentimental plots, perhaps laced with gentle humor, all while engaging in serious social critique. Victorian novels will not leave readers hanging at story’s close. If you want to know what happens to all the characters in the end, even the pet dog (!), Victorian authors will not let you down.
Below are my picks of the best from each author, as well as works that were most significant to the era either for subject matter, technique, or widespread popularity.
*Look for the asterisk (*) next to titles below. I have put asterisks next to titles I consider “must-reads” in the Victorian canon.
Charles Dickens: Pickwick Papers, 1837; The Adventures of Oliver Twist, 1838; Nickolas Nickleby, 1839; The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840-41; *A Christmas Carol, 1843; *David Copperfield, 1850; *Bleak House, 1853; A Tale of Two Cities, 1859; *Great Expectations, 1861; Our Mutual Friend, 1865.
Little need be said about Charles Dickens, since most, even today, know who he is and the kinds of things he wrote. He called himself “The Inimitable,” meaning that his idiosyncratic style of outrageous humor, sentiment, and social criticism could be imitated by no one. If you think you don’t like Dickens, I suggest you give him another try, this time expecting to find serious ideas and social criticism embedded in all the caricature. You won’t need to look far. You also won’t need to look hard to notice Dickens’s lyrical, clear, and image-filled writing style.
Here are my favorites:
Pickwick Papers, 1837: A light-hearted sentimental picaresque focusing on the adventures of the gentle-hearted retired businessman Mr. Pickwick and his city friends, who set off on travels to see the real England outside of London. This book features the famous cockney character, servant Sam Welliver, who always has something wry yet wise to say about every situation.
The Adventures of Oliver Twist, 1838: Orphan boy struggles to survive the dangers and squalors of London.
Nickolas Nickleby, 1839: A sentimental story protesting horrible conditions of British “ragged schools,” where folk sent their disabled or illegitimate children to be out of sight. It’s not all sadness, though—Nickleby is a good hero who helps save his sister from a terrible marriage.
The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840-41: The one with “Little Nell” and the evil moneylender Quilp.
*A Christmas Carol, 1843: If you haven’t read the original, please pick this up. It is short!
*David Copperfield, 1850: My all-time favorite Dickens novel. It is semi-autobiographical, depicting some scenes from Dickens’s childhood he never admitted publicly, especially those when he was forced to work in a factory while his father was imprisoned for debt. The whole life story of little David Copperfield, who grows up to overcome a sad abusive childhood to become a writer and happily married man, is heart-warming.
*Bleak House, 1853: Many critics regard this as Dickens’s best novel. For more info, see this post on Bleak House.
A Tale of Two Cities, 1859: Set in the French Revolution and its aftermath, both in France and England, this novel has one of the most famous opening passages in fiction: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
*Great Expectations, 1861: To me, this may be one of the most vividly told stories in the Dickens oeuvre. At first reading, the characters like the Convict, Pip’s sister, Joe the Blacksmith, Estella, and the amazing Miss Havisham, may seem too crazy to resemble anyone real. Are they so unrealistic, though? They could also be seen as acute portraits of psychological traits not at all uncommon.
Our Mutual Friend, 1865: Dickens’s last completed novel. The plot turns on the question of who will inherit old miser Harmon’s fortune. It must be symbolic that his fortune is all tied up in his rubbish (that is, garbage) collecting business, most of the wealth still buried in the trash. The rightful heir gone missing, the estate goes to the kindly Boffins, former servants of Mr. Harmon. Then along come the villains who scheme to take advantage of them. There are lots of twists and turns to this plot, which examines what wealth really means and who the good guys really are.
Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or The Two Nations. 1845.
If you are interested in politics of Victorian history, you will want to read one of the novels written by one of the consummate politicians of the age. I will confess here that Disraeli’s style is a barrier for me, so I have never completed one of his works. But they were very popular in his time and have many adherents now, so I include a selection here.
Sybil is a critique of how the industrialization of the British economy and current political structure had divided the nation intractably into “Haves” and “Have-Nots,” and proposes his solution to the problem.
William Makepeace Thackeray: *Vanity Fair, 1847-48.
The character Becky Sharp alone would make this novel worth reading, but there is so much more genius here. This work is a great and detailed send-up of mid-Victorian values and culture, out of which no character emerges looking perfect. The title says it all: the characters spend the novel pursuing aims not worth the winning, all misled into wandering a giant Vanity Fair that Thackeray uses as metaphor for the worldly side of Victorian culture.
This theme makes for an overall dark and sad message, but the book is extremely funny for all that, and at times quite sentimental. You can’t claim to know Victorian literature without having read it.
Emily Bronte: *Wuthering Heights, 1847.
One of the most important novels of the 19th century. Read all about Wuthering Heights in this post. Then, go read Wuthering Heights!
Anne Bronte: Agnes Gray, 1847; The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848.
Less famous than her sisters Emily and Charlotte, Anne Bronte is nonetheless a writer of major stature in a realist mode. Agnes Gray realistically depicts the maltreatment of governesses in this era, an important topic in a time when being a governess was one of the only jobs open for an educated but poor young woman. The story is based on Anne’s own terrible experiences working as a governess, a report from the “front lines.”
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall examines the double standards by which people judged the conduct of men and women by portraying the unhappy marriage of Helen Graham to alcoholic and bon vivant Arthur Huntingdon. Townspeople judge Helen harshly for frivolous reasons while Arthur and other men engage in debauchery with little criticism.
Charlotte Bronte: *Jane Eyre, 1847, and Villette, 1853.
No one’s knowledge of English Victorian literature is complete without reading Jane Eyre. Learn more about Jane Eyre in this post. Villette, praised by both George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, was Charlotte Bronte’s last novel and the first to be published under her own name.
Villette tells the story of the passive character Lucy Snowe, following her journey to a fictional town based on Brussels as she attempts to make a living as a nanny and teacher at a school for girls. Readers have valued this novel for its intense depiction of Lucy’s perceptions and psychology, as she faces loneliness in a foreign land, loss at love, and changing perceptions of her female friends.
Charles Reade, It is Never Too Late to Mend, 1856.
Though few are much valued today, many successful novels in Victorian England were known as “novels with a purpose,” stories that were crafted purposely to “educate” readers by proving a moral or political point. This work is one of the more memorable novels-with-a-purpose.
It tells the story of Tom Robinson, sent to prison for a minor theft, to shed light on the abusive discipline practiced in British prisons of the day. There is also an adventure plot, in which a character heads to Australia to look for gold, needing money to marry his beloved.
Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford, 1853; *North and South, 1855.
Friend of Charlotte Bronte who penned her biography, Elizabeth Gaskell was a well-known author in her own right.
Cranford is a series of vignettes centered on the people (mostly women) who live in this small village modeled on the town where Gaskell grew up. Sentiment as well as sly humor abounds; despite lack of a real plot in this work, most readers find this a pleasant and memorable book, since it paints characters vividly while promoting wisdom that survives cultural change.
North and South is more serious, telling the story of beautiful young Margaret Hale, who must move from her beloved southern English home to an industrial town in the north called Milton. Here, Margaret is shocked by the living and working conditions of the poor mill workers, and begins to campaign for reforms. She also meets and (of course) falls in love with the mill owner, John Thornton, who also falls in love with her. Being on opposite sides of the working-person struggle, they try to deny their love for one another. The novel depicts their emotions in detail while it calls the sufferings of the working class to readers’ attention.
Anthony Trollope: *The Warden, 1855; *Barchester Towers, 1857; Can You Forgive Her?, 1865; Phineas Finn, 1869; *The Eustace Diamonds, 1872; The Prime Minister, 1876; *The Way We Live Now, 1875.
Most chatty and genial of novelists, Trollope crafted many a “dear reader” style narrator who comments directly to readers on every character and plot event. Despite this obvious narrative device, the effect of Trollope’s fiction is wholly realistic. Readers feel they have met characters who behave and feel like real men and women, in a world that runs as society actually did in Trollope’s day.
Trollope’s tone can be humorous, ironic, sardonic, sentimental, and sometimes hectoring, but he is never un-empathetic. There are annoying dislikable characters in Trollope, but none are downright evil, and Trollope usually creates some sympathy even for the worst of them. The nicer characters are hardly perfect paragons, just nice, well-meaning people. In short, his characters seem truly human and their dilemmas real.
An indefatigable worker, Trollope wrote 47 novels. Not all of them are equally good. I have listed my favorites here.
My especial favorites are these first two on the list, The Warden, 1855 and Barchester Towers, 1857 selections from the so-called “Barsetshire novels” set in a Cathedral town, revolving around clerical characters and their families. Barchester Towers is one of the funniest novels I have ever read. For more info on The Warden, see this post.
The following four novels are part of the “Palliser series,” which all focus on people and their families who are involved in the English political world. Can You Forgive Her? and The Eustace Diamonds also feature strong and interesting women characters, and explore women’s roles in Victorian society:
Can You Forgive Her? 1865
Phineas Finn, 1869
*The Eustace Diamonds, 1872
The Prime Minister, 1876
*The Way We Live Now, 1875, is a later work and relatively grim for Trollope. His assessment of “the way we live now” is not flattering. He depicts people as grasping and jockeying for money, power, and social position.
The story centers on Auguste Melmotte, an apparently rich man who presents himself in London as a stockbroker who ingratiates himself into society and convinces people to buy stock in a fake railway company, all while trying to marry his drab daughter Marie to some rich man. Marie, however, has a mind of her own in matters of the heart, which makes for an interesting plot.
George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans): Scenes of Clerical Life, 1858; Adam Bede, 1859; The Mill on the Floss, 1860; *Middlemarch, 1871; Daniel Deronda, 1876.
Mary Ann Evans, known better by her pen name George Eliot, is one of the finest novelists ever to have written in English. Middlemarch, a novel depicting characters representing every class and personality type living in a small English village, has appeared on many a list as the best novel ever written. (Learn more about Middlemarch in this post.)
A brilliant, learned woman, Eliot found herself obliged to break many cultural barriers to live the life to which her intelligence led. Before becoming a novelist, she spent many years writing articles and criticism in the Westminster Review, an intellectual journal supporting progressive politics and reform.
When she did turn to writing fiction, using a man’s name to escape widespread prejudice against women writers, her first work, Scenes of Clerical Life, burst upon the literary scene, leaving many to wonder who this mystery writer was. It’s interesting that only Charles Dickens guessed that she was a woman. People did recognize that her work had heart, good sense, and wisdom.
Personally, I find reading her work a delight. If you like long involved plots with sharp depictions of interesting characters struggling with obstacles to their heartfelt desires, some succeeding and some failing, you will like it too. Interpolated between the absorbing plotlines and wonderful humorous or poignant scenes between beautifully described characters we find a prominent narrative voice. This kind wise narrator analyzes the social forces that connect or separate these characters, and enjoins us all to have sympathy for one another.
If you read only one thing this year, make it Middlemarch. Then take up some of these:
Scenes of Clerical Life, 1858. Four vignettes about characters connected to church professions and their humble struggles.
Adam Bede, 1859. Inspired by an actual case, this novel focuses on the tragedy of a young dairy maid who becomes pregnant by the local squire’s son, and the working man, Adam Bede, who is in love with her. It also follows the fortunes of gentle Dinah, a young woman who preaches open-air sermons to working class folk.
The Mill on the Floss, 1860. Semi-autobiographical novel about Maggie Tulliver, an active, questing girl not unlike Eliot herself who was always out of step with the expectations of her relatives. When she grows up and falls in love, she still finds herself disastrously out of step.
Daniel Deronda, 1876. A young, kind, handsome man who has been adopted by a benevolent squire learns that he is Jewish by blood. He becomes interested in learning about his heritage and captivated by the Zionist movement. The novel also focuses on beautiful selfish Gwendolen Harleth, who is influenced to become a better person through her love for Daniel and undergoing loss and tragedy.
Wilkie Collins: *The Woman in White, 1859.
A protégé of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins helped lead the mid-Victorian trend of “Sensation Fiction.” Sensation Fiction focused on melodramatic and gothic-tinged plots involving murder, adultery, romance, and crime, and persecuted innocence, often perpetrated by seemingly guileless people.
The Woman in White tells the tale of Laura Fairlie’s ill-fated marriage, arranged by her indolent and greedy uncle, to Sir Percival Glyde, who maneuvers to steal her fortune. Of course on the eve of her marriage, she has just fallen in love with another man, her art tutor Walter Hartright. He and Laura’s smart, loving half-sister Marian Halcombe try to come to Laura’s aid. This novel creates the wonderful villain character Count Fosco.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, 1862.
Capitalizing on Wilkie Collins’s success with The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret was another bestseller in “sensation fiction” mode. This novel has no heavy themes or special wisdom to offer but does provide readers with an enjoyable if leisurely “whodunnit,” featuring lurid crimes and unsavory secrets. If you want to know what Victorians might have read just for fun, try this novel.
Lewis Carroll, *Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865.
According to Britannica, mathematician Lewis Carroll originally told Alice’s adventures to Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell to entertain them at a picnic. The girls were the daughters of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where the author had studied and held a fellowship.
Happily for the young and young-at-heart ever since, Alice asked him to write the stories down. The result is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a land where everything that good Victorian children have been taught is turned on its head; logic is out the window and delightful nonsense, and mayhem ensues. If you haven’t read this work, you must!
Sheridan Le Fanu: “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street,” 1853; Uncle Silas, 1864; “The House by the Churchyard,” 1863; “Green Tea,” 1872; Carmilla, 1872.
Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s ghostly tales were admired by later horror writers such as M. L. James. Fanu’s work updated ponderous Gothic tales as told by Anne Radcliffe in the early 1800s to a later Victorian style. He inspired later writers of horror such as Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula. His tales are magnificently moody and creepy, creating a spreading uneasiness as you read. Plots of the longer works often revolve around an innocent, sensitive, and helpless young woman who must survive gothic-style villains. Carmilla focuses on a female vampire and is one of Dracula’s forbears.
George Meredith: The Egoist: A Comedy in Narrative, 1879.
In The Egoist, George Meredith translates the plot form of a stage play into a novel, which allows him to plumb the psychological depths of his characters. Most mercilessly dissected is the central character, “the egoist” himself, Sir Willoughby Patterne. As a young, handsome, rich man of social position, he should be a good catch. But as the novel opens, he has just been spectacularly jilted.
The novel begins with his new success in winning the promise of beautiful, free-spirited, intelligent Clara Middletown to marry him. Her father is persuaded to her engagement by the excellence of Sir Willougby’s wine (in itself a huge statement on how women were regarded in Victorian times). Clara quickly has regrets. Struggling for independence, Clara spends the novel figuring out how to end the engagement without reflecting badly on herself or, more significantly, the good name of her father.. Local spinster Laetitia Dale, the woman who really loves Willoughby, looks wistfully on.
This novel is quite funny with great observations about people and their ways. It argues for a culture with more freedom for women, who should be able to choose their mates as freely as men do, and to change their minds without social penalty. Meredith’s style is elegant but not transparent, providing a sophisticated and interesting read.
Thomas Hardy: Far From the Madding Crowd, 1874; *The Return of the Native, 1878; *The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886; *Tess of the D’Urbervilles, 1891; Jude the Obscure, 1895.
Thomas Hardy’s fiction, written later in the 19th century, does not focus on reform and social improvement as much mid-Victorian fiction does, but instead on presenting the unpredictability of human life and the overall sadness of the human condition. Hardy shaped many of his fictions like the Greek tragedies he admired, creating many characters who outshone their fellows but who carried their own tragic flaws within. If their own personalities did not bring them down, perverse fate was ever at hand to threaten.
Hardy was skeptical about the modern age, unconvinced of the mid-Victorian belief that life was becoming better for humans as technology and society developed. He rather thought the opposite was true, and much that was good and humane was being lost.
In spite of this melancholy outlook, his tales are beautiful and absorbing to read. Hardy’s characters are realistic, psychologically vivid, and original. The plots are exciting, since one never knows what fate the turn of the page will bring. The descriptions of nature, of the small towns and fields, even of the humble work the characters do, are informative yet lyrically described.
Here are my recommendations:
Far From the Madding Crowd, 1874. A woman of strong character, Bathsheba Everdene inherits a farm and proceeds to run it while encountering romantic adventures along the way. A mistaken marriage nearly ruins her. She comes to know herself in the end.
*The Return of the Native, 1878. The love relationships in this novel are so entangled and intense I don’t know how to summarize them. All the young men and women in the novel have returned to Egdon Heath, their small native village, most in attempt to revive a former love relationship. In the end, Hardy illustrates his view of life as mostly tragic, as each character struggles to escape their narrowing fates in this place that seems too small to hold their longings and ambitions. The passionate woman Eustacia Vye is the most famous and prominent character, thought by some villagers to be a witch, she is such a unique person.
*The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886. Tragic figure Michael Henchard, having risen to prominence in Casterbridge as rich grain dealer and longtime mayor, ultimately cannot escape the results of a terrible rash action in his long ago youth, when drunk and hopeless of finding work, he auctioned off his wife and young daughter at a village fair. They return to his life, as does an ex-love interest Lucetta along with a new young man he hires in his business, Donald Farfrae. For more on Mayor of Casterbridge, see this post.
*Tess of the D’Urbervilles, 1891. Perhaps the most famous of Hardy’s novels, I find this one quite sad, perhaps tied with Jude the Obscure for the saddest. It tells the fortunes of humble Tess, whose trials begin when her father learns they are descended from a noble family, the D’Urbervilles. From the time he sends her to make acquaintance of the nearby rich D’Urberville family, who actually are not of that bloodline, her life is one of hard work interspersed with romantic ups and downs. Eventually she falls in love and marries Angel Claire, who finds he cannot forgive her past indiscretions. Perverse coincidences help drive the plot to tragedy.
Jude the Obscure, 1895. Poor laborer Jude Fawley dreams of becoming a scholar and attend divinity school, but he is sidetracked by the earthy neighbor Arabella, who claims he has made her pregnant and persuades him to marry her.
After Arabella deserts him, he works for a living as a stonemason and falls in love with his iconoclastic cousin Sue Bridehead, who despises cultural strictures. She marries someone else, but eventually she and Jude live together and have children. Things do not go well as they struggle to live in a culture that does not accept them.
Robert Lewis Stevenson: Treasure Island, 1883; *The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886; Kidnapped, 1886.
Scottish writer Robert Lewis Stevenson was well-known in his day, beautifully helping supply the public with tales of adventure so popular toward the end of the nineteenth century. Full of exciting events and likable protagonists, the works listed here have been made the subject of many films and have been translated many times.
So if it’s adventure you’re looking for, the work of Stevenson is where you turn. Both Treasure Island and Kidnapped were originally published in the magazine Young Folks, aimed at a younger audience, but adults and writers of major stature have loved these works too.
Treasure Island is the story of young teen Jim who accidentally gets hold of a treasure map and sails with family friend Captain Smollett to go find it. Trouble is baked in to this adventure since the hired crew are actually pirates led by the famous Long John Silver. Follow the treasure seekers as they sail to a supposedly deserted island to find the treasure, struggling to head off the Long John-led mutiny. Stevenson created iconic characters in this work.
Kidnapped is set in Scotland, both Highlands and Lowlands, in the mid-1700s. It focuses on the story of young, newly-orphaned David Balfour, who leaves home to seek his father’s inheritance. He travels to the home of a rich relative, Ebenezer, who seems to have something against David’s inquiries and who arranges to have him kidnapped on the ship Covenant. The story follows David’s adventures as he survives the kidnapping, eventually escaping, falling into new perils, and eventually coming to a good ending.
*Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those stories of mystery and the supernatural that has entered the common culture, with “Jekyll and Hyde” a common metaphor for a person who seems to have both a benign and dark or evil side to their personality. The work is a short novelette—well worth reading in the original, even if you have seen one of the movie versions.
H. Rider Haggard: King Solomon’s Mines, 1885.
Stylistically, Haggard’s work may not be in the same rank as other writers on this list, but he tells a good tale that was popular in its day and could be the parent of “lost world” stories. In the novel, Alan Quartermain agrees to explore an unknown part of Africa with a group who is searching for the lost brother of one of the party. Films and mini-series have been based on this book.
Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, 1886; *Heart of Darkness, 1899; Lord Jim, 1900; Typhoon, 1902.
Born in Poland, Conrad served for years in many positions in the merchant navy of France, then Britain. Finding the universe dark and inscrutable, Conrad, both in outlook and style, provides a clear transition from the progressive Victorian world-view to the more skeptical Modernist outlook soon to come.
Much of Conrad’s writing is impressionist in style, describing events in psychological rather than chronological order, embedded within the confined perspective of a particular character or of the narrator. Readers must be prepared to jump with characters’ thoughts as they suddenly recall a memory, sketching events according to whatever they personally found significant. Readers must fill in details.
Conrad’s descriptions of Africans have been attacked as racist, as in the perspective of our times, they clearly are. But as is especially clear in Heart of Darkness, Conrad was no fan of the white man’s drive to empire, showing the great harms perpetrated against Africans by self-serving and arrogant colonialism.
Conrad’s work is evocative, beautiful, dark, idiosyncratic, and thought-provoking—in short, it is challenging art.
Rudyard Kipling, “The Man Who Would Be King,” 1888; The Jungle Book, 1894.
Some dismiss Kipling as an outdated Imperialist writer who merely celebrated the glories of British rule over India, where he spent a great deal of time. Others find his works more nuanced, providing at times less-prejudiced windows into unfamiliar lands, as well as into the hearts of working class British folk sent to do the work of the Empire-building in India and elsewhere. Many readers acknowledge the power of Kipling’s story-telling.
“The Man Who Would Be King” tells the story of two “loafers” who come to India to try to exploit their status as Europeans. This tale of adventure is complex and thought-provoking, providing enough perspective to make readers question the entire project of Empire building. The Jungle Book is a series of tales grouped around the young boy Mowgli who has been raised by wolves, telling his adventures with other animal characters of the Jungle, such as Shere Khan the Tiger and Baloo the Bear.
Bram Stoker: Dracula, 1897.
Though not the greatest literary work of the nineteenth century, the characters and plot that Stoker created in Dracula have flowered into countless versions on stage, screen, and television. The original Dracula is good reading; to my mind, it borrows a lot both in form and mood from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. In form, style, and sensational subject, Dracula belongs to its late Victorian era.
Arthur Conan Doyle: “A Study in Scarlet,” 1887; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892.
If you know Sherlock Holmes only through film and television, you should go back to the original. The Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson created by Arthur Conan Doyle may be a little different from the figure as current media have portrayed him. Charming stories.
Jerome K. Jerome: Three Men in a Boat, 1889.
Three Men in a Boat is a humorous account of a two-week holiday boating trip on the Thames River, from Kingston on Thames to Oxford and back again. Part lyrical travelogue and part winsome humor, this book often made me laugh out loud. Modes of travel may have changed, but people haven’t, so all the little humorous human vignettes still seem fresh.
Oscar Wilde: *The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891 (fiction); *The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895 (drama).
Oscar Wilde, in person as in works, best represents the qualities of end-of-century Victorian writing. His focus on art for its own sake, his endless witty paradoxes, and his tendency to undercut earnest Victorian morality perfectly illustrate the mood of many artists at the end of the long 19th century.
Most are familiar with the plot line of The Picture of Dorian Gray: Basil Hallward paints a portrait of a beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, who inspires his passion. Basil’s decadent and hedonistic friend Lord Henry Wotton meets Dorian at his last sitting for the portrait. He remarks that Dorian will age while his portrait will always remain beautiful. Dorian wishes passionately that, rather, the portrait would age while he stays the same. His wish comes horribly true. As Lord Henry leads Dorian down the path of debauchery and cruel self-indulgence, the portrait registers Dorian’s degrading character while he himself keeps the look of innocence. A short but unforgettable work.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a very funny play, to this day an audience favorite. Its very title is a joke; it makes fun of “stuffy” mid-Victorians who touted the importance of being earnest about life. In this play, it’s more important not to be earnest about much, but rather to be literally Ernest, that is, to have the name Ernest. Read the play to find out why.
H. G. Wells: The War of the Worlds, 1897.
One of the first novels to base a plotline on the invasion of Earth by extra-terrestrial creatures. If you didn’t already know, would you have imagined this work was old enough to have been written in the late Victorian period? People still don’t seem to be finished with this story’s premise, or indeed, with this exact plotline, since film versions continue to be made.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “The Sleep”; “To Flush, My Dog,” 1840; “Cheerfulness Taught By Reason,” 1845; *“The Cry of the Children,” 1843; “To George Sand: A Desire,” and “To George Sand: A Recognition,” 1844; *Sonnets from the Portuguese, especially III, VI, VII, IX, X, XIV, XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLIII, 1850; *“Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave,” 1850.
Nowadays, Elizabeth Barret Browning is remembered mostly for two things: her famous Sonnet “How Do I Love Thee / Let me count the ways,” and for her romantic marriage to another famous Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
Browning’s poetry is thoughtful, serious, and highly intellectual, yet gentle and readable. In her early life, Browning was an invalid, often confined to a bedroom in her father’s house, which gave her the opportunity to think deeply about life and love, perspectives she offers in her poems. She was also an impassioned social reformer.
Many poems bring the public’s attention to heinous social conditions, such as “The Cry of the Children” listed above that eloquently protests child labor. She was also a champion for women’s rights. Her long narrative poem Aurora Leigh examines the way women were oppressed and starved of education through the story of a bright young woman who wants more for her life than the current culture allowed.
Sonnets from the Portuguese is a series of sonnets about the progress of her love affair and eventual marriage to Robert Browning. She published the work anonymously because the poems were so personal, describing all the nuances of her feelings about falling in love, including her doubts whether she should yoke her weak and sickness-prone self to this fine man, who did indeed love her passionately. In the end, they married, eloping from her father’s house, and lived a happy life in Italy until she died at age 55. Some of the best sonnets from the collection are listed above.
Robert Browning: *“My Last Duchess,” 1842; “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” 1855; *“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” 1855; *“Fra Lippo Lippi,” 1855; “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” 1864.
Most don’t know that when Elizabeth Barrett Browning met Robert Browning, she was already a famous and highly regarded poet, while Robert’s published work had garnered little positive attention. In the early part of their marriage, Robert was known widely as “Mrs. Browning’s husband.”
However, Robert Browning’s poetry grew steadily more popular; by the end of his life, he was regarded as a Victorian sage and one of the favorite poets of the day. His work is quite different from Mrs. Browning’s. Her work is studded with abstractions, is written in traditional, melodic forms, and is usually spoken in her own voice.
Robert Browning, on the other hand, is known for perfecting the dramatic monologue, a poem in which one particularized character, not Browning himself, speaks the whole poem to a silent listener, someone who seems to be standing nearby while the character is talking. By the end of the poem, the speaker has revealed his or her true character, often in surprising or unexpected ways. Many of the speakers in these poems are actual historical figures from the Italian Renaissance, an era of great interest to Browning.
Most of the works listed above are dramatic monologues. “Child Roland” is different, a melancholy updating of a medieval romance. Child Roland becomes a hero not for conquering, but for persisting on a dutiful quest in the face of near-certain failure. “Rabbi Ben Ezra” is a meditation on aging and what actions in life bring lasting value.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson: *“Mariana,” 1830; *“The Lady of Shalott,” 1832; “The Lotos-Eaters,” 1832; *“Ulysses,” 1842; *“Break, Break, Break,” 1842; *“The Eagle,” 1851; “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” 1854; “Crossing the Bar,” 1889; *In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850, especially Sections 1 – 18, 25-27, 34, 50-56, 105-06, 123-127.
Many of Tennyson’s beautiful, image-filled, lyrical poems are among my favorites, and among favorites of poetry readers everywhere. Provided here is a list of the most famous. Most tell a story as well as painting haunting and beautiful pictures as they capture profound experiences in human life. Sample these, and if you like them, go on to sample more.
In Memoriam is Tennyson’s elegy to a dear friend who died young, and was years in the writing. Tennyson’s close friend and literary companion Arthur Henry Hallam died suddenly of a ruptured aneurysm on September 15, 1833, aged twenty-two years old. Tennyson’s intense grief plunged him into philosophical turmoil, which he spent seventeen years working through as he wrote this solemn and beautiful meditation on grief and the meaning of life and faith. Finally published in 1850, In Memoriam was highly regarded, probably one of the works that led to Tennyson’s designation as Poet Laureate of England.
Composed of many sections of different lengths in quatrains of iambic tetrameter, the rhyme scheme of a-b-b-a, where a couplet is enclosed by the outer rhyming lines, is dignified and graceful. The poem can be read in sections or all of a piece; it provides a study in phases of grief as well as deep questioning of faith along with a final resolution of the poet’s doubts. Many famous lines are from this work. Above is a list of sections I particularly suggest that you read.
Emily Bronte: *“I’m Happiest When Most Away,” 1838; “The Night Wind,” 1840; “Remembrance,” 1845; “Stars,” 1846; *“No Coward Soul is Mine,” 1846.
Bronte is known for her novel Wuthering Heights, but she was also a powerful poet. Here is a sampling of the most famous.
Matthew Arnold: “To Marguerite” and “To Marguerite—Continued,” (written 1847); “The Buried Life,” 1852; “Lines Written in Kensington Gardens,” 1852; *“Dover Beach,” 1867.
Great champion of the importance of literary art during an age of materialism and developing technology, Arnold wrote poems that are often less upbeat than that message. Poems like “The Buried Life” and especially “Dover Beach” foreshadow the alienation Modernists were soon to feel from nature, their beliefs, other people, and even from themselves.
For example, the Marguerite poems and “Buried Life” discuss how difficult it is to convey our true thoughts and feelings to another person. *“Dover Beach” is a central text of Victorian literature, gently mourning the impending total loss of religious faith Arnold predicted for his culture. The poem urges people to cling to their loved ones as their highest value, given that religious belief was disappearing. Of course not all Victorians felt this way—but many intellectuals did. See this post for more on “Dover Beach.” Also see this post.
Christina Rossetti: *Goblin Market, 1862; *“Song, (When I Am Dead, My Dearest),” “Cousin Kate,” “Maude Clare,” “A Birthday,” “No Thank You, John,” “A Better Resurrection”; *“In the Bleak Midwinter (A Christmas Carol),” 1872.
Christina Rossetti is gentlest and loveliest of poets, her every word slipping gracefully into their places within each line as if born to live there. The simple imagery shines out like a hyper-realistic Pre-Raphaelite painting– not surprising, since famous painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti was her brother.
Love in every aspect is a major theme of Rosetti’s work. Some poems are ballads that tell a story of love, false or true. Some are little monologues, celebrating love or warning against false or dangerous attachments. Many other of her poems are Christian devotional meditations, offering a fresh and homely perspective on spiritual matters.
The long work Goblin Market is written in the style of a fairy tale for children but features more adult themes about the dangers of sexual or other addictive temptations, showing that women need to bond together and sometimes sacrifice to help one another.
Pick up some Rossetti and curl up in a corner reading through them. You may find a new favorite poem.
George Meredith: Modern Love, 1862.
Novelist George Meredith was also a poet. Modern Love tells the story of how his marriage fell apart in a long series of sonnets, step through anguished step. The title of the sonnet collection poses that his and his wife’s experience is not unusual in this modern day.
Thomas Hardy: Hardy’s poetry to be listed in English Modernist Literature timeline, still in progress.
See the fiction listings above for Hardy’s most famous novels. Some of his poems were written in the Victorian era, and more after 1901. His poetry will be listed together on the English Modernist timeline.
Algernon Charles Swinburne “To A Cat,” “The Forsaken Garden,” “Hymn to Proserpine,” 1866, “A Ballad of Death,” “A Channel Crossing.”
Swinburne’s poetry burst onto the Victorian scene in the mid-1860s, when he became known as a rebel against most conservative Victorian values, including Christianity and strictures against sex, especially its non-mainstream varieties. “Hymn to Proserpine,” for instance, depicts the pagan goddess lamenting that Christianity has displaced her and the other pagan gods. The poem implies that the rise of Christianity was a negative, not a positive, for humanity.
“The Forsaken Garden” has a similar theme. See this excellent prize-winning student essay about the poem and Swinburne’s beliefs to learn more. ,”
Not all of Swinburne’s poems are about iconoclastic topics, however. Many are tone poems or grand descriptions of nature. He paid great attention to metrics and sound effects in his poetry. If the sound of a poem is just as important to your enjoyment as the meaning is, Algernon Charles Swinburne is your poet.
This excerpt from “A Channel Crossing” is typical. Notice the alliteration, the long sonorous lines, and the intense vocabulary:
Sudden, sublime, the strong storm spake: we heard the thunders as hounds that bark.
Lovelier if aught may be lovelier than stars, we saw the lightnings exalt the sky,
Living and lustrous and rapturous as love that is born but to quicken and lighten and die.
Heaven’s own heart at its highest of delight found utterance in music and semblance in fire:
Thunder on thunder exulted, rejoicing to live and to satiate the night’s desire.
And the night was alive and anhungered of life as a tiger from toils cast free:
And a rapture of rage made joyous the spirit and strength of the soul of the sea.
–from Swinburne, “A Channel Crossing”
If you are in the mood for passionate aesthetic rapture, try some Swinburne.
Gerard Manley Hopkins: *“God’s Grandeur,” 1877; “The Starlight Night,” 1877; “As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire,” 1877; *“Spring,” 1877; “The Windhover,” 1877;* “Pied Beauty,” 1877; “Hurrahing in Harvest,” 1877; “Spring and Fall,” 1880; *“[Carrion Comfort],” 1880; *“No Worst, There is None,” 1885; *“I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, not Day,” 1885.
Quite the opposite of Swinburne, Hopkins was a Catholic priest whose poems depict his encounters with God, both within nature and within his own soul. Some encounters are rapturous reassurances of God’s goodness and power, and some are intense and dark struggles with despair over sin or other loss of connection to God’s presence.
Some of Hopkins’s poems, idiosyncratic as they are, are among my favorites. They are quite unique in both sound and sense. Hopkins was very experimental with poetic form, following a rhythm based on numbers of accent beats rather like old Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Therefore many of the lines have a series of hard accents jammed together that makes the poems sound very strong, the meaning intense and insistent. Some of the ideas are expressed in a minimal, telegraphic way, using strong imagery, but any effort made to untangle the meaning will be well repaid.
For more on Hopkins’s work, see this post.
Ernest Dowson: “Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae,” 1894.
This late century poem tells of a lost love who has become the speaker’s obsession. No matter how much he tries to distract himself with dissolute living and other women, he cannot forget her.
Those who wish a comprehensive knowledge of the English Victorian era will want to sample the writings of its thinkers, philosophers, and cultural critics, ideas that informed the literary works of the era as well as the culture at large. Here is a very select list of major Victorian thinkers and their works that touch on some of their most important ideas.
Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 1834; On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History, 1840.
Carlyle was a thinker popular among the young men of his day. Sartor Resartus is a pseudo-biography of a rather bumptious character called Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Professor of “Things in General” at Weissnichtwo “Know not where” University. His name is usually translated as “God-Born Devil-Dung.” Readers follow this fake professor as he rejects outworn ideas from the past and re-makes his philosophy of life and an all new value system—“The Tailor Re-Clothed,” as “Sartor Resartus” might be translated.
In On Heroes, Carlyle poses that it is great individuals of genius who create and propel culture forward, rather that groups of people mutually establishing a more general “spirit of the age.” He considers heroes in different spheres of endeavor: the hero as divinity (Odin), as Prophet (Mahomet), as Poet (Dante and Shakespeare), as Priest (Luther and Knox), as Man of Letters (Johnson, Rousseau, Burns), and as King or Ruler (Cromwell and Napoleon).
John Henry Newman: Tracts for the Times, 1833-41.
Newman edited this series of 90 pamphlets, or tracts, and wrote many of them himself. They were documents of what became known as the Oxford Movement. They make the case for re-incorporating many Roman Catholic practices and ideas back into Anglicanism. Newman himself was so convinced by these arguments that he later converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and became a priest, later Cardinal John Henry Newman.
John Ruskin: Modern Painters, 1843.
Ruskin began as an art critic who argued vociferously for natural realism in painting, against the accepted precepts of classical art taught in the Royal Academy of the time. He helped make the case for J. M. W. Turner’s greatness, and championed the Pre-Raphaelites, who sought to make natural details more realistic and less stylized than painters since Raphael. He later branched out from critiquing art to analyzing culture, making the case for a reform of the new industrial culture to make a society that would treat working classes more fairly.
Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, 1859.
No description needed here. The effect of Darwin’s theory about how “higher” species such as apes and people evolve from lower forms sent shock waves through communities who accepted a literal Biblical view of creation.
John Stuart Mill: “On Liberty,” 1859; “On the Subjection of Women,” 1869.
Philosopher/thinker John Stuart Mill made a well-reasoned and impassioned case for freedom of speech and of the individual to determine what was best for him or herself, as long as these actions did not harm others. He also argued strongly for equal treatment and freedom for women. A good summary and explanation of “On Liberty” can be found here.
Thomas Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 1867-68.
Besides being a poet, Thomas Arnold was also a literary and cultural critic. He championed the importance of pursuing cultural knowledge, not just mechanical or business skill. He defined Culture as “nothing less than the pursuit of perfection” leavened by what he called “sweetness and light”:
I have been trying to show that culture is, or ought to be, the study and pursuit of perfection; and that of perfection as pursued by culture, beauty and intelligence, or, in other words, sweetness and light, are the main characters. But hitherto I have been insisting chiefly on beauty, or sweetness, as a character of perfection. To complete rightly my design, it evidently remains to speak also of intelligence, or light, as a character of perfection.
–from Culture and Anarchy, Thomas Arnold
Arnold argued that too few leaders and members of Victorian society sought the “knowledge of the best that has been said and thought in the world.” His ideas are more complex than this description can show. In Culture and Anarchy, Arnold makes a detailed case for the importance of Ideas in shaping and developing a culture. Without philosophy leavened by beauty and knowledge, mere material advances and developments are meaningless and hollow achievements.
Benjamin Disraeli. Cornelius Jabez Hughes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Advice from a Caterpillar. Arthur Rackham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Anthony Trollope. Published by Gebbie, Philadelphia, 1900 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Dracula Cover. Holloway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons