Archery was popular with Victorian women, one of the few sports considered proper for women. “The Fair Toxophilites” (lovers of archery) by William Frith.

The English Victorian era, dating from about 1832 to 1901, gave birth to many of the works we now call “classic,” some of the best literature ever written in English.

Now we think of the Victorian Age as quaint and old-fashioned, but in reality it was the era in which our own modern age began. The Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear, bringing rural workers from small villages to gather in big cities, shifting an economy formerly based on agriculture and handicraft industries into one based on high-volume manufacturing. The development of the Steam Railway system and the telegraph and, later, the telephone, connected people formerly divided by great distances, enabling the spread of modern culture.

In literature, the harvest of this period is rich. Victorian novels such as Middlemarch, Bleak House, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles still appear on critics’ lists of all-time best English novels. The last third of the century brought a flowering of new fictional genres: “sensation” fiction, science fiction, supernatural fiction, detective fiction, and adventure “lost world” fiction—genres that writers and readers still enjoy today.

Victorian poetry is no less famous, with works like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Browning’s “My Last Duchess” still anthology staples. Many poets continued the Romantic era focus on Nature and the Middle Ages, while adding a new fascination with the Italian Renaissance. Other poets focused on raising readers’ awareness of social problems, or pushed back against an over-mechanized and coarsening age, singing the glories of hand craftsmanship and “art for art’s sake.”

The end of the era brought great dramatists and playwrights, especially Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, who used side-splitting humor and irony to challenge over-earnest Victorian values they thought to be hypocritical.

Sunset by Samuel Palmer

What were the major “must-read” works of the English Victorian era, and what were they about? To see my picks, check out my annotated reading list (link below). It has comments and descriptions of major literary works of the English Victorian period.

Before you do that, however, you can click “read more” to stay with this post to learn a little more about the Victorian Age, its literary themes and forms, and the culture that informed its literature. This background will help explain the themes, ideas, and problems with which Victorian writers were concerned, all to help you read with more pleasure and understanding.

English Victorian Literature: An Annotated Bibliography

(Click “Continue Reading.”)

Trends in English Victorian Literature

We’ll explore some Victorian age-defining ideas and culture in a moment, but first let’s take a look at what literature was like in those important years from 1832-1901.

Fiction: Romance Evolves into Realism

In the Victorian era, the Novel form reached its zenith. Victorian authors such as Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Eliot, the Brontës, and later, Hardy, wrote richly detailed, long, beautifully imagined stories featuring troves of unique characters interacting in a realistically-portrayed community. Toward the beginning of the era, popular novelists like Ainsworth and Bulwer-Lytton wrote romances about attractive villains and upper-class adventurers, but soon the prevailing mode of the English novel became realism.

Realistic Victorian painting of large family at table celebrating a child's birthday.

This detailed painting by popular Victorian painter William Frith shows a realistic family celebrating a child’s birthday. This painterly scene echoes the style of Victorian novels that provide detailed visual descriptions of characters and their environments.

Realistic novels attempt to depict people and the world as they truly are, including mixed characters of both good and bad qualities, likely or probable plot events, and realistic settings described in detail. The plots usually focus on characters whose goals and dreams conflict in some way with social expectations. Often, novels address social ills, attempting to educate readers and inspire them to take action to improve society, at least within their own little corner. This formula, along with the contemporary publishers’ preference for three-volume novels at least forty chapters long, led many authors to write beautifully detailed stories with sympathetic characters and realistic problems that take a while to develop and resolve.

For me and all those who love to dive into a fictional world and just live there for a while, Victorian novels provide a Reader’s Heaven.

Thackeray, Trollope, and George Eliot could all be described as realists in different ways. Dickens was unique—his works describe realistic characters and social conditions, but he borrowed from romance in his depiction of heroes and villains, and in the grotesquely comic exaggerated descriptions of character. Like other beefy Victorian novels, his works also provide an immersive reading experience, as well as equal opportunities to think deeply about values and social issues as realistic fiction.

Old photo showing Charles Dickens Writing

Charles Dickens

Just past mid-century, writers began to develop works that have led directly to the genre fiction that readers love today. Wilkie Collins inaugurated the so-called “sensation novel” with The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Sensation fiction focused on secrets and hidden crimes, where innocent victims are caught up in nefarious schemes that a hero or heroine must unravel and defeat. Later in the century came detective fiction with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, horror fiction with Sheridan Le Fanu’s stories and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, adventure fiction with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island, and science fiction with H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. 

Through most of the century, the best Victorian novelists were deeply in earnest about doing good through their writing, providing social critique and encouragement to become a better person as a result of having read their work. Entertainment was also a prime goal, though not the only purpose for novel-writing or novel-reading.

Advice for Reading Victorian Novels:

Enjoying a Victorian novel is simple: slow down and savor everything—the long descriptions of both scene and character, the frequent breaks narrators often take to talk directly to their “dear readers,” the many trials and errors experienced by the characters, the thoughtful questions being posed about what makes for a good person and a good society. You can relax knowing that at the end of the novel, the outcome of all the plots will be plainly revealed. A Victorian novelist rarely leaves readers hanging at the end, asking “so what happened”? Rather, writers usually tell readers what happened to every character—even, sometimes, to the beloved dog or cat!

Poetry: Meditative, Medieval, Wry, or Dramatic

Some of the loveliest poems in English were written in the Victorian Era. Victorian poetry runs a lyrical gamut, from odes focusing on nature like the Romantic poets, to serious protests against a particular social injustice, to philosophical meditations, to inquiries into love relationships, to scene-painting, to vignettes or mini-stories set in medieval or Renaissance times. There is also a lot of humorous poetry from this era, including Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poems and Edward Lear’s limericks and other rhymes.

Victorian poets were gleefully experimental. Poetry Foundation points out that many innovations in Victorian poetry came from melding of other genres into poetry.  For instance, Tennyson and Robert Browning borrowed from the Drama genre to perfect the dramatic monologue form, wherein the poem’s speaker is an individual character who reveals his or her true nature by speaking to someone who seems to be there, listening. Browning’s wry “My Last Duchess” is a famous example of a dramatic monologue.

Poets also borrowed from fiction, using poetry to tell long stories, often set in other eras. Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, a series of poetic tales based on the Arthurian tales of the Middle Ages. Browning wrote The Ring and the Book, telling the story of a famous murder trial of a young wife who killed her husband in the Italian Renaissance.

“Mariana” by John Everett Millais. Mariana, a character in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” is featured in Tennyson’s moody poem “Mariana.” This painting sets Mariana in a Medieval castle, another work partaking of the Victorian fascination for the Middle Ages.

Poets like Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti let their painterly eyes inform their written words, as they incorporated sensory descriptive language into their poetry. Rossetti’s sister Christina Rosetti engaged in luscious scene-painting while borrowing rhyme and meter from simple traditional songs.

Many Victorian poems are deeply serious and meditative, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, in which she examines the complex nature of her love for Robert Browning. Another such example is George Meredith’s Modern Love, a sonnet series chronicling the breakup of his marriage.

The sound of poetic language was a preoccupation for most poets of the Victorian era. Gerard Manley Hopkins experimented with an Anglo-Saxon like beat within his lines of verse that he called “sprung rhythm.” Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote poems about love, sometimes about its more fringe forms, or about a return of pagan gods and goddesses to natural settings. Whatever the topic, how his poems sound is always at least as important as what they say. Read some of Swinburne’s work aloud to savor some luscious poetic language, even if you never understand what they mean.

One thing that many Victorian poets have in common is a fascination with an earlier time of history and culture. Like the Romantic writers, they were still inspired by the Middle Ages; to this fascination, they added a love for the Italian Renaissance. Browning set many of his dramatic monologues in this era. Even novelist George Eliot set one of her fictions in Italy during the Renaissance.

To enjoy Victorian poetry:

Understand that every poem is different, and every poet has his or her own distinct style. Explore different authors to find your favorites. See the How to Read Poetry series on this site for help with interpreting a variety of poetic features.


Oscar Wilde

Though play-going was popular, most drama written through mid-century has not been remembered. A lot of Victorian plays borrowed plots and characters from popular novels or from plays written in other countries; they often focused on sentiment and melodrama. The end of the Victorian era, however, brought dramatists of major stature. Both Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw combined delightful comedy with cutting social critique, making drama besides Shakespeare a serious literary form once more.

Culture and Social Conditions in the Victorian Age

Having surveyed some Victorian literary themes and trends, let’s consider some of the historical and cultural events that helped shape what these Victorian authors were writing about. Understanding the culture is especially helpful in understanding Victorian literature.  Since Realism was such a prominent literary mode, writers wrote directly about the society and culture in which they lived.

An Age of Inventions

The Victorian Age was one of rapid change and new ingenuity, bringing both new social problems along with several new solutions to some of the old and thorny problems humans had always faced. Consider this list of just a few of the inventions that brought important changes to people’s lives during the era:

  • Photographs: 1838 was the first year that photographs were taken by Louis Daguerre in France and William Henry Fox-Talbot in Britain.
  • Advent of steam railways: construction of 13000 km of railways all over Britain.
  • The telegraph: Invented in 1837, the telegraph linked England to America in 1858. The telephone came along in 1878.
  • Anesthesia: William Thomas Green Morton patented an effective anesthesia in 1846.
  • Practical Antiseptic: Invented in 1865 by Joseph Lister.

For more information about Victorian inventions, see this site, or this one.

Industrial Revolution

In the early part of the era, manufacturers began to scale up inventions originating from the mid to late 1700s. For instance, the spinning jenny and power loom allowed machines to do on a large scale what individuals had done by hand through home-based cottage industries. This change in manufacturing methods resulted in the Industrial Revolution, leading to a seismic shift from an economy based on agriculture and handicraft industries to factory-based mechanized ones.

Probably as a result, population exploded in cities and towns during this era. In 1751, a quarter of people lived in towns and cities; by 1851, half the population did:

According to the site “Population History of London,”

“In 1815 London was already the largest city in the world, but by 1860 it had grown three-fold to reach 3,188,485 souls. And many of the souls it contained were from elsewhere. In 1851, over 38 per cent of Londoners were born somewhere else.”

–Population History of London

1832-1848: “Time of Troubles”

These rapid changes eventually led to widespread prosperity and growth of the middle class, but the beginning of the era brought social dislocations and many hardships to working class people. The early years of this era, from 1832-1848, have been called “The Time of Troubles.”

Living conditions in city slums that housed the era’s new factory workers were horrendous, and hunger was rife. There were few regulations on working conditions, which were terrible not only for men but for women and children as well. High tariffs on grain imports kept the price of food high. In 1845, the failure of the Irish potato crop led to a massive famine. Finally in 1846, the passage of the new Corn Law drastically reduced the tariffs on imported grain.

William Powell Frith: “Poverty and Wealth”

Writers and Social Reform

Many writers throughout the Victorian age were on the cutting edge of raising public awareness and calling for social reforms. In fact, it is hard to name a serious author of the period who did not call for some type of reform in some of their works. One famous example is Charles Dickens, who criticized the treatment of poor children in orphanages and ragged schools, the abuses of the legal system, dysfunctional and abusive family patterns, and many more social problems. Prime Minister-to-be Benjamin Disraeli wrote the novel Sybil, or The Two Nations, in 1845, which analyzed reasons for the huge and growing gap between rich and poor.

Poets were not outdone by novelists in drawing attention to society’s problems. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for one, wrote widely read poems calling for reform of child labor (such as “The Cry of the Children”), the abolition of slavery, and more equal treatment for women (Aurora Lee).

Ongoing Social Progress

The public was often attentive to these cries for social improvement, leading Parliament to appoint many commissioners to report on a variety of social conditions and problems. For instance, in the years 1840-49 alone, commissioners investigated issues ranging from working conditions for children in mines and factories to how best to improve conditions in towns and cities.

Gradually, laws were passed to address some of these problems, such as a series of Factory Acts passed throughout the century that slowly added some protections for child laborers. The progress was slow, but laid groundwork for many social and infrastructure improvements we take for granted today.

Sometimes nature took a hand in stimulating reform. A very hot summer in London 1858 caused “The Great Stink,” a huge stench from the Thames River from sewage running out of open drains in the streets. This finally led to the construction of the London Sewer System, completed 9 years later, which included underground sewers and separated drinking water from sewage, leading to improvement in health for the whole London population.

Victorian Political Parties

Victorian political parties roughly reflected this division between landed interests and urban mercantile interests. Though positions were not hard and fast, Tories, or Conservatives, generally supported the monarchy and believed large property-holders were in a position to make the best decisions for the good of the country. Whigs, who later became known as Liberals, wanted the power of the monarchy to diminish and generally supported progress and social reform.  In general, Tories tended to champion traditional ways of doing things while Whigs wanted innovation and progress.

Victorian lawmakers were not all elected. While members of the House of Commons were voted into office, members of The House of Lords were not voted into office but inherited their right to take part.

Reform of Voting Rights

The Victorian Era was known for its gradual expansion of the right to vote. At the beginning of the century, only large property-holders could vote, giving political power to landed and agricultural interests. The first Reform Bill of 1832 lowered property qualifications to vote, with the result that many members of the middle class could now vote. The 1832 Reform Bill also redistributed the voting districts or boroughs to reflect the larger populations in cities. The Reform Bill of 1867 granted voting rights to many working-class men; later, more bills passed in 1884 and 1885 extended it to agricultural workers and gave a specific number of votes to each constituency.

These voting reforms acted more and more to transfer political power away from nobility and landholding families to people representing business and manufacturing interests.

Naturally, novelists chronicled these sweeping societal and political changes. Most famous is George Eliot’s Middlemarch: though published in 1871-72, it was set in the years 1829-32, those years leading up to the first Reform Bill. Eliot’s work depicts issues occurring among every social class during these times of accelerated change.

"George Eliot" (Mary Ann Evans) at age 30. Painting by d'Albert Durade.

“George Eliot” (Mary Ann Evans) at age 30. Painting by d’Albert Durade.*


Free public education for working class children was not provided until the Education Act of 1870. Before then, the education a particular child received depended on wealth, social class, or availability of charity schools or religious institutions founded for the children of the poor. Middle and upper-class boys were generally sent to boarding school at age 6 or 7, while girls were educated largely at home by governesses and tutors. Girls might be sent away to attend a “finishing school” in their late teens. Through most of the century, degree programs at universities were open only to men. The first university degrees granted to women were in 1880.

1847-1870: Prosperity and Empire

By Mid-Century, England had grown greatly in population, prosperity, and size of its world-wide empire. During the Victorian Age, the British Empire grew to be the largest and most powerful empire in the world. Interesting fact: At Victoria’s death in 1901, the British Empire “encompassed nearly 1/5 of the Earth’s surface.”

The famous Crystal Palace, constructed for the 1851 Great Exhibition held in London, became the symbol of British inventiveness and prosperity at Mid-Century. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and constructed of iron and glass, this structure was assembled in just a few months, then completely dismantled when the world-wide exhibition was finished. Countries from around the world showcased accomplishments of industrial arts in their nations, with England occupying half the space at the exhibition.

Interior of the Crystal Palace, huge glass and iron structure built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Growth of the Middle Class and Circulating Libraries that Served Them

This increasing prosperity contributed to the growth of the middle class. Higher literacy rates and more widespread education created a large audience with an appetite for great literature, and authors obliged. Since owning books was still expensive, many readers belonged to circulating libraries, similar to the video rental stores common in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Mudie’s Circulating Library, the dominant library of the period, had protocols that exerted a large influence on the size and type of fiction that authors wrote. If Mudie’s Library approved of a book, it would reliably order enough copies to enable authors and publishers to make a decent profit. Authors could earn a middle-class income by selling around one thousand copies of one or two books a year, very different from the situation for authors today. Since fewer copies of any given novel needed to be sold to be profitable, Victorian authors had more flexibility to create original thoughtful works on a variety of topics that were tailored to specific audiences.

In addition to offering a safe number of sales to authors, Mudie’s preferred to circulate novels that could be divided into three separate volumes; the library could then mail out one volume to a borrower, get that back, and then send out the next one to an anxiously awaiting reader. One reason Victorian novels are so long: they needed to provide enough copy for the standard 3-volume library size, about forty-five chapters in total.

Not all novels were published whole, in three volumes. Some were first be published “serially,” one section at a time, either monthly in booklets for one shilling each, or bi-weekly in a literary magazine such as Blackwood’s. Serial fiction that was popular might then be issued as a complete book for people to purchase. Dickens’s books were mostly published this way.

Writers who published serial fiction had to design cliff-hangers at the end of each section to ensure readers would come back for the next installment.

Queen Victorian, Prince Albert, and Family

Family and the “Woman Question”

Another way that Mudie’s Library influenced novels was in subject matter. This library wanted to acquire books for their collection that reflected family-oriented values that were championed by many in the Victorian era, not least by Queen Victoria herself, who had nine children. Her family celebrations, especially Christmas, were detailed in popular periodicals of the time.

Along with celebration of the family unit, the culture of the period touted the role women played within the home as the family’s moral and nurturing center. The popular and sentimental poem “The Angel in the House” by Coventry Patmore idealized this role.

Not surprisingly, however, not everyone readily accepted this home-centered role as the only one fit for women. Novels and intellectual publications of the day were filled with discussions of the so-called “Woman Question,” that is, with debates about what roles women could or should have outside the family.

Charlotte Bronte

There was also much discussion on what legal rights women should have, such as whether married women should own their own property or be able to vote, rights they did not have through most of this era. Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? and Bronte’s Jane Eyre are just two examples of novels that touch on feminist themes. Debates about “the Woman Question” were still contentious toward the end of the century and into the next.

Class Awareness

Even with the growth of the middle class and gradual gaining of voting rights by the working class, Victorian England was still a very class-conscious society. Many of the conflicts and various woes of Victorian fictional characters come about because of an issue of social class.

The first time I taught English Victorian novels to American students, I learned with surprise that they were often puzzled why various characters were experiencing such severe dilemmas, such as why Jane Eyre as governess felt constrained to hide her love for Mr. Rochester, her gentleman employer. The next semester, I began on Day 1 talking about the fact that different social classes were held to different expectations for their lives and behavior. People of the Victorian era needed to know how they were expected to address and interact with members of different classes.

With that introduction, students had much less trouble understanding why social class and personal desire or ambition could cause such acute conflict. They could also appreciate the “upstairs/downstairs” depictions that many authors were famous for, such as George Eliot and, to a lesser extent, Thomas Hardy, both of whom used lower class characters as a kind of dramatic Chorus to interpret and comment on behavior of central characters of the novel. Such passages often interlace a serious story with charm, humor, and wisdom.

I do not think today’s readers need to know all the details of social rank in Victorian times in order to understand and enjoy Victorian fiction. Readers do need to be aware that people were judged differently depending on their social class. A character’s social class was often depicted in fiction as a major barrier to a character’s goal or problem.

Readers also need to remember that rules of dress, comportment, and etiquette were much more restrictive than today. People dressed modestly in several layers of clothing. Women in particular were swaddled in layers of corsets, petticoats, skirts, jackets, and shawls.

Victorian Dress and Bonnet from the 1840s.

Religion in Victorian England

The Victorian was an earnest age, so not surprisingly, religion played a central role in the culture. Anglican Protestantism was the official Church of England, with its clergy all directly responsible to the Archbishop of Canterbury and in turn, to the Queen herself, who was Supreme Head.

There were other faiths practiced in Victorian England, including Protestant Dissenters, Roman Catholics, and Judaism. These groups were excluded from political participation in different ways, but gradually gained access to political offices and universities as laws were debated and liberalized over the century.

The Anglican Church itself encompassed many theological opinions about how the faith should be practiced, most of which fit into the famously denominated categories of High, Broad, and Low. High Church proponents espoused the beauty of traditional formal rituals, valuing churches and cathedrals of stunning architecture, and performing services according to the Book of Common Prayer.

The High Church movement was spread by Tractarianism, ideas espoused in a series of Tracts or pamphlets written by John Henry Newman and two other fellow Oxford students beginning in 1833. This movement celebrated ritual, tradition, and the central place of beauty, both in music and architecture, to Christian worship.

Low Churchers or Evangelicals believed that a focus on beauty and traditional ritual was misplaced, preferring stripped-down church fixtures, simple rituals, and more direct evangelism in sermons, believing that the way to God should be heartfelt and straightforward and that people needed to repent their sins and live a godly life. “Broad” Church refers to people who tried to accommodate all tastes and beliefs within the Church, making allowances for preferences of particular congregations.

These “High-Broad-Low” Church conflicts are featured in Anthony Trollope’s beautifully comic novel Barchester Towers, in which a long-serving High Church Bishop dies just as the Tory ministry is going out, which allows the new majority Whigs to appoint a Low-leaning Bishop to Barchester cathedral. Most conflicts in the novel rise from differing opinions of the long-established High-Church clergy and the incoming Bishop and his strident wife, both of the Evangelical order.

Religious Skepticism

Not all Victorian thinkers maintained strong religious beliefs. While religious movements like Tractarianism and Evangelicalism were sweeping the culture, some famous thinkers were questioning whether the Christian faith, or any religion, would hold up to rational scrutiny. Multiple forces worked together to cause people to question the idea of religious faith:

  • Geological discoveries seemed to undermine the Biblical account of Creation.
  • Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, 1859, popularized by Aldous Huxley, questioned human origins.
  • So-called “Higher Criticism” beginning in Germany treated the Bible as a compilation of ancient texts to be studied by scholars, rather than as sacred scripture. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) translated Strauss’s Life of Jesus into English, a famous and influential example of Higher Criticism that treated Jesus as a wise teacher rather than as a divine being.
  • Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” 1867, expresses his sadness and disorientation at the impending loss of religion to the culture and within his personal life.
  • Later in the century, many of Thomas Hardy’s works pose that many people return to ideas more akin to those of ancient pagan times as, he believed, Christianity’s influence was waning.

If Religion Vanishes, What would Replace It?

Both early in the century and later, various thinkers offered their ideas about what would give meaning to people’s lives if, as they believed, traditional religion disappeared.

Etching of photograph of middle-aged man facing left with right hand to forhead, serious expression, slightly graying thick hair and mid-length beard, jacket with lapels.

Thomas Carlyle

Earlier in the century, essayist and thinker Thomas Carlyle did not jettison religion entirely, but urged each person to work out the components of religious faith for him- or herself. While faith was in question, he espoused the virtue of work as a means of developing both self-knowledge and a philosophy of life: “Know what thou canst work at.”

For there is a perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in Work. Were he never so benighted, forgetful of his high calling, there is always hope in a man that actually and earnestly works: in Idleness alone is there perpetual despair. Work, never so Mammonish, mean, is in communication with Nature; the real desire to get Work done will itself lead one more and more to truth, to Nature’s appointments and regulations, which are truth.

–Thomas Carlyle

George Eliot and her friend August Compte both believed that just as natural laws such as gravity operate within the natural realm, incontrovertible moral laws operated within the sociological realm. Through her fiction, Eliot showed that human communities are interconnected in a vast web. Her novels portray how people’s moral choices, whether they be self-centered or taken with sympathy for others, have effects that ripple outward through the whole community. As Eliot saw it, traditional religion may be incorrect, but the moral law was still in full operation.

Past mid-century, some artists and writers rebelled against the practical, mechanical, and very earnest spirit of the Victorian age by instead championing Beauty and “Art for Art’s Sake.” Art critic Walter Pater expresses this belief at the end of his study The Renaissance, where he argues that the aim of life is not to learn, grow, or improve, but rather to fully and passionately experience beauty in every moment—as he put it, to “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame”:

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike.

–Walter Pater, Conclusion to The Renaissance (1873)

English Victorian Age: A Complex Era

I end this survey of the Victorian Age with the sense there is so much more to cover. The Victorian Age of English Literature was long and rich, encompassing several waves of cultural changes and historical events, and many important thinkers, writers, critics, and writers, from John Stuart Mill to John Ruskin to Charles Darwin. My discussion here can therefore be no more than a sketch of some of the most important cultural conditions, ideas, and debates that stretched throughout the era.

“Washing Hands” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

To learn more about Victorian times, read its literature. Start by exploring the Reading List of Victorian Literature on the site. Selections include the best authors and examples of the kinds of literature written in this rich era, with descriptions of some of the themes that inspired or troubled authors in those times.

You will not have to read far into the literature before you discover that the Victorians are not so outdated as they are often portrayed today. In fact, they, like us, experienced sweeping technological change with its attendant problems and dislocations. In that sense, and indeed in most others, the Victorians are Us.

Explore some of these great and lovely works, and see if you think so too.


LINK: English Victorian Literature: An Annotated Reading List

Index to Literary Timelines and Reading Lists


Photo Credits:

“The Fair Toxophilites” by Frith . William Powell Frith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunset” by Samuel Palmer, 1861. Samuel Palmer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Many Happy Returns” by William Frith. William Powell Frith (1819–1909), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens

Mariana by John Everett Millais.  John Everett Millais, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Oscar Wilde: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Train Wheels. Photo by Alexander Zvir

“Poverty and Wealth.” William Powell Frith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

George Eliot. Alexandre-Louis-François d’Albert-Durade. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Crystal palace interior.  J. McNeven, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Victoria with Family. DR ERNST BECKER (1826-88), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Charlotte Bronte.  George Richmond, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Carlyle. By Elliott & Fry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Washing Hands. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons