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.
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.
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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.