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19 th -Century Fiction: Overview. I. Contexts and Sources A. Forms of fiction B. Point of contention C. Enlightenment and Sensibility II. Romantic Fiction A. 1800-1814 B. Major Novelists C. 1815-1830 III. Victorian Fiction A. Early (1830-1845) B. Mid-century (1845-1860)

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19 th century fiction overview

19th-Century Fiction: Overview

I. Contexts and Sources

A. Forms of fiction

B. Point of contention

C. Enlightenment and Sensibility

II. Romantic Fiction

A. 1800-1814

B. Major Novelists

C. 1815-1830

III. Victorian Fiction

A. Early (1830-1845)

B. Mid-century (1845-1860)

C. High (1860-1875)

D. Late (1875-1890)

I. Contexts and Sources

A. Fiction took several forms

Miscellany magazines

Chapbooks (Dick Whittington and Jack and the Giants, for example; sold by pedlars)

Books (fashionable for the rich to own; distributed to the middle class through small circulating libraries)

b fiction was a point of contention
B. Fiction was a point of contention
  • Reformers objected:
    • Novel raise unrealistic expectations of life.
    • Novel prey mostly on middle-class women.
    • Novel is addictive.
    • Novel misshapes one’s inner self in a way dangerous to self and society.
  • Defenders responded:
    • Novel and romance are two different things. Fantastic romances may be harmful, but realistic novels are not.
c enlightenment and sensibility
C. Enlightenment and Sensibility


Argues that middle-class values of reason, order, self-discipline, social and religious toleration, free inquiry, and free enterprise must prevail over prejudices, censorship, self-indulgence of courts, patronage system, fixed social hierarchies, and economic monopolies

Stresses individual moral and intellectual worth or merit against artificial social categories such as rank

Led by professional men (lawyers, Dissenting clergy)

In the 1790s, Enlightenment themes emerge in Jacobin novels, such as Godwin’s Caleb Williams and novels of ideas by John Moore and Robert Bage

Sensibility and Sentimentalism

A reaction against certain Enlightenment views, values, and ideas and a continuation of others, especially the idea of the autonomous subjective self and sympathy as a social bond

Emphasizes inner moral and intellectual worth

Explores the inward self

Teaches benevolent optimism

Treats family affections sympathetically

In the 1790s, Sentimental themes emerge in novels of manners, such as Burney’s Evelina and Charlotte Smith’s works, in Gothic romances, such as Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, in Evangelical tales by Hannah More, and in Romantic tales by Charles Lamb



    • Continues the project of Enlightenment and Sentimental writers to redefine secular culture by redefining several important aspects of life in the image of the middle class
      • the individual
      • family life
      • the community
      • the nation
      • nature

II. Romantic Fiction

    • 1800-1815
    • Predominantly written by and read by women.
    • National tales, moral tales, and tales of fashionable life. Domestic realism.
      • Example: Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800). In general, her novels dramatize the triumph of reason and self-discovery over both social folly and self-absorption.
    • Tales of the heart and tales of real life. Psychological realism.
      • Example: Amelia Opie’s Simple Tales (1813), Tales of Real Life (1813), and her novel, Adeline Mawbay (1804). In general, her work focuses on intense emotion, description, and dialogue. Plot is perfunctory. Domestic heroism, the moral drama of the home.

B. Major Novelists

  • Jane Austen.
    • Novels of manners. Sense and Sensibility (1811). Pride and Prejudice (1813). Mansfield Park (1814). Emma (1815). Persuasion (1818).
  • Sir Walter Scott.
    • Historical romance. Waverly (1814). Rob Roy (1817). The Heart of Midlothian (1818). The Bride of Lammermoor (1819). Ivanhoe (1819). The Monastery (1820). The Abbott (1820). Kenilworth (1821). The Pirate (1821). The Fortunes of Nigel (1822). Perevil of the Peak (1823). Quentin Durward (1823). Redgauntlet (1824). The Betrothed (1825). The Talisman (1825). Woodstock (1826). Letters of Malachi Malagrowther (1826). The Fair Maid of Perth (1828). Anne of Geierstein (1829). Count Robert of Paris (1831). Castle Dangerous (1831).

C. 1815-1830

Rejection of domestic realism in favor of the fantastic, the extravagant, the irrational. Exploration of excessive selfhood. Focus on the self can transcend social categories (as in sentimental novels), but it can also be egotism

  • Novels of passion.
    • Advocate a “morality of strong feelings.” Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon (1816). Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
  • Silver-fork novels.
    • Novels about the fashionable aristocratic world. Condemned for glamorizing the trivial. Disraeli’s Vivian Grey (1826-7). Bulwer Lytton’s Pelham (1828).

Newgate novels.

    • Draw from the Newgate Calendar, biographies of criminals. Return to themes of 1790s Jacobin novel. Condemned for glamorizing the criminal. Bulwer’s Eugene Aram (1832).
  • Satirical novels.
    • Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) and Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818).

III. Victorian Fiction

    • Early (1830-1845)
    • Historical romances.
      • Ainsworth’s The Tower of London (1840). Bulwer’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834).
    • Social problem novels.
      • Treat the gulf between rich and poor, the inhumanity of factories and workhouses, the scandal of pauper burials, and the abandoned ‘fallen woman.’
      • Based upon Parliamentary reports of “blue-books,” political tracts, newspaper articles, and social reform literature.
      • Exaggerate the evils they expose by focusing on extreme cases. Sentimentalize the poor and stereotype the poor.

Prepare the way for better social problem novels by Gaskell, and Kingsley, and Dickens later in the century.

  • Dickens.
    • Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Oliver Twist (1837-39). Nicholas Nickelby (1838-39). The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41). Barnaby Rudge (1841). Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). A Christmas Carol (1843). The Chimes (1844).

B. Mid-century (1845-1860)

Explore life of the individual in the family, courtship, and marriage. Relate change and development of the individual to social change. Attack received views of women. Critique classes’ connection through money only.

  • Social problem novels.
    • Purpose: to educate the middle and upper classes about the poor. Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1854) and North and South (1854-55), Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1850), Disrael’s Sybil (1845), Dickens’ Hard Times (1854).
  • Religious novels.
    • Organized around a series of spiritual crises. Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), Yonge’s Heir of Redclyffe (1853), Froude’s The Nemesis of Faith (1849), Kingsley’s Hypatia (1853).
  • Historical novels.
    • Often depict other times of rapid change in history, such as 1688 (Glorious Revolution), 1848 (European revolutions). Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855).


    • Realism. Emphasizes ambivalence of human conduct in a fallen world. Satirizes aristocracy. Explores marriage market, money problems, vanity of social ambition.
    • Vanity Fair (1847—8). Henry Esmond (1852), Pendennis (1848-50). Novels of 800-1000 pages or more.
  • Brontes.
    • Depth vs. Thackeray’s breadth. Idealist vision vs. social analysis. Intense, concentrated. Heightened emotion and spiritual experience. Significant recurring metaphor of imprisonment or enclosure. Examine nature and role of women. Gothic. Draw from Romanticism of earlier generations.
    • Charlotte: Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Villette (1853), The Professor (1857). Emily: Wuthering Heights (1847). Anne: Agnes Grey (1847), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).


    • Dombey and Son (1846-48). David Copperfield (1849-50). Bleak House (1850). Little Dorrit (1855-57).

C. High (1860-1875)

Mudie opened a large new hall for his circulating library. Cheap railway reprints were available from the 50s on. Cornhill Magazine founded, 1860. Massive number of novels published. Professionalization of the novel trade.

Split between low and high-brow readers (Eliot and Meredith emerge to appeal to high-brow). Novel becomes more intellectually ambitious, more complex and self-aware. Victorian values treated more skeptically.

  • Sensation novels.
    • Draw on elements of Gothic novel. Draw on Newgate novel of 1830s. Not only innovative, but also subversive. Challenge the realistic tradition and the prudishness of the time. Multiple narrators, layered narration.

Explore darker, often forbidden areas of human experience. Ambivalent plots and characters. Relativist morality. Appearance and reality are blurred and contradictory. Crimes of passion. Prophetic dreams. Madness and imprisonment. Probe human psyche under stress of heightened emotions.

    • Collins’ The Woman in White(1859-60) and The Moonstone (1868). Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Lynne’s East Lynne (1861), and Reade’s Griffith Gaunt (1865-6).
  • Historical novels.
    • Careful detail about age and country in which novel is set. Define history as a drama of violent conflicts.
    • Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth (1861). Eliot’s Romola (1862-3). Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers (1863). Kingsley Hereward the Wake (1865).

School novels.

    • Often sentimentally religious.
    • Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days (1857). About Rugby.
  • Fantasy novels.
    • Elements of the supernatural and interaction of mortals with the supernatural.
    • Kingsley’s Water Babies (1863). MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858). At the Back of the North Wind (1871).
  • Religious novels.
    • Margaret Oliphant’s Carlingford series (1863-1876).
  • Dickens.
    • Moves toward exploration of split personalities and doubles. Looks into psychology of passion and crime. Great Expectations (1860-61). Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).


    • Realistic. Shows greater concern for character than for plot. Sermon-like quality. Explores the relationship of the individual and society, the private and the public, the personal and the professional. Focuses on middle and upper classes. Examines choices between love and money. Shows respect for established codes of conduct and hostility toward rapid change and personal ambition.
    • Most famous for novels about the small fictional community of Barchester: The Warden (1855) through The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866-7). Also satire: The Way We Live Now (1874-75). Most novels are 1000+ pages.


    • Novels of ideas. Intrusive narrator. Meditative, moral, philosophical. Explores individual development in relation to the environment. Free will co-exists with determinism; novels center on moral choices, emphasize long-term effects of actions, personal responsibility. Strongly influenced by Wordsworth; traces primary laws of human nature in events of everyday life. Considers the relation between the real and the ideal. Scenes from Clerical Life (1857), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862-63), Felix Holt (1866), Daniel Deronda (1876). Finest novel: Middlemarch (1871-2).
  • Meredith.
    • Attacked for difficulty, obscurity, and indecency. Equivocation and ambivalence. Suggestive, impressionistic, and intense. He was a poet as well as a novelist (Modern Love, 1862). Known for The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) and The Egoist (1879).

D. Late (1875-1890)

Censorship was an issue. Exploration of the human psyche – psychology, mysticism, the paranormal. Debate over romance and realism.

  • Romance revival.
    • Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Kidnapped (1886). Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887).
  • Utopian novels.
    • Convey a social or political argument by means of contrasts between the real world and an impossible world. Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872). William Morris’ New From Nowhere (1890).
  • Religious novels.
    • Mary Ward’s Robert Elsemere (1888). Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (written 1873-87, published posthumously).


    • Explores physical and psychological poverty of the urban poor. Focuses on sense of hopelessness. Returns continually to theme of financial necessity and its effect on marriages. Explores the conditions of authorship. Persistent use of hell and the abyss as metaphors. Treats the “New Woman.” Workers in the Dawn (1880), The Nether World (1889), New Grub Street (1891).
  • Hardy.
    • Tragic novels centering on the vanity of human wishes in a universe that fluctuates between neutrality and malevolence. Careful accumulation of small events that are fateful in combination. Attempts to mix real and sensational; sensational scenes, but realistic detail. 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 (1894-5). Also a poet: Wessex Poems (1898).