Thursday, December 10, 2009

ENGLISH REALISM: THE VICTORIAN ERA (1837-1901)

Realism is a literary movement that started in France in the 1850s as a reaction against Romanticism and which tried to show "life as it was" in literature all over Europe. Although the concept is also questioned by some critics, it is a useful term to understand the general spirit of the second half of the 19th century: a reaction to Romanticism, a stress on reason and positivism, and a faith in the power of the artist to show reality.

In England, this movement coincided approximately with the "Victorian era", a period ruled by Queen Victoria (1837-1901) which meant the height of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution. The United Kingdom expanded its borders into America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania and became the first economic and political world power. Many critics prefer to talk about the "Victorian Age", since many of the best English novelists of the period are not "realistic" in the same sense as their French or Russian counterparts. But whether more or less realistic, NOVELS are certainly the most important literary form of the period, excellent novels read by an expanding educated middle class that had developed with economic prosperity.

Walter Scott (1771-1832) started out as a writer of Romantic narrative verse and ended up as a historical novelist. He wrote several historical novels, mainly about Scottish history. Ivanhoe (1819).

JANE AUSTEN (1775-1817) shared the chronological time with the Romantics, but she shares some of the features of Realism. She has a unique talent and cannot really be assigned to any group. Her novels (Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1816)) remain as popular and critically acclaimed as ever. Her primary interest is people, not ideas, and her achievement lies in the meticulously exact presentation of human situations and in the delineation of characters that are really living creatures. Her novels deal with the life of rural land-owners, seen from a woman’s point of view, have little action but are full of humour and true dialogue.

The Brontë sisters wrote after Jane Austen but are the most Romantic of the Victorian novelists, particularly Emily Brontë (1818-1848), who wrote Wuthering Heights (1847), the epitome of the Romantic novel, wild passion set against the Yorkshire moors. Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) wrote Jane Eyre (1847), a love story of great realism.

CHARLES DICKENS (1812-1870) was perhaps the most popular novelist of the period. He serialized most of his novels, which may explain some of his weak plots. Dickens wrote vividly about London life and the struggles of the poor, but in a good-humoured fashion (with grotesque characters) which was acceptable to readers of all classes. His early works such as the Pickwick Papers (1836) are masterpieces of comedy. Later his works became darker, without losing his genius for caricature: Oliver Twist (1837), David Copperfield (1850), Great Expectations (1861). A Christmas Carol (1843) is the popular story of Mr. Scrooge visited by the four Christmas ghosts.

William M. Thackeray (1811-1863) wrote Vanity Fair (1847), a satire of high classes in English society. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1890) might be the most realistic of these writers: Middlemarch (1874). Anthony Trollope (1815-1888) wrote novels about life in a provincial English town. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a very pessimistic writer who wrote stories of people in the countryside (the fictional county of Wessex) whose fate was governed by forces outside themselves (which connects him to Naturalism). Jude the Obscure (1895), Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891).

The expansion of the reading middle classes allowed for the development of POPULAR LITERATURE, like the Detective Stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), who, following the example of Edgar Allan Poe, wrote his tales of Sherlock Holmes. G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote his Father Brown detective stories as well as other non-genre novels. H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote very interesting science fiction, like The Time Machine (1895) or The War of the Worlds (1898) as well as non-genre novels.

Literature for children also developed in the Victorian Age as a separate genre. Some works become globally well-known, such as those of Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), author of the extremely rich fantasies Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1865). Adventure novels, such as those by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), were written for adults, and although they are now generally classified as for children and teenagers they are still powerful: Treasure Island (1883), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Helen Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was an English author and illustrator, best known for her children’s books, which featured animal characters: The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902).

Some Victorian poets worth mentioning are Robert and Elizabeth Browning (husband and wife), Gerald Manley Hopkins (1844-1849), a precursor of Modernism, and the pre-Raphaelites (school of painters and poets) Christina and Gabriel Rosseti (brother and sister). Lord (Alfred) Tennyson (1809-1892) was Poet Laureate during most of Queen Victoria’s reign and sang the values of the British Empire and the Victorian Age in some of his poems, like “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854). These Imperial values were also sung by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) several years later in his poems and in novels like The Man Who Would Be King (1888) and The Jungle Book (1894)

10 comments:

  1. thank you for all that ! it really helped me for my lessons in English about "foreign literature in English"

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  2. Too terse yet awesome....too short yet comprehensive.keep it up.

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  3. Sir this is a very useful info... can you give some difference between Realism and New Realism. I'm Priya from India.

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    1. hi thank you for helping me to know more about english realism.it helps me in my studies it s Nour from Algeria.

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    2. Thanks, it helped me with my English Literature at the university. Short and informative

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  4. This is a good blog i got to know some more authors and about their books.

    love messiha

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  5. I´m from Slovakia and this really helped me. I had troubles with understanding why Jane Austen and Bronte sisters are considered to be writers of Victorian era. They seem to be a part of Romanticism rather than Realism.

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  6. Thank you so much for that! It helped a lot, I was trying to have an overview of this era and realism... well, you've done most of the job for me! Amzing! Thanks :)

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