Women Novelists of Victorian Age and Thematic Concerns in their Works

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The present study is an interpretation of women novelists of the Victorian age and their significant works. The Victorian era is known for the galaxy of female novelists. It was an era of material affluence, political awakening, democratic reforms, industrial and mechanical progress, scientific advancement, social unrest, idealism and pessimism. The literature of this period, wonderfully rich and varied in personal quality, embodies the spirit of the age. The writers and the works selected for the study are some famous novels written by George Eliot, Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, Eliza Lynn Linton, Mary Elizabethan Braddon, Marie Corelli. The study aims to throw some light on different themes and perspectives, these writers have concentrated upon in their significant works. These women novelists have adopted peculiar ways of looking at life. They form a class apart in Victorian literature. Much of their works was of a high standard so much so that it has been asserted by competent critics that the middle years of the nineteenth century were the richest in the whole history of the novel. Unhappy marriages, identity issues, gender biasness, inner conflicts, alienation are the major concerns in the works of these women novelists. Their novels tend to be idealized portraits of difficult lives in which hard work, perseverance, love, and luck win out in the end; virtue would be rewarded and wrongdoers are suitably punished. They tended to be of an improving nature with a central moral lesson at heart, mixed with a heavy dose of sentiment.

The Victorian Age, also known as the Age of Tennyson in English literature, witnessed an unprecedented change and progress in all spheres of life. It forms a link and transition between the writers of the Romantic Period and the very different literature of the twentieth century. Victorian literature is the body of poetry, fiction, essays and letters produced during the reign of queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) and during the era which bears her name.During the nineteenth century, the novel became the leading form of literature in English and ‘Victorian Novelists’ created a legacy of works with continuing appeal.

The teem “Novel” is now applied to a great variety of writings that have in common only the attribute narrative, the novel is distinguished from the short story and from the work of middle length called the novelette; its magnitude permits a greater variety of characters, greater complication of plot (or plots), ampler development of milieu, and more sustained exploration of character. The term of novel in most European languages is roman, which is derived from the medieval term, the romance. The English name for the form, on the other hand, is derived from the Italian novella (literally, “a little new thing”) which was a short tale in prose.

The most profound impact of Victorian drama arguably came in another genre altogether, the novel. The novel was especially well adapted to explore and even to define central aspect of Victorian experience and belief. Formally, it developed as an interplay of romance and realism, of fantasy both shaped and obstruct by the imperatives of social and material life. More recent critics have seen in the work of Victorian novel a “discipline” that buttressed the premises of classical liberalism. The Victorians themselves saw that regimen less as a gesture of political freedom than as a submission to higher powers whether duty or God. Thus, Thomas Arnold suggests how powerfully introspection was part of legacy of evangelicalism: “What I feel daily more and more to need,” he confided to a friend, “is to have intercourse with those who take life in earnest, it is very painful to be always on the surface of things… I want a sign, which one catches by a sort of masonry, that a man knows of what he is about in life…” (Stanley 1844:275).

Twentieth century critics have tended to label women novelists as feminist or antifeminist, even classifying whole genres or subgenres according to their perceptions. A closer examination of Victorian demonstrated deviations and tensions concerning women that make such judgements simplistic. All Victorian women novelists, whether we now label them radical or conservative were fundamentally conflicted in their own beliefs about women’s proper role and critical reception of their novels from Victoria times to the present. Novels by Victorian women writers tend to be melting-pots of ideological conflict and exploration of attitudes toward women’s nature and role, full of the dialogic interplay of voices. Traditionally and currently we nevertheless tend to classify Victorian women’s novels as either radical or conservative. For example, the domestic novel written by writers such as Charlotte Yonge is often disparaged as conservative and antifeminist, whereas the sensation novel by writers such as Mrs. Henry Wood and Merry Elizabeth Braddon is celebrated as explosively radical.

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Charlotte Yonge “the clever woman of the family’’ (1865) shows sympathy for the protagonist, Rachel desperate for an outlet for her energies and intelligence. Rachel’s hubristic attempts at independent actions end in near – apocalyptic tragedy, however, when a child dies under her care the novel ends with Rachel’s reform as she becomes engaged to a military man who promises to make her “a thorough wife and mother” and to whom she confesses that she was never a “clever woman”. After all, “I never thought you one,”he quietly returned.

Before considering the women novelists of the Victorian period it will be interesting to see how they appeared to the great French statesmen and historian Guizot, and how much superior he found their work to that of his own countrywomen. “I am a great novel reader,” he says, “but I seldom read of German and French novels. The characters are too artificial. There are too many forced situations, and the morality is generally detestable. My delight is to read English novels, particularly those written by women. Miss Austin, Miss Ferrier, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, and many others almost as remarkable, form a school which in the excellence, the profusion, and the contemporaneousness of its productions, resembles the crowd of dramatic poets of the great Athenian age.” This remarkable tribute of praise is justified by an examination of the work women have accomplished on this branch of literature. In no other sphere do they rise to the first rank. There has never been a female Shakespeare; but the famous French critic Scherer finds George Eliot the first of English novelists, and he is not alone in this judgement. Eliot in particular strove for realism in her fiction and tried to banish the picturesque and burlesque from her work. Another woman writer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote even grimmer, grittier books about the poor in the North of England but even these usually had happy endings. After the death of Dickens in 1870 happy endings became less common.

The three Bronte sisters have a niche in literature all to themselves. They were Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855), Emily Bronte (1818-1848) and Anne Bronte (1820 – 1849).Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ occupies an important place in the history of English literature. The genius of Charlotte has given us a picture of miseries of “Lowood” School: the tragic fate of her sister Maria is told in hernovel ‘Jane Eyre’ in the heartrending account of the consumptive girl Helen Burns, with her racking cough, dying in the cold fireless dormitory. It was during these school days that Charlotte heard the story of the man with the mad wife, who felt himself morally free to leave her and marry again; and this story suggested to her the idea of Rochester in the same novel. In the history of the second period of the school life of Bronte girls has been embodied in ‘Shirley’, and their third and last educational experience in Brussels furnished material for the two novels ‘Villette’ and ‘The Professor’.

Charlotte Bronte only wrote these four novels. ‘The Professor’, though it was not published till after her death, is an earlier and cruder performance than the others. In ‘Jane Eyre’ the heroine is a governess, plain and homely, but fascinating; the hero is an improbable and unpleasant person who pursues his wooing in Byronic fashion; and the scene is laid in a terrible house where the upper side is used as an asylum for the mad life. The incidents are a dinner party, a country walk and a fire. Yet out of these unromantic materials Charlotte Bronte made a story which enthralled men like Lockhart, G. H.Lewis and Thackeray. Thus, she became the “daughter of debate,” discussed everywhere, and fretted and lionized when she visited London at the suggestion of her publishers. The best part of her book related to her school experiences. In all the Bronte writings there is scarcely anything good which cannot be traced back to incidents in their own lives. Their lives were hard, cheerless and full of suffering. There was little cause of laughter in their home, and in their books the want of mirth is a marked defect. Emily especially was full of gloom and harsh reserve. The story told in Shirley of the mad dog happened to her.

Emily Bronte’s only novel ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a prime example of gothic romanticism from a woman’s point of view during this period of time, examining class, myth and gender. The book’s core theme is the destructive effect of jealousy and vengefulness both on the jealous and vengeful people and as well as on their communities. This novel in particular has violence, passion, the supernatural, heightened emotion and emotional distance, an unusual mix for any novel but particularly at this time. Of ‘Wuthering Heights’ Dante Rossetti said that “the action is laid in hell, only it seems places and people have English names there.” Of the three sisters Emily alone possessed the gift of poetry. Her verse includes a few pieces of rare excellence.

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell is another important name among women novelists of the Victorian literature. Her famous novels include’ Mary Barton’, ‘Wives and Daughters’, ‘North and South’, ‘Cranford’. She used novel as an instrument of social reform. We think of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell primarily as a novelist, but the virtue of ‘The life of Charlotte Bronte’ she is also one of the very small group of writers who have enriched literature with biographies of permanent worth. Description of last moments of last minutes of Charlotte Bronte is given in the beautiful biography written by her friend and fellow craftswoman Mrs. Gaskell.In her first novel Mary Barton(1848), Mrs. Gaskell presents a sociological study based on her experience of the conditions of the laboring classes in the new cities of the industrial North. In this novel, she tried to rouse sympathy on behalf of the workers and to show the evils which has grown up with a factory system. The picture of employer Carson in this book aroused much angry feeling among the masters; and perhaps in ‘North and South’(1855) she was trying to balance the matters when she introduced the character of Thornton, who, though not faultless, has more sympathy with his work-folk than the brutal Carson. She recognized that the evils of the factory system were not the outcome of wickedness on the side either of the employers or the employed, but were due to the absence of kindly human relations between them. Her next novel ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is a moralistic love story in a domestic setting. But Mrs. Gaskell’s work of highest merit is Cranford(1853).

Another famous novelist Mary Ann Evans, known as George Eliot, was a celebrated novelist, who imparted moral and philosophical dimension to English novel. The clerical scenes made the new writer famous; while the great novels Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner raised her to a position among the foremost living writers.As George Eliot painted her landscapes from the scenes she knew, so she drew her characters from the people among whom she lived. But in some of her works like Romola, we learn of the great religious conflict of the fifteenth century in Florence; in Felix Holt we are back in England watching the struggle between the conservative upper class and the radical reformer Felix. In Daniel Deronda we are taken among the Hebrews and are directed to the problems of heredity and to the social difficulty of the English.Sympathy is another of the characteristic of George Eliot, and it comes out very prominently in her treatment of religion and of clergymen. In her books, George Eliot makes marriage the source of nearly all tragedies as well as of the deepest happiness in life. It is the influence which either makes or mars a character.Her first novel Adam Bede presents a fine picture of English country life among the humbler classes. It contains well delineated characters Hetty, Adam Bede and Mrs.Poyser. Eliot contrasts inner and outer beauty throughout the novel to express the idea that external and internal realities do not always correspond. Although Hetty is more physically beautiful than Dinah, she is cold and ugly inside. Her another important novel is ‘Middlemarch’.Virginia Woolf in her series of essays ‘The Common Reader’ called ‘Middlemarch’, “one of the few English novels written for grown up people.” Marriage and pursuit of it are central concerns in this novel, but unlike in many novels of the time, marriage is not considered the ultimate source of happiness. Two examples are the failed marriages of Dorothea and Lydgate. Dorothea’s marriage falls because of her youth and of her disillusions about marrying a much older man, while Lydgate’s marriage fails because of irreconcilable personalities. As at the end of chapter 81, when Dorothea believes that Rosamond is having an affair with Ladislaw, she says to Rosamond, “I mean, marriage drinks up all of our power of giving or getting any blessedness in that sort of love. I know it may be very dear – but it murders our marriage – and then the marriage stays with us like a murder – and everything else is gone.”Dorothea’s quote supports the idea prevalent in the work that marriage is not always perfect or always a guarantee of happiness. George Eliot has also written another novel “Mill on the floss” which is partially autobiographical. Set in authentic rural background, it is a highly moving tragedy. Especially in the first half of the novel, it is quite concerned about education and types of knowledge. Both characters and places in this novel are presented as the current products of multi-generational gestation. Love is shown to be something humbling, something with power over characters. As these lines from chapter V of Book First, introduces an important element in Maggie’s character – her extreme need for love and affection. “It is a wonderful subduer, this need of love – this hunger of the heart – as peremptory as that other hunger by which nature forces us to submit to the yoke and change the face of the world.” In this paper, I have concentrated upon these women novelists with respect of their literary works as well as the impact of both their personal life and the worlds that they inhabit. The paper affirms that some these novelists had a profound influence in the field of novel and that their literary works has had an impact on the writers to inhabit that space.

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Women Novelists of Victorian Age and Thematic Concerns in their Works. (2020, December 14). WritingBros. Retrieved May 23, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/women-novelists-of-victorian-age-and-thematic-concerns-in-their-works/
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Women Novelists of Victorian Age and Thematic Concerns in their Works [Internet]. WritingBros. 2020 Dec 14 [cited 2024 May 23]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/women-novelists-of-victorian-age-and-thematic-concerns-in-their-works/
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