The Literature Of The Victorian Era, By H. D. Traill

William Powell Frith Railway Station


WE LIVE IN a century whose praise as an “age of progress” has been in all the newspapers for at least the last fifty years; and it is therefore rather curious to find ourselves only just realising that the tributes of respectful congratulation which we have so long been in the habit of paying to it are in reality compliments to the address of the Victorian Era. For that is the actual fact. The early years of the century were marked by the gradual ebb of the Revolutionary tide, and they were followed by a still longer period of “slack water.” From 1815 onward for wellnigh twenty years there was little movement anywhere, except for about the first quarter of that period, in English poetry, and even there this impulse had been given, and was already splendidly expanding in the last century. Early in the twenties, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge had either ceased to live or ceased to sing; and, save that they witnessed Scott’s last heroic efforts as a romancer, the years which intervened between the death of Byron and the Queen’s Accession are by far the leanest years, in the literary sense, that the century has recorded. And though many of the great material triumphs of the age had already been constructively won; though steam locomotion by sea and land had been discovered and applied; though electric telegraphy had already a potential existence in the brains of its pioneers, and was, indeed, within a year or two of coming into actual being; though, in short, it might be possible to trace many of the dominant forces and overshadowing facts of the present day to beginnings of earlier date than the Queen’s Accession, we can hardly on that account dispute the claim of the Victorian Era to reckon these great facts and forces among its products.

As regards its great literary facts, however, and its spiritual and intellectual forces, the case is clearer still. Here it stands forth, patent and undeniable, that the fifteen years or so which preceded the demise of the Crown from William IV. to his niece, were one of the flattest and least productive periods in the annals of English letters; and that, strangely enough, with the succession of the young Queen, a revival set in which, before it had spent itself, carried our literature in at least two of its greatest branches to the highest point touched by it in the whole of her sixty years of reign. The great age of the Romantic and Naturalist movement in English poetry, though its chief triumphs were achieved in the present century, has always been associated in the imagination of posterity with the century which begat it—the last; and if we exclude these triumphs, the literature of the ninteenth century will mean exclusively the literature of the Victorian Era.

It is curious to remark how plainly this comes out on a comparison of a few names and dates. In the years which elapsed between the death of Byron and the publication of the volume which first established Tennyson’s reputation, the poetic deities of English idolatry were Mrs. Hemans and L. E. L. For prose of the serious order we were a little better off; but even here the respectable names of Hallam and Thirlwall stand rather for learning and judgment than for literary genius; while the great historians and essayists by whom the century will be remembered had either not yet begun to write or had still to make their mark. Macaulay in 1825 had indeed established his footing on the Edinburgh Review, and had written the earlier of his essays; but the latter and greater of them, the “Temple,” the “Clive,” the “Pitt,” and the “Chatham,” and, above all, the “Warren Hastings,” had yet to come, and the vast design of the History of England was still unplanned. Carlyle, it is true, had in Sartor Resartus produced what is undoubtedly one of the greatest of his works; but the French Revolution, on which his title to fame is more securely based, was still struggling against “gods averse, and fortune, and the fiery feet of change” (or at any rate the fiery hands of Mr. Mill’s housemaid), for publication, and did not actually get itself published until the very year when Her Majesty ascended the throne. Mr. Ruskin in that year was still at Christchurch, and Mr. Froude was sitting at the feet of Newman as an undergraduate at Oriel. Matthew Arnold was at school at Rugby, Rossetti had not yet been entered at King’s College, Mr. Swinburne was a little over two months old.

As to fiction, at the death of Byron in 1824 nearly all the finest of Scott’s work was done. The sun of his genius having touched its zenith during the seven years which divide the Heart of Midlothian from Quentin Durward, was, during the eight years which preceded his death, declining towards the pathetic nadir of Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous; and from Scott’s death to the Queen’s Accession the English public had to subsist on the romances of Bulwer Lytton’s first (and stagiest) manner, and the earlier—that is, the non-political and therefore less individual and characteristic—novels of Disraeli. But the first year of the new reign brought before the public a new novelist, who was to make for himself the most famous name in the fiction of the Victorian Era. Pickwick, by a happy chance, was published in 1837. The best and freshest of Dicken’s novels followed one another in pretty quick succession during the next decade. Thackeray began several years later, and was a far less fertile writer; but his activity during the forties and early fifties was considerable, and his not very long career was full of achievement.

On the whole, and taking all descriptions of English literature together, it is impossible in any survey of the Victorian Era not to be struck, and even dazzled, by the splendour of its beginning. If we take only the seven great names of Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, Macaulay, Dickens, Thackeray, and Ruskin, and examine the best of their works between 1837 an 1857, we shall find ourselves reviewing a twenty years’ record which it would be hard to match from any other period of our history. For between these two limiting years English literature was enriched by the first of these illustrious writers with the Poems of 1842, The Princess, In Memoriam, and Maud; by the second with Bells and Pomegranates, Christmas Eve and Easter Day, and Men and Women, three poems containing among them some of the finest of his work; by the third with The French Revolution, Past and Present, Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, The Latter Day Pamphlets, and that little biographical masterpiece, the Life of Sterling; by the fourth with the finest of his Essays, with the spirited, and, in their way, never yet equalled, Lays of Ancient Rome, and with the first four volumes of the great, Whiggish, rhetorical, unscrupulous, but surely immortal history; by the fifth with Pickwick, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Little Dorrit; by the sixth with Barry Lyndon, Vanity Fair, Pendennis, The Newcomes, and Esmond; and by the seventh with Modern Painters, the Seven Lamps of Architecture, and The Stones of Venice.

More here.

H. D. Traill was a journalist, author, and essayist, and a frequent contributor to the Pall Mall Gazette, the Saturday Review, the St James’s Gazette, the Fortnightly Review and the other great journals of the day. Born 14 August 1842, died 21 February 1900, he knew only one queen. This essay appeared as “The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (No. I): The literature of the Victorian era” in the Fortnightly Review, June 1897, Vol 67 (os), 61 (ns).

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