The Realistic Novel in the Victorian Era


The Realistic Novel in the Victorian Era


  • History of Realistic Victorian Novels
    • The Realistic Novel and its Formation
    • The Rise of the Novel
    • Evolution of the Victorian Novel
    • Criticisms of Realism
  • Characteristics of the Realistic Victorian Novel
    • Realism
    • Representational vs. Revelation Theories and the Importance of the Word “Idea
    • Narratives and Suspense
    • The End of Realism
  • Popularity of the Realistic Victorian Novel
    • Newspapers, Press, Publishing
    • Education and Literacy
    • Feminist Rise in Victorian Novels
    • Some popular realistic authors and their works

  • Neo-Victorianism: The Revival of the Realistic Victorian Novel

    • Contemporary Authors/Their Works

  • References

History of Realistic Victorian Novels

The Realistic Novel and its Formation
The realistic novel was quite different than what has been seen with earlier literature. The most popular form of literature had always been poetry. The realistic novel changed that. This form of literature used journalistic techniques in order to make the literature something closer to real life with facts and general stereotypes of human nature. The attention to detail was made to just report the facts, not commenting or judging on the scene or character.

The novels were about the common man, which also happened to be the struggles of the lower class. These struggles usually included a lower class citizen trying to gain upward mobility. Thus, a subgenre called Social Realism was born. One of the most popular novels of this time is in the Social Realism genre. In Charles Dickens Great Expectations, the novel goes through a boy named Pip’s life, as he unexpectedly comes into money and is asked to become a gentleman. The novel follows Pip’s struggles, and focuses on telling the whole truth about the character, both his good and bad actions and the reasons behind them. He was meant to be a very tangible person, one that the average person of this time could relate to. Pip was written to be very “real”, with all his flaws and positive attributes.

The Rise of the Novel
Prior to the Victorian Era, poetry had been the dominant form of literature. However, changes in class structure saw the novel rise in popularity. As the middle class expanded and more people became literate, the popularity of the novel exploded. These works also became more accessible as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of newspapers and the periodical press. Most notably, the works of Charles Dickens were frequently serialized in newspapers or journals, his first being Pickwick Papers in 1836. As a result of this serialization and a focus on character rather than plot, Dickens’ works are sometimes criticized for having weak plots. The subject matter of realistic Victorian novels also helped increase their popularity. Dickens particularly would portray the lives of working class people, creating characters that the new rising middle class audience could relate to. The realistic Victorian novel focused on characters and themes such as the plight of the poor and social mobility that was being afforded to a new middle class and the rising middle class were eager to consume these novels.

First Edition copies of Charles Dickens serialized Pickwick Papers


Evolution of the Realistic Victorian Novel

Queen Victoria’s reign lasted until 1901 and the literature that was being produced closer to the turn of the century shared few characteristics with the earlier works of the Victorian Era. Those writers at the end of the Victorian Era such as Oscar Wilde and Thomas Hardy. The novelists at the turn of the century continued to explore the problems in English social life, but explored other key themes as well. The greatest departure from the early Victorian era came from these authors exploration of themes such as sexuality and a focus on the ways in which science and technology would revolutionize the world in the upcoming century.

Characteristics of the Realistic Victorian Novel

• An emphasis on the here and now
• Attention to specific action and verifiable consequences
• Realists evoke common actions, present surface details, and emphasize the minor catastrophes of the middle class
• They employ simple direct language and write about issues of conduct
• Characterization is very important. There is often an abundance of characters and social types

What is Realism?

Quite obviously, the genre of realism is dedicated to identifying what is real and what is not. But, what exactly is “real?” Literature in Realism defines reality as something that exists prior to, and completely separate from, human thought or speech. Therefore, it is literature’s responsibility to accurately interpret and represent reality. As literature attempts to do this, it simultaneously depicts the anxieties, desires, and achievements of the Victorian time period. While Realism certainly encompasses its own unique ideas, the genre continued to utilize the strengths of empiricism and romanticism. For example, the topic of nature is still focused upon, but realistic literature acknowledges the fact that the human mind is a separate entity from nature. Therefore, realistic literature aims to answer the question of how the mind can possibly know and/or understand nature accurately. There are two main theories that assist in answering that question.
Realism began as a literary movement in response to and as a departure from the idealism of the Romantic period. Realism emerged in literature in the second half of the nineteenth century, most predominantly in novels. Realism was characterized by its attention to detail, as well as its attempt to recreate reality as it was. As a result, plot was no longer the central to the focus of the author, but rather creating interesting and complex characters took precedence. Realism also placed an emphasis on describing the material and physical details of life, as opposed to the natural world as characterized by the Romantic period. Many Realistic novelists veered away from the softer aspects of Romanticism, such as intense tenderness and idealism, because they believed those characteristics misrepresented the harsh realities of life. Realism emphasizes accurate descriptions of setting, dress, and character in ways that would have appeared inappropriate to earlier authors. Realism, which emphasizes the importance of the ordinary person and the ordinary situation, generally rejects the heroic and the aristocratic and embraces the ordinary working class citizen.

Criticisms of Realism

The Realistic novel was very bold compared to the literature before its time. The realistic novel was meant to be like real life, so the literature would hold things in it that were taboo before, such as masturbation. It also showed a lot of the unfortunate events. Critics complained of authors only focusing on the negative, that focusing on the things that were falling apart were too unpleasant. Realistic novels, like real life, didn’t always have a happy ending. It was also noted that not much really happened in the plot of the novels. The attention to detail of the character led to little plot development and payoff.

Representational vs. Revelation Theories and the Importance of the Word “Idea”

Representational theories are specifically concerned with what separates the mind from the world surrounding it. Revelation theories, on the other hand, are more interested in the immediate knowledge of what is considered real, invoking either perception or intuition to achieve that knowledge. Moreover, in this light, it is equally important to acknowledge the word “idea.” How exactly does one define the word? In Victorian Realism, “idea” can be interpreted in two equally meaningful ways: perceptual or linguistic representation. From these concepts, one can see the very direct influence of Lockean principles, which affirm that words function as representatives. To genuinely understand Victorian Realism, it is almost necessary to first acknowledge that nothing is “real,” (a revelation, as it were). Following that understanding is the comprehension of the paramount concept of representation: nothing is real until the human mind perceives it and assigns it valuable meaning.

Sometimes, Victorian realists of this time period admitted to being quite overwhelmed by the idea of a gap existing between the human mind and the rest of the world, or reality. One such realist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an English poet and artist, acknowledged how frightening this doctrine was, but at the same time, he expressed attraction to it as well. It seemed that he found these representational theories to be endlessly fascinating, as he came to realize that his artistic products might be entirely divorced from reality and the world around him. Perhaps it can comfort an artist, if he is able to produce something beautiful through his own subjective interpretation of reality. It can’t be an easy feat to create such art, and subsequently allow others, and even one’s self, to search for significance and meaning under the physical surface.

Victorian Realistic Art – Linnell, Harvest Moon, 1858

One of the most famous realistic writers, Charles Dickens, directed his attention more towards revelation theories than the representational. On the topic of reality being understood as what is immediately available to one’s senses, Dickens further highlighted the importance of memory, which he described as a kind of vision, or way of seeing the world. Moreover, in his narrative-style novel Great Expectations, memory is a key concept in the story, as Pip recalls all of the events from memory. Some readers complain about the fact that the novel does not offer anyone’s perspective other than Pip’s, but it is highly likely that Dickens chose to do this on purpose. He viewed memory and revelation theories as very important to realistic literature, and a narrative could be described as a kind of “written memory.” To write the novel from such a perspective begs an important and highly relevant question from the readers: How do we know that Pip’s descriptions and thoughts are accurate representations of reality? The honest answer is that we simply do not, and this kind of ambiguity leads to very interesting discussions about Victorian Realism.

Charles Dickens, 1858

Narratives and Suspense

Narratives were an extremely popular style of writing for Victorian Realism, as it easily invoked all the theories described above. Along with challenging the notion of what is real and what is not, comes the impression of suspense experienced by the readers. By suspense, the obvious interpretation of the word means that the reader experiences tension and anxiety throughout the perusal of a story, but an attractive one that motivates him to read further. At the same time, though, suspense also refers to the action of actually suspending judgment as both a Victorian reader and writer. But what is meant by “judgment?” Of course, it is only human nature to judge a piece of literature as one reads it, but in the topic of Victorian Realism, the judgment that should be suspended is actually referring to judgment of what the speaker in a narrative is portraying as “real.” Moreover, the reader is expected to take what the narrator says at face value. Additionally, judgment must also be suspended as a reader makes assumptions based upon his unique beliefs. Doing so brings us back to the earlier definition of suspense, in which the reader is meant to feel anxious about the rising action in a narrative. If a reader refuses to suspend his judgment in his assumptions, beliefs, and subjective interpretations of reality, he will not experience the pleasures of suspense that are meant to be felt.

For example, in Dickens’s Great Expectations, a great deal of suspense arises from the fact that Pip does not know, for the majority of the novel, who his benefactor is. The pleasure of reading the novel comes from readers’ guesswork about the identity of the benefactor. In general, when a secret emerges in Victorian fiction, and the suspense is lifted, things often turn out to be entirely different than what was expected. This realization is meant to be enjoyable for the reader, as it has most likely kept his attention while he has read the story. Also, in Great Expectations, the very fact that there are two different endings to the novel serves to create suspense for readers, and further promotes more thought-provoking discussion.

The End of Realism
Realism characterized such a valiant parting from what readers had come to imagine from the novel. Critics, in some occasions, reasoned that Realism seemed to focus largely on any negative views of life. Things “falling apart” was a large captivation to most, however, it was quite the opposite for others. In some cases, readers were complaining about how in realistic fiction, there wasn’t much of interest happening. Their concern was also about how everything seemed to be more about talking and there wasn’t enough action to back anything up. Henry James, as a prime example, was criticized for his loquaciousness.

Realism had turned to Naturalism towards the end of the nineteenth century. With Naturalism, writers defined their character using their heredity and history. Qualities that people found distasteful in Realism, which was the fixation with character and the thoroughly dull plots, was intensified by Naturalism. The impact was uniquely because of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution that inspired other writers to branch out into something that differs from Realism. Whereas Realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, naturalism also endeavors to govern “scientifically” the underlying forces, like the heredity and history, manipulating all of the actions of the subjects.

Popularity of the Realistic Victorian Novel

The most popular novels of the Victorian age were realistic, thickly plotted, crowded with characters, and long. Describing contemporary life and entertainment for the middle class. According to Merriam Webster, popularity is the “state of being liked, enjoyed, accepted, or done by a large number of people”. So the popularity of the realistic Victorian Novel would be entirely dependent on the people who read them. For example, Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations was originally released weekly in newspaper publications and people enjoyed it so much that it became in high demand quickly, and eventually it was turned into a one novel. The realistic Victorian novels became popular because it was the first time characters in a novel were similar and connected to the people of the middle class.


Newspapers, Press, and Publishing:
One very important source of information on the realistic novel’s popularity are the newspapers that wrote about them. In the Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times there are two different instances, with two different articles, where Charles Dickens’s popularity and worth are celebrated, years after his death in 1870 (1892 and 1894).

The number of periodicals that were produced were greatly increased during this time period. By the early 19th century, there were 52 London papers and over 100 other titles. There was a massive growth in overall circulation of major events, information and weekly publication of literature. In 1802 and 1815 the tax on newspapers was increased. Unwilling to pay this fee, hundreds of untaxed newspapers made their appearance. The development of the press was greatly assisted by the gradual abolition of the taxes on periodicals. Both of these developments made the newspaper more affordable to a greater percentage of the population.

The book publishing industry grew throughout the 19th century. There was a dramatic increase in literacy along with the growth of libraries and public schools. This provided a rapidly growing market for books. The introduction of technological advances allowed more volume at less cost. During the 19th century, big publishing firms emerged and some of these companies remain active in the industry today.

In the 19th century practices of paying authors began to standardize. Publishers paid a percentage based on the price of the book and number of books sold. During the Victorian period, the communication industry including publishing and printing of books accelerated the processes of economic, social and cultural change by dramatically increasing the volume and speed of which information, news and entertainment flowed through society.


Education and Literacy
See More Here /Education,+Literacy+and+Publishing+in+Victorian+England


The next best source of information on the realistic novel’s popularity are the number of copies sold over a certain number of years.
Again, Dickens will be the main focus, with his Pickwick Papers having sold 40,000 copies per issue at the time Part 15 came into print, and then selling 140,000 copies by 1863 in book form and 800,000 by 1879. Furthermore, The first issue of David Copperfield sold 25,000 copies between 1849 and 1850.
To add a bit of perspective to these numbers, at the beginning of the 19th century, books were a luxury. The price had recently rose to unprecedented heights, cutting out the middle class, even though they could have been the biggest consumers. Between 1828 and 1853 the average price of a book was said to have declined by forty percent, but that forty percent was off of an abnormally high starting price. At around the time of Dickens ninety to ninety-five percent of new publications were selling around five hundred copies or less (though this did not account for every new publication, considering Dickens’s statistics stated above, and other best selling authors).

Rise of Feminism and Important Female Novelists

The Victorian Era was a period of great social and political reform, especially regarding the role of women. Women began actively seeking equal social and legal rights as men, and one of the main ways they attempted to draw attention to their plight was through writing. Women wrote in order to make a living, contribute to the literary world, and most importantly change British society and fight for women’s rights. Voting and property rights, education opportunities, and employment restrictions were all issues women of 19th century Britain faced. Many women decided to address the issues in writing and publishing their work in order to make their voices heard and demand equality. As a result, Feminism started to gain momentum out of the frustration women faced with the openly unfair and worsening social and political situation (“I Take Up My Pen”). Some of the more popular female novelists of this time include Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. Many women of the Victorian Era published their work anonymously or under pseudonyms to ensure that their works would be given the same merit that works by male authors were granted. Using gender ambiguous pseudonyms, which all of the Bronte sisters did, allowed female novelists the freedom to create characters exactly the way they wanted without fear of being disrespected or not taken seriously because they were created by women.

The idea of the “New Woman” was also popular during the Victorian Era and served as a significant cultural icon. The New Woman was the opposite of the stereotypical Victorian Woman who was uneducated, reliant entirely on a man, and led an entirely domestic life. Instead, the New Woman was intelligent, independent, educated, and self-supporting. This ideology played a significant role in important social changes that would lead to redefining gender roles, improving women’s rights, and overcoming masculine supremacy. New Woman novels generally focused on rebellious women and were known for voicing dissatisfaction with the Victorian woman’s position in marriage and society overall. They strive to redefine a woman’s role in marriage and other societal norms, as well as fix the relationships between the sexes and support women’s professional aspirations (Diniejko).

Charlotte Bronte was one of the most prominent Realistic Victorian novelists and published most of her work under the gender neutral pseudonym “Currer Bell”. In her novels, Bronte created strong female heroines who possessed free thought, intellect, and strong moral character. She wrote for the women she saw as being oppressed by society, which included teachers, governesses, and spinsters. She felt that all of these women were imprisoned by society or circumstances beyond their control, and Bronte was impelled to speak out for them in her writing (Lowes). Unmarried, middle-class women either had to turn to prostitution or be a governess in order to earn a living. However, a governess has no security of employment, received minimal wages, and was isolated in the household with the label of being somewhere in-between a family member and a servant. The large amount of middle-class women who had to resort themselves to the ambiguous role of governess lead to a rise in popularity of the governess novel because it explored a woman’s role in society (“The Victorian Age”). The most popular example of a governess novel would be Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, which is a fictional autobiography of the orphan Jane Eyre as she matures and becomes a governess at Thornfield manor. Jane is rebellious, resourceful, and brave woman, despite all the obstacles that stand in her way in a male-dominated society. Jane ultimately falls in love with Rochester, but breaks away from society because she marries him out of love and not for the labels or security of a man and money that it provides. Jane respects Rochester and doesn’t compromise her morals or her personality just to satisfy him, which Bronte believed to be very important (Lowes).

Charlotte Bronte

“While we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice;”Charlotte Bronte on why women writers used pseudonyms

Popular Victorian Authors and Their Realistic Novels

Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855)
•Jane Eyre

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
•Great Expectations
•Pickwick Papers
•Oliver Twist

George Elliot (really Mary Evans) (1819-1890)

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
•Jude The Obscure

Neo-Victorianism and The New Realistic Novel

The Neo-Victorian movement began as a revival of the social and literary elements of the Victorian Era. A Neo-Victorian Novel is a novel written in modern times that takes place in the 19th century and usually puts a spin on the characteristics of the Victorian Era. More often than not, these novels will point out and bring to light some of the follies of the Victorian Era. Another quality of Neo-Victorian writing is that it often tells the intimate stories of those who were not the center of Victorian novels because of social constructs, such as, women and servants. For an example, these novels bring to light the fact that woman were sexual and powerful beings, during a time period where that was not believed.
Charles Dickens has been thoroughly discussed throughout this page as the representative Victorian Realistic Novelist. Therefore, “Girl in A Blue Dress” by Gaynor will be the Neo-Victorian Novel that will represent the reimagining of the Victorian Era because Dicken’s life is the subject of it. “Girl in a Blue Dress” was written in 2008 and takes place in 1870. It is inspired by the life and marriage of Catherine and Charles Dickens; represented by Dorothea and Alfred Gibson in the novel. This novel reimagines the mistreatment and eventual exile of Catherine at the end of her and Charles’s marriage. However, this novel sets Catherine, or Dorothea, as the narrator and protagonist of the story; giving us the inner thoughts and feelings of this devoted woman.

Some other Realistic Neo-Victorian Novels to look at:

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
“Mrs. Dalloway”

“The Waves”

“To The Light House”

Sarah Waters (1966-present)
“Fingersmith”- takes place in the 19th century, written in 2002.

John Fowles (1926-2005)
“The French Lieutenant’s Woman”- takes place in the mid 19th century, written in 1969.

A. S. Byatt (1936-present)
“Angels and Insects: Morpho Eugenia”- takes place in 1860, written in 1992.

Erin’s Page

Kelsy’s Page

Allie’s Page


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