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The 7 Most Epic Literary Writers of the Victorian Era

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    The Victorian era took its name from the monarch of England at the time. As historian Anne Shepherd has written in her overview of the Victorian era, "Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was the first English monarch to see her name given to the period of her reign while still living. The Victorian Age was characterized by rapid changes and development in nearly every sphere" (paragraph 1). The era is generally defined as having run from 1837 to 1901—that is, from the year of Victoria's coronation to the year of her death—and the rapid developments mentioned above also strongly affected the sphere of literature. It has since spawned countless essays written for college courses and personal reasons alike. The Victorian era saw the flourishing of literature in general and especially the genre of the novel in particular. Through completing so many sample essays regarding analysis and reflection of the Victorian era, Ultius freelance writers have noted that several works of literature that have earned an enduring reputation as being a classic were, in fact, composed during the Victorian era, although many readers and historians may be unaware of this fact.  

    The Problem with Assessing the Most Epic Victorian Writers

    World literature is a vast terrain and it can be very difficult to get a good grasp of the different historical periods and cultural movements that have shaped literature over the course of time. Moreover, many lists that seek to define "top" authors from a given era seem to do so in a rather arbitrary way, going more with simple name recognition than with literary merit or other more sophisticated criteria. The present essay will attempt to provide a more coherent and rigorous overview of the most epic literary authors of the Victorian Era. Now, while the term "Victorian" primarily refers to English history and writers who hailed from England, the present list will include two writers from the nation of France. This is due to the close geographical proximity of France to England, as well as the fact that the spirit of the works of those French writers was very much congruent with that of several of the English counterparts. 

    Finally, before proceeding to the authors themselves, a word should perhaps be said about the usage of the word "epic" in this blog post. The word is actually not meant in the slangy sense of just meaning "awesome" or "really great;" rather, in the context of this post, the word epic refers to the actual epic genre or sensibility of literature. In modern times, a formal definition of “epic” as a genre primarily consists of the novel. Indeed, it could well be said that the novel is to modern civilization what the epic poem was to ancient civilization insofar as the purpose of the novel is to present a comprehensive picture of social reality that reflects the way a given society sees and imagines itself; and in this context, it would actually not be a stretch to define a novel as a kind of epic poem in blank verse. The United States of America, for example, has always had a certain mythos surrounding the idea of the Great American Novel; and it could be suggested that this is because the novel in America has fulfilled a similar cultural function to the epic poem in more ancient and traditional civilizations.  

    Most Epic Victorian Writer #1: Charles Dickens

    In any discussion of Victorian authors, it is surely necessary to reserve a preeminent spot for Charles Dickens. Most discussions of the significance of Dickens focus on the profound moral sensibility of his works. As Diniejko wrote for The Victorian Web, for instance: 

    Dickens was not only the first great urban novelist in England, but also one of the most important social commentators who used fiction effectively to criticize economic, social, and moral abuses in the Victorian era. Dicken showed compassion and empathy towards the vulnerable and disadvantaged segments of English society, and contributed to several important social reforms. (paragraph 1)

    While Dickens' novels were in fact works of serious aesthetic value and not just political or propagandistic tracts, it is nevertheless clear enough that the vision underlying most of Dickens' works possesses a dimension that is intrinsically moral and critical in nature.

    The Works of Charles Dickens
     
    See some of the major works of Dickens, along with their publication dates.
    TitleYear(s) of Publication
    The Pickwick Papers1836-1837
    Oliver Twist1837-1839
    Nicholas Nickleby1838-1839
    A Christmas Carol1843
    David Copperfield1849-1850
    A Tale of Two Cities1859
    Great Expectations1860-1861

    The dates for many of the works span more than one year because during the Victorian era it was customary for authors to publish their works in serial format in magazines: that is, the authors would publish (say) one chapter a week in a selected magazine until the whole novel had eventually been printed over the course of several months or years. As Brattin has written in regard to Dickens and serial fiction: 

    Every one of Charles Dickens's novels was published serially—that is, the novels appeared not all at once, but in parts or installments, over a space of time. Publishing his novels in serial form expanded Dickens's readership, as more people could afford to buy fiction on the installment plan. (paragraph 1)

    In addition, this mode of publication gave Dickens the opportunity to linger in the consciousness of his readers over an extended period of time, with his works becoming an ongoing presence in their lives. This would seem to be a kind of opportunity that is not really available to the writers of epic novels today: novels are now generally only published in one piece - complete.  

    Most people probably know several of Dickens' works, even if they are not consciously aware of the fact that they are actually by Dickens. For example, this is the famous opening of A Tale of Two Cities, which is one of Dickens's great novels (1): 

    It was the best of times, / it was the worst of times, / it was the age of wisdom, / it was the age of foolishness, / it was the epoch of belief, / it was the epoch of incredulity, / it was the season of Light, / it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, / it was the winter of despair.

    These lines (and especially the first one) are, of course, often quoted, even by people who are not aware of the fact that they were penned by Dickens; this testifies to the extent to which his works have managed to permeate popular consciousness itself. Something similar could be said as well about the popular Christmas movie Scrooged, starring the ever-funny Bill Murray. This movie (along with several others that have been made over the years) is directly adapted from Dickens's A Christmas Carol—a novella which remains to this day perhaps one of the greatest literary testaments to the Christmas spirit ever written. Click here to read a more formal, in-depth analysis of Charles Dickens from the Ultius Glossary.

    Epic Victorian Writer #2: Robert Louis Stevenson

    Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scottish writer, and he lived entirely during the reign of Queen Victoria: he was born 13 years after her coronation, and he died 7 years before her own death. In short, if anyone were a Victorian writer, it would be Stevenson. 

    There are two works by Stevenson that may be widely known and recognized by the public today: the first is Treasure Island, and the second is Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first of these is a fantastic adventure story that can be understood as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age tale, where a boy essentially embarks on a quest through which he comes to a deeper and more mature understanding of himself. The second is a fascinating psychological portrait of a case of split personality disorder, before that term itself had ever been coined; it is thus an important prefiguration of the insights that would soon be developed through psychoanalysis of the human personality. Soon after his death, critics largely derided Stevenson as a writer of little more than trite children's stories; later on, though, the critical evaluation swung toward a recognition of the power and originality of his imagination and this would seem to be where the opinion still stands today (Daiches). Interestingly, Stevenson’s Feast of Famine novel is often referenced in academia regarding the author’s use of assonance as a rhetorical device.

    Most Epic Writers of the Victorian Era #3: Victor Hugo

    Victor Hugo was a Frenchman, which would perhaps make it seem odd to include him in a discussion of Victorian writers because the Victorian era was specifically an era of English history. However, anyone who has been exposed to the works of Hugo will surely get a sense that this author belongs in a thorough discussion of epic Victorian writers: Hugo was alive and professionally active during the reign of Queen Victoria and if his novel Les Miserables cannot be called an epic, then one would be hard-pressed to justify ever calling any other novel an epic. A tale of French Revolution interspersed with multiple plotlines featuring grand themes of love and redemption, Les Miserables is a novel that is classically Victorian in its sensibility: it seeks to portray all of social reality in a grand and comprehensive way in a way that only a nineteenth-century writer could have attempted. This sort of literary comprehensiveness would become a relatively lost aesthetic soon after the death of Queen Victoria.

    Word Count of Prominent Victorian-Era Novels Source: Electric Lit
     
    Compare the word count of Les Miserables to other Victorian Novels.
    Word Count of Prominent Victorian-Era Novels

    The above graph provides you with a comparison of the word count of Hugo's novel Les Miserables, relative to that of Tolstoy's War and Peace, Wallace's Infinite Jest, and Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. While Les Miserables is not quite at the level of competing with the longest books ever written, it is clearly a heavyweight all the same. 

    The Musical Adaptation of Les Miserables

    Hugo's major novel Les Miserables has also acquired an independent reputation as perhaps one of the greatest musical adaptations of all time. As Trueman reported in his 2013 The Guardian article, for example: "Boublil and Schönberg's epic version of Victor Hugo's French Revolution novel topped the list of 100 musicals chosen by JemmThree's listeners, beating off strong competition from Wicked" (paragraph 2). It is easy to see why Les Miserables may have acquired this reputation: the grandeur, emotion, and drama inherent within Hugo's novel could all be easily translated and even magnified in the medium of the musical; if there was ever a novel that was meant to be adapted into a musical, Les Miserables would be it. 

    #4 of the Most Epic Victorian Writers: The Bronte Sisters

    The inspiration for publishing this blog post is, in part, spurred from the staggering number of clients we’ve noticed ordering sample research papers related to the Victorian era and specifically, the Bronte sisters. The Bronte sisters is the collective name for three individual authors: Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. Anne composed the novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; Emily composed Wuthering Heights, a famous Gothic romance; and Charlotte composed the four works Jane Eyre, Villette, Shirley, and The Professor. Together, then, the Bronte sisters created seven novels that are still seen to this day as classics of Victorian literature. What is at least as striking as so much literary talent being concentrated in a single family is the fact that the Bronte sisters were of course all women.

    Famous Works of the Bronte Sisters
     
    Some powerful novels from the three Bronte sisters.
    EmilyCharlotteAnne
    Wuthering HeightsJane EyreAgnes Grey
     VilletteThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall
     Shirley 
     The Professor 

    All three sisters published their works under male pseudonyms, however, due to the fact that the gender stereotypes of the day and age would have prevented the works from being taken seriously by the general public. Such an adoption of pseudonyms in relation to gender roles and stereotypes can still be seen today: J.K. Rowling, for example—the author of the famous Harry Potter books—specifically abbreviated her name to the initials in order to leave the gender of the author ambiguous, on recommendation from her publisher. It is perhaps somewhat odd that in most discussions of Victorian literature (including this one), the three individual Bronte sisters are often thrown together and treated as if they were one single entity. This could be related to the limited production of each sister on her own; but one cannot help but wonder if this treatment is related to them being women. 

    Most Epic Victorian Authors #5: Thomas Hardy

    After Dickens, Thomas Hardy was perhaps the most eminent of all the Victorian novelists. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that Hardy dominated the late Victorian era just as Dickens had dominated the early part of the era. Moreover, there are strong similarities between the moral impulse underlying Dickens's works and the same of Hardy's works. As Morgan has written: 

    Because the wiseman (or wisdom speaker) has historically held a respected position in many cultures, both Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy adopted this role. In Dickens's novel Hard Times, he emphasizes the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution . . . In The Mayor of Casterbridge thirty years later, Thomas Hardy examines the structure of the nuclear family. (paragraph 1)

    Both Dickens and Hardy, then, were committed to using the power of literature to fulfill an old-fashioned prophetic role, in the sense of reflecting society and its ills through a critical perspective that can make people more acutely sensitive to the problems at hand and more motivated to address those problems. This, in a nutshell, is the basis of a majority of literature-related academic writing that we produce at Ultius and an idea that many thesis statements and topics aim to support.

    Thomas Hardy's Works

    The final novel written by Hardy was perhaps also one of his greatest: its title is Jude the Obscure. Thematically, the novel contains all of Hardy's signature concerns: 

    With brilliant economy, Hardy opens up three themes: the struggle of the poor and disadvantaged to make their way in a bourgeois world; the tyranny of marriage in the lives of women oppressed by a patriarchal society; and the stranglehold on English life by an established church. (paragraph 2)

    In general, Hardy had a great deal of animus toward the structures and institutions of mainstream English society, and the fact that Jude the Obscure was his final novel, even though he lived quite a while longer, is in a way also an example of this animus. It would seem that he stopped writing because he was sick of being derided and misunderstood by the critics and the public. 

    Another work by Hardy that bears his thematic watermark consists of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. This is a novel whose protagonist gets involved in an unorthodox sexual situation and through her story, Hardy strongly criticizes the patriarchal and hypocritical sexual mores that he saw as dominating his Victorian society. In an important sense, it can be suggested that Hardy was always operating in terms of a strongly postconventional morality: he cared not for the social conventions of his day and age, but only for what he perceived to be deeper and more universal human truths. In gauging moral dilemmas, Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development highlights the path one takes when analyzing moral dilemmas.

    Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development Source: Simply Psychology
     
    Lawrence Kohlberg suggested that the development of moral reasoning is represented by a sequence of six stages.
    Stage 1Obedience and punishment.
    Stage 2Individualism and exchange.
    Stage 3Good interpersonal relationships.
    Stage 4Maintaining the social order.
    Stage 5Social contract and individual rights.
    Stage 6Universal principles.

     According to this schema, it seems likely that Hardy was operating at Stage 6, whereas most people within his Victorian society would have been operating at Stage 4 at best. 

    Epic Victorian Writer #6: George Eliot

    George Eliot is a woman who was born Mary Ann Evans. Like the Bronte sisters discussed above, she wrote under a more masculine pseudonym in order to conceal her gender because literature written by a woman would not have been taken seriously by Victorian society. This is an unfairness that to some extent continues today and is emblematic of inherent sexism in an entire society and culture. As the Ultius Glossary entry on George Eliot states, “Others speculate that perhaps her pen name served to protect her personal life from scandal, as she carried on a relationship with the married George Henry Lewis for more than twenty years” (“George Eliot”).

    In any event, Eliot produced several novels, but she is perhaps best known for her work Middlemarch. The epic scope of the novel can be seen in the fact that it attempts to produce a comprehensive picture of an entire social reality. As the Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica have written: 

    The novel is a complete study of every class of Middlemarch society—from the landed gentry and clergy to the manufacturers and professional men, farmers, and labourers. The focus of the novel is on the thwarted idealism of its two principal characters, . . . both of whom marry disastrously. (paragraph 1)

    This focus on social reality, which is characteristic of Victorian literature (and still a hot topic today especially in relation to the effects of social media on interpersonal relationships), is also what seems to give Victorian literature its often-progressive political edge, as can be seen in the works of Dickens and Hardy. When this kind of careful attention is paid to the actual social phenomena that exist in a given day and age, it becomes almost impossible to not perceive several such phenomena as very morally problematic in nature. This dynamic can be seen in Eliot's novel Middlemarch as well. 

    Epic Victorian Era Author #7: Alexandre Dumas

    Finally, Alexandre Dumas is another Frenchman (like Hugo) who must be included in this overview of epic Victorian authors. This is for the simple reason that Dumas is responsible for some of the most loved and thrilling novels that came out of the 19th century; and the fact that he was not British does nothing to detract from the fact that the spirit of his works is often close to the spirit of the works of an author such as Stevenson. Two of the main novels written by Dumas, for example, are The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. These novels are well-known for their ethos of high adventure and a portrayal of different social classes and historical realities over the course of their plots. Dumas is also responsible for writing the version of The Nutcracker that was eventually adapted into the famous ballet of that name by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky.  

    The Ghostwriting Controversy Surrounding Alexandre Dumas

    One significant point of controversy regarding Dumas's career consists of his heavy reliance on the use of assistants for both developing and writing his novels. While analyzing the literary debate over Alexandre Dumas's ghostwriter, It would seem, for instance, that a man by the name of Auguste Maquet was responsible for playing an important role in the creation of both The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo—two of Dumas's most famous works (Davies). It must be acknowledged that in the Victorian era, standards of authorship and ghostwriting were somewhat different from what they are now. Depending on the nature of the relationship, Maquet could have been hugely responsible for both the works mentioned above, while actual credit for authorship could still be given to Dumas. However, legal and historical technicalities aside, many scholars are clearly interested in the basic question of whether Maquet was the real creative force behind Dumas's most famous works and whether Dumas really deserves anywhere near as much fame as he personally has acquired over time. 

    Conclusion to the 7 Most Epic Literary Writers of the Victorian Era

    In summary, this essay (much like a custom essay you can purchase right now) has consisted of an overview of the most epic Victorian authors. The essay has focused primarily on British writers since the Victorian era proper was a British phenomenon; however, two Frenchmen were also included in the discussion on the basis of the judgment that such inclusion would be appropriate and enhance rather than undermine the present overview. A couple points have recurred over the course of this essay, and they’re common prompts for those who order sample literature essays today: the strong correlation between the best Victorian literature and a deep concern for social issues, as well as the difficulties experienced by talented female writers during that era (which, ironically, was named after a woman). We hope that the reader's awareness of Victorian authors and literature has been enhanced as a result of reading this essay. 

    Have a literature assignment? Get your MLA paper from Ultius today!

    Works Cited

    Bratin, Joel J. "Dickens & Serial Fiction." Project Boz. n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2016. <http://dickens.wpi.edu/history.html>. 

    Crain, W. C. Theories of Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985. Print. 

    Daiches, David. "Robert Louis Stevenson." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 29 Oct. 2015. Web. 12 Aug. 2016. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Louis-Stevenson>. 

    Davies, Lizzy. "Film Reignites Literary Debate over Alexandre Dumas's Ghostwriter." The Guardian. 9 Feb. 2010. Web. 13 Aug. 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/09/maquet-dumas-ghostwriter-feud>. 

    Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Black & White Classics, 2014. Print. 

    Diniejko, Andrzej. "Charles Dickens as Social Commentator and Critic." The Victorian Web. n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2016. <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/diniejko.html>.

    Donner, Richard. Dir. Scrooged. Paramount Pictures, 1988. Film. 

    Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Middlemarch." Encyclopaedia Britannica. n.d. Web. 13 Aug. 2016. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Middlemarch>. 

    McCrum, Robert. "The 100 Best Novels: No 29—Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895).” The Guardian. 7 Apr. 2014. Web. 12 Aug. 2016. < https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/07/100-best-novels-jude-obscure-thomas-hardy>. 

    Shepherd, Anne. "Overview of the Victorian Era." Institute of Historical Research, 2001. Web.12 Aug. 2016. <http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Victorians/article.html>. 

    Trueman, Matt. "Les Misérables Voted Greatest Musical of All Time." The Guardian. 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 12 Aug. 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/aug/28/les-miserables-voted-greatest-musical>. 

    Ultius, Inc. “George Eliot.” Authors. n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2016. <https://www.ultius.com/glossary/literature/authors/george-eliot.html>.

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