When Tasha invited me to write a guest post about why I love Victorian novels for the Classics month, I had a moment of panic. Though I do love the Victorians, my interest only dates back a few years, and there’s SO much I haven’t read yet. No George Eliot! No Trollope! Only one Dickens! What do I know? Who am I to write about this at all? But then it hit me that perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that I’m only a common reader with a newly-found interest. I can tell you, as one reader to another, what ignited the spark.
The first thing to attract me about the Victorian period was simply its aesthetic. As a lover of Gothic fiction, it was a natural follow-up. I love the atmosphere: the fog, the hansom cabs, the gas-lit streets. I love the isolated country houses, the early trains, the feverish letter-writing, the several mail deliveries a day. I love the clothes, though the knowledge of how uncomfortable and unhealthy those tight corsets really were duly horrifies me. When it comes to writing, I even love the intricate prose of all those unnecessarily long novels. And above all, I love how the Victorian era feels like a whole other world in some ways, and yet also feels remarkably close to our own in others.
And this brings me to another thing – to the thing that truly hooked me. Atmosphere is marvelous, but on its own it wouldn’t account for the slight obsession I seem to have developed. The reason why I’ve come to enjoy Victorian novels so much is because I find that they tell me a lot about the world we live in today. I’m not saying, of course, that Victorian society is similar to twenty-first century European society. I realise that back then women’s rights were in an appalling state, that racism wasn’t even subtle, that colonialism was considered Only Right and Proper, that homosexuality was criminally punished, that class divisions were extremely rigid and seem as Facts of Life, and so on and so forth.
Only, as is often the case, to say that about the Victorians is to only tell half the story. All of the above is true, but what about the people who lived amidst all that rigidity? What about the real, breathing living human beings who looked around them and saw injustice? As in any historical period, not everyone supported the status-quo, and many people suffered under it. If we read between the lines we can find their stories too, and they tell us so much about what it means to be human.
I guess that in some ways, I see the Victorian world as an amplified version of our own. All the problems I mentioned above are still around today, but they have become more subtle and diluted, and therefore they are easier to ignore for those who can afford to do so. In the Victorian, era they were so obvious they were impossible to miss, which is why I enjoy reading about how people responded to them. Also, in my most pessimistic days I feel that we’re losing some of the headway we made in the twentieth century, so it’s comforting to know that even in an extremely rigid society, people survived.
But it’s really not just a matter of comfort, or of aesthetic pleasure: it’s that in the stories of early feminists, of intelligent women who realised how unfair and artificial their position was, of gay people who had to live in shame, of those who fought for social justice of any kind, I hear strong echoes of the world that surrounds me today.