How to Read a Victorian Novel

a somewhat tongue-in-cheek contribution to the How-To Issue Tumblr

First of all, don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to. Middlemarch “kills book clubs”? Please! Unlike some highly-regarded classics, these novels were written to be read–by all of us.

But you do need to be properly equipped.

Bring both your head and your heart: these are books that want you thinking and feeling. While you’re at it, stock up on tissues. You may, like Oscar Wilde, consider yourself too sophisticated to cry at the sentimental bits, but you never know. It might be the tenderness of Silas Marner that gets you, or maybe silly Dora in David Copperfield will surprise you into sniffles–or maybe your downfall will be Mr Harding and his old friend the Bishop in Barchester Towers. If you think you’re immune, start with A Christmas Carol: Dickens has a name for people like you.

Don’t forget your social conscience, either–and maybe your checkbook. These are books that have designs on you, though in many cases they will be aiming at reforming you as much as (or more than) they aim at reforming society, so another useful accessory might be a mirror. If, at the end of the book, you can’t face yourself in it, I bet the book was Vanity Fair.

Post-Its are your friends. That passage that made you laugh or cry–the one you want to read to your friend, or copy into your commonplace book (or your Tumblr)–will rapidly be overwhelmed by all the other passages that make you laugh or cry: don’t lose track of any of them. A pen or pencil for jotting page numbers inside the back cover is handy too. You e-book users can take advantage of all the highlighting and bookmarking features your gadget provides.

Now that you’re properly equipped, your next challenge is time! You’re going to want to read, and read, and read–but modern life sometimes makes that difficult. What’s to be done?

Take the book with you everywhere, that’s what. Bank line-ups, buses, bathrooms, those precious 8 minutes while the pasta boils — you know what to do! A few pages here, a few pages there, and next thing you know, you’re 500 pages in, with only another 200 to go.

Then there’s all the time you’ll save by not watching television. Remember: the most highly-praised shows in recent years are always compared to … Victorian novels! Some of them are straight-up based on them! Just read the originals. They are always better.

When you’re actually reading, it will help to put aside modern(ist) assumptions about what novels should and shouldn’t do, such as “show, don’t tell.” Victorian novelists show plenty, but they are absolute masters of telling. They’re also kind of chatty–they like to talk to you. Yes, you, the reader. Don’t be rude. You’ll make a lot of new friends: though some of them may seem a little intrusive, and some tend to belabor the point, while still others make pretty silly jokes, well, I bet that’s true of your real-life friends too, and unlike your real-life friends, these ones will always be there when you need some intelligent, sympathetic company.

Do you assume Victorian novels are “realistic”? I do not think that word means what you think it means. Have you heard them called “traditional” a lot? Hardly! These folks were experimenting all the time. Frame narratives, multiple points of view, time-shifting, unreliable narrators, women with mustaches, people named ‘M’Choakumchild’ or, more slyly, ‘Slope’…there’s nothing they won’t try.

Have you heard that Victorian novels are loose and baggy? Not always (try Wuthering Heights), and besides, so what? That’s only a fault if you think a good novel has to be taut and linear. There are other kinds of unity. Think themes and variations for instance: Bleak House? Housekeeping. Or fog. Middlemarch? Webs. Vanity Fair? Vanity (of course). He Knew He Was Right? Husbands and wives. And so on.

Finally, try not to let Victorian novels spoil you for anything else. Sure, the work of hip contemporary novelists with promotional billboards may seem thin and reedy once you get used to the rich symphony of the great Victorians, and you’ll be forever comparing mystery novels unfavorably to The Moonstone and muttering “but he’s just not Mr. Thornton” at the end of every romance. But as Henry James (who, frankly, would have benefited from this how-to guide) pointed out, “the house of fiction has not one window, but a million.” There are other novels well worth reading.


But if, once you get started, you never want to stop, you probably won’t have to. You think Trollope was prolific, with his 47 door-stoppers? He was a piker compared to Margaret Oliphant, who published 98. And we haven’t even talked about Bulwer-Lytton yet. Well, maybe we shouldn’t, actually. I’m trying to help you to read Victorian novels, after all, not scare you away. And to be honest, Bulwer-Lytton is a Victorian novelist I’ve never read myself. If any of you want to tell me “How to Read and Enjoy a Novel by Bulwer-Lytton,” I’ll be right over to read all about it.

Happy reading!

24 thoughts on “How to Read a Victorian Novel

  1. Stefanie August 3, 2012 / 3:41 pm

    Oh Rohan, how this made me laugh! Good advice to have the tissues on hand too. I am not one to generally weep over novels but Dickens manages to get me almost every time when I least expect it. also, best villain ever, Count Fosco. No one else can hold a candle to him in post-Victorian fiction. As for Bulwer-Lytton, perhaps you might consider making a study of him and then entering the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest 🙂


  2. Lisa Hill August 3, 2012 / 5:39 pm

    I’ve been reading Victorian novels since I was a teenager and I love them still so I don’t need any encouragement, but I really enjoyed this post, and I hope you influence readers far and wide!
    My favourite Victorian author? … a difficult question, but the one I like to re-read the most is Thomas Hardy.


  3. bleason August 3, 2012 / 5:40 pm

    Bravo! Bravo! Great essay on how to “enjoy” a Victorian novel.


  4. bleason August 3, 2012 / 5:44 pm

    Thomas Hardy, so dark, so good. And Rohan, check out our Victorian Anthony Trollope Yahoo group.


  5. steve donoghues August 3, 2012 / 6:17 pm

    That was utterly, utterly fantastic! I demand/implore/nag that you expand it by 2000 words and run the ‘second edition’ on our main Table of Contents! In fact, I’ll make you a deal: if you’ll agree to expand and adapt this for the main issue, I’ll agree to likewise expand and adapt any Stevereads post of your choosing! We can run them side-by-side!


  6. JC August 3, 2012 / 7:36 pm

    Wonderful! You expand this into a full-blown essay, you might actually get me to take another shot at Middlemarch!


  7. Rohan August 3, 2012 / 8:07 pm

    Stefanie — Ah, Count Fosco! After him, no other villain will do. The embroidered waistcoats! The mice! Who would dare do a character like that today?

    Lisa–Hardy has never been a favorite of mine! But I blame that on my having been stuck in a teaching rut with Jude the Obscure for several years. I’m going to read around again in the earlier novels and see if that improves our relationship.

    bleason — Thank you! That “so dark” is why Hardy is not my go-to author.

    Steve — and JC — Expand? This isn’t good enough but you want more? I suppose that’s a compliment…but I did just what I wanted right here. As for your reading Middlemarch, John, that book club post is my best effort at that so far!


  8. Teresa August 3, 2012 / 8:58 pm

    A wonderful post! I’ve never understood why people resist Victorian novels. There’s so much about them to love–and the fact that they’re big books just means I get to spend more time in them!


  9. Alex August 4, 2012 / 5:25 am

    I ought to e-mail this to a theologian friend of mine who three consecutive summers swore he was going to read ‘Middlemarch’ and gave up about fifty pages in every time. The trouble is he doesn’t have much of a sense of humour, so I’m not sure he would appreciate it. As for making time, one winter I read ‘War and Peace’ at the bus-stop on the way to and from work. I can’t read while travelling, but ‘fortunately’ our buses rarely run to time. Those waits could be unpredictable long.


  10. Rohan August 5, 2012 / 11:42 am

    Alex, maybe your friend would find my post on reading Middlemarch for a book club more specifically helpful!

    I actually think e-readers are an advantage for getting in some of these really long books. Because I too do a lot of my non-required reading in the interstices of busy days, I’m making hardly any progress on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon because the thing weighs about 20 pounds so I always choose something else to tuck in my purse.


  11. Ali August 5, 2012 / 3:54 pm

    I love this, Rohan! I did not read mcuh Victorian literature until I was in my late thirties (I am now 41), and I think I was missing out. I love Collins, Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte. I started Villette and am about halfway through. I think I might like this better than Jane Eyre! I think it is more suited to adult sensibilities. I wish I were a fan of Dickens. I want to try Bleak House or David Copperfield. And I always enjoy Trollope for his realism.

    I do try to read modern literature these days, and I like some of it. But I find myself craving the complexities of the Victorian novel (the complex sentences and the complex story lines) and am devoting more of my time to it!


  12. Rohan Maitzen August 5, 2012 / 7:36 pm

    Poor indeed! I don’t see any Bulwer-Lytton on your blog index. Maybe (shades of The Antiquary…) you and I should read one together. I’m sure Steve could tell us which one is most worth our effort!


  13. Amateur Reader (Tom) August 5, 2012 / 11:24 pm

    I have read nothing of Bulwer-Lytton’s but the opening paragraph of Paul Clifford, which is neither bad nor even particularly purple.

    My fear is not that any specific B-L novel is bad, but that it is dull.

    If there were one as useful to know about as The Antiquary, one referred to as often, I would say “yeah, let’s read it!”


  14. Miguel August 7, 2012 / 10:22 am

    Oh, I always compare mystery novels to The Moonstone! One must have high standards after all.


  15. cbjames August 7, 2012 / 11:24 am

    I’ll have to give The Moonstone another go. I used to read a lot of Victorian fiction. I should get back to it now and then, at least.


  16. Sarah Marian S. August 7, 2012 / 4:19 pm

    Brilliant. Love the Moonstone, love North and South. Nicholas Nickelby is next on my list.


  17. Rohan Maitzen August 8, 2012 / 2:01 pm

    Miguel, I couldn’t agree more – which is why I persist in teaching it every year in my class on mystery fiction, even though every year a significant number of students moan that it’s “too long”! On the other hand, for a not insignificant number of other students, it is their gateway drug to the Victorian novel courses I also teach!

    cbjames: I think The Moonstone is great fun–and it’s also awfully smart about all kinds of things, from first-person narration to eye-witness testimony (closely related, of course), from imperialism to gender politics.

    Sarah: Nicholas Nickleby is one of the Dickens novels I haven’t read yet. I think next up for me is either Dombey and Son or Martin Chuzzlewit–or else I’ll treat myself to a reread of David Copperfield, which I haven’t read in ages.


  18. sophylou August 9, 2012 / 1:59 am

    love this! Also a benefit: that there are free e-versions. Though I very much prefer my Victorian novels in print…


  19. Sarah Marian S. August 9, 2012 / 11:47 am

    Oh, David Copperfield is absolutely my favorite. Love the adaptation with Maggie Smith as Aunt Betsy Trotwood, too.


  20. Jennifer Delamere August 9, 2012 / 5:09 pm

    Great post! Just yesterday I dove into “North and South” again and got all misty-eyed in several places. And I was wondering why current novels just don’t seem to move me as much as the Victorian greats. You explained it perfectly.


  21. Lyn August 11, 2012 / 11:49 pm

    This was wonderful, & so true. I love the Victorians & always feel a little dissatisfied when I try to read a modern novel straight after a Victorian. Luckily I still have lots to go, at least half of Trollope & most of Oliphant.


  22. caroline August 13, 2012 / 9:22 am

    The Victorian era was the golden era of literature. We may never see the like of it again. Who else could mingle plot, Gothicism, realism, psychological complexity, multiple viewpoints, communities, description and beautifully constructed sentences in one piece of literary fiction? nowadays literary fiction is so dull and unstorylike. Seriously though, I think we are living in a golden age of biographies – they’re far more interesting reads than fiction.


  23. RT January 7, 2014 / 12:37 pm

    Do I detect impatience with Henry James? Good for you! I thought there was something wrong with me because I also am impatient with James. I think I feel vindicated. Well, at least I think I sense a kindred spirit.


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