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!

J. S. Mill: “Victorian Firebrand”

In the Times, Jane O’Grady reviews Richard Reeves’s new biography of J.S. Mill:

This biography dispassionately presents the richness and contradictoriness of Mill’s theories, and skilfully shows the way in which his integrity forced him to modify them in the light of his experience. Unlike most pontificaters on justice, Mill actually lived what he preached. (read the rest here)

There’s more here in the New Statesman (link from A&LDaily), and here, at the Guardian:

This biography gives us a JS Mill for our times: feminist and anti-racist, radical without being leftwing. It is good on the poets of the first half of the 19th century, particularly Coleridge, to whose work Mill turned as an antidote to his father’s dry studies. Reeves examines and judges Mill as an interesting specimen, which is fine as far as it goes, but he never develops the biographer’s ability to stand at the shoulder of the subject and see the world as if through his eyes.

Mill’s judgments could be badly skewed; he profoundly misjudged Robert Peel as “perhaps the least gifted man that has ever headed a powerful party”; he opposed the secret ballot, in the belief that political principles should be declared publicly. In general, however, his ideas stand the test of time to such an extent that they are now everyone’s intellectual currency – but our notions of gender equality and personal freedom first had to be stated by a person of courage and conviction, speaking against the prevailing orthodoxy.

Reeves quotes with approval John Morley’s remark that Mill was “a man of extreme sensibility and vital heat in things worth waxing hot about”. It is an obituary remark to be coveted.

To that last remark, hear hear. It’s all very well (and always popular) to mock the Victorians, but about some things, it is in fact important to be earnest.

Carlyle Letters Online

A fabulous new resource has just been opened up online by Duke University Press: the letters of Jane and Thomas Carlyle. I’ve only peered around briefly, but the site is very attractive and seems easy to use. More to the point, it gives us easy access to all kinds of gems, such as this one, from TC to Elizabeth Gaskell just after the publication of Mary Barton:

Dear Madam (for I catch the treble of that fine melodious voice very well),—We have read your Book here, my Wife first and then I; both of us with real pleasure. A beautiful, cheerfully pious, social, clear and observant character is everywhere recogniseable in the writer, which surely is the welcomest sight any writer can shew us in his books; your field moreover is new, important, full of rich materials (which, as is usual, required a soul of some opulence to recognise them as rich): the result is a Book seeming to take its place far above the ordinary garbage of Novels,—a Book which every intelligent person may read with entertainment, and which it will do every one some good to read. I gratefully accept it as a real contribution (almost the first real one) towards developing a huge subject, which has lain dumb too long, and really ought to speak for itself, and tell us its meaning a little, if there be any voice in it at all! Speech, or Literature (which is, or should be, Select-Speech) could hardly find a more rational function, I think, at present.

The letters are fully indexed and footnoted. Thanks to Jack Kolb on the Victoria listserv for making sure we found out about this right away! I can hardly wait to browse around some more.