In praise of Victorian fiction

I have recently gone back to reading some of the novels by Anthony Trollope. I read many – maybe most – of them just over 20 years ago, and I recently decided that the time was right to re-read some of my favourites. Trollope was an interesting author. After a very difficult childhood he eventually worked for the Post Office in Ireland, and during that time is thought to have invented the pillar box – the cylindrical post box that became ubiquitous in these islands. But he also started to write novels, and in the period that followed he became one of the most prolific Victorian novelists.

I am interested in Trollope because he was fascinated by ideas and how people with complex characters and complex lives could give effect to them. Partly because of his experience of his very lively mother (also a writer, and with whom he had a difficult relationship), many of Trollope’s strongest characters are women, and often they are women trying to achieve a degree of autonomy and respect in a society where that was not the norm.

Trollope does not quite have the exuberant style of Charles Dickens, or the romantic insights of Jane Austen, or the mystery of Wilkie Collins, or the gritty portrayal of working class society of Mrs Gaskell – but he does have the ability to demonstrate the tensions and complexities of Victorian society, and there is something honest about his writing.

But more generally, I find that reading Victorian fiction doesn’t so much transport me back into history as tell me something about how we became the kind of society we have become. The great Victorian writers of fiction were important as analysts of social conditions and campaigners for solutions. Much of what they described and the ideas they allowed their characters to debate would still be relevant today. It seems to me to be right that Victorian fiction deserves to be read widely in this 21st century.


[I am delighted that there is a whole blog site on Victorian literature]

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