Victorian Literature: The Genius Beneath the Bias

Photo From Canterbury School of Humanities

Posted by Sarah Sharples, Poetry Reader for Issue 9.2

One of the saddest truths I have had to come to terms with over my literary life is the tainted light in which we tend to view Victorian literature.

The majority of people that I have spoken to about writing from the Victorian Era associate Vic lit with boring high school classes and monotonous, unnecessarily complex writing that results in general incomprehensibility. To those who that association resonates with: I understand, and I validate you.

Granted, there are many, many issues surrounding this genre. Because of the dated nature of Vic lit, there are many problematic standards to be found within writing from this time period, such as casual racism and xenophobia. These issues can be significantly attributed to the time in which they were written, but that is not to dismiss these issues as excusable or justified within their historical context.

That being importantly acknowledged, there are many concepts and skills crafted by Victorian literature that we do not thoroughly appreciate today. One such concept that separates Vic lit from modern-day writing is that of the integration of fantasy in Victorian novels.

There is a beautiful acceptance of the fantastic within Victorian literature. Unlike modern-day fantasy, Victorian writing does not rely on magic or outlandish concepts, or lean so much into it as to make it its own genre; instead, it utilizes fabulism, or magical realism, to weave the fantastical into its meanings so elegantly that the reader hardly knows it is happening. We, the audience, are immersed in the unique reality that the author has crafted, and are so thoroughly and effectively immersed in it that we feel no need to question it.

One very prevalent example of this can be found in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. At the beginning of this book, the very vain Dorian is painted in a beautiful portrait. He becomes obsessed with his own beauty, and with preserving it; however, in his obsession, he becomes jaded, selfish, and cruel to the outside world. As the story progresses and Dorian’s quality of character worsens, the portrait painted of him in the beginning of the story ages and becomes uglier and uglier while Dorian’s physical appearance remains the same. In the end of the book, Dorian slashes his portrait, hoping to relieve himself of the burdensome reminder of his wrong-doings; instead, he kills himself in the process.

At no point during this story is the reader brought to question whether or not Dorian’s portrait is physically changing. Rather, the reader is so invested in the deeper meanings behind Dorian’s transformation of character that they accept this fantastical concept as a part of the narrative without question. The Picture of Dorian Gray is not considered a fantasy book because it incorporates the fantastical so seamlessly that the expansion beyond reality is intricately woven into the story itself. Victorian literature thus escapes reality without allowing that escape to define its genre. It’s beautiful.

Despite the clear challenge of reality that is presented in these fantastical themes, readers of Victorian literature rarely consider Vic lit to be a subgenre of fantasy, or to be aligned with the genre generally; rather, Victorian authors created a unique integration of the fantastical with the concrete, challenging our standards of what qualifies reality and using that challenge to raise the standards of literature and expand beyond the confines of reality. The intuition and literary genius that is demonstrated in this utilization of fabulism has raised the stakes for writing across the board, justifying the role that Vic lit serves as an integral foundation in literary studies today.

I understand that, all this being said, some stigmatizations about Victorian literature may still remain—I cannot assuage anyone’s dread of the complex and dated language that Vic lit utilizes, nor can I alleviate any exhaustion associated with the lengthiness of Victorian novels. However, I can still maintain, fully and forcefully, the value that Vic lit holds within our modern understanding of literature, and the ways in which it has shown us for centuries how dynamic, inventive, and compelling a book can be.

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