Why is nineteenth-century fiction still popular?

This is a short essay I wrote years ago which I came across recently. However, in its (brief) examination of the values and structures which have made the reading of ‘classic novels’, not to mention their televising, so popular, it seems relevant now – especially in this year of Dickens’s bicentenary – so I thought I would share it.

The nineteenth century was a period of great changes, social, political and industrial.  Britain as we know it today is closer in values and in the transient nature of its beliefs to this period than to any other period in history.  The Victorians believed that they were closest to the Elizabethans, and their aim was a second renaissance of Britain.  They understood in a way that twenty-first century citizens often forget that civilisation is a building process, each generation adding to and drawing upon the achievements of their forebears.

In “Areopagitica”, Milton argues for freedom from censorship for the written word, and states that books “are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are”.  This “potency” in a writer creates a bond between writer and reader that can bridge centuries, cultures and gender. Many events in the twentieth century have distanced us from the nineteenth, and yet the culture of the Victorians is still widely appreciated.  Why is this?  I think we read for enjoyment and for understanding.  There is no doubt that enjoyment is still to be had from the reading of nineteenth century authors, in the skilful plot structure of Dickens or George Eliot, for example.  The fact that so many nineteenth century novels have been turned into enjoyable TV indicates the strength of plot and characterisation employed by the authors; Trollope, Dickens and the Brontes have all fared well and reached wider audiences through this medium.  This also displays the adaptability and relevance of the stories.  A test of a novel is when it works as a modern adaptation; this has worked well with Great Expectations, a novel of social mores and personal desire that is still relevant set in the twenty-first century.   The reason that these works have enduring appeal is that they possess timeless elements; they represent facets of human nature that are always present.   The sense of recognition that we gain from discovering familiar characters is sufficient reason alone to read fiction, whenever it was written, and arguably the nineteenth century, with its social conflicts and a newly discovered self-awareness in the face of Darwin and Freud, produced characters more recognisable to the modern reader than any other period in history.

Another facet of understanding to be gained from fiction is the socio-historical aspect.   Charlotte Bronte’s Villette allows the modern reader an insight into the life of a governess, not the trite, watered down idea to which history often relegates them, but a sense of a woman appointed to educate the next generation whilst being considered a servant herself.  Mrs Gaskell’s North and South pays passionate tribute to the divisions in society, examining industrialism, wealth, poverty and gender in a challenging way that is completely accessible to the modern reader, and far more fascinating than any textbook on the industrial revolution.  The famous champion of social issues in Britain was, of course, Dickens, with his condemnation of the poorhouse, the education system and the division of wealth.  On the whole, Dickens is more concerned with the effect than the cause of social evils, but he persistently blames the misuse of power by those in authority for the wrongs of society, and he strongly believed that education was the way forward.  However, he also had many doubts about the contemporary education system, fearing that it was failing many of Britain’s young people and could not provide a sound base of educated society for future generations.  Concerns such as these have a familiar ring to them, as do Mrs Gaskell’s countryside/city debates.

Finally, there is the concept of literary heritage.  Many nineteenth-century novels have become a part of the Western canon, seen as “classics” which are important reading for students of literature.  The novel reached its heyday in the nineteenth century, and the length and complexity of the plots has seldom been surpassed in subsequent years.  The Victorians took their culture seriously, and writers were usually well-educated and passionate about their subject, and the artistry of their work remains unsurpassed.  No one can write without reading first, and the nineteenth century greats, writing before the days of modernism, deconstructionism and other textual theories, have a depth of tone and understanding rarely reached since.  Their literature in turn shaped the literature of subsequent generations; Pound’s cry of “Make it new!” in the early twentieth century was a direct response to the weighty issues of his elders, and the war literature of the last century owes a debt to the nineteenth century in its very opposition to it.  One has to know the rules to break them, and in many cases the “rules” as we now understand them were set by the writers of the nineteenth century.

Literature is an all-embracing subject, reflecting the issues of the day.  Taking literature in context is often considered unfashionable in our modern society of diffracted values and discontinuity, but the writers of the nineteenth century knew better than any other before our own time how to relate to the issues that concern us.  The immediacy of their engagement with these issues is apparent from the early days of the century, with the austerity and moral values frequently associated with Victorianism, to the decadence and “art for art’s sake” attitude of the aesthetes.  There can be no argument that these issues are still with us.  Wealth, power, education, technology and culture were prevailing issues and are still hotly debated in the press and fiction today.  Novels such as White Teeth which examine social displacement are the inheritors in the tradition of Villette; the quiet town in which Chocolat is set is reminiscent of Cranford – the comparisons are endless.  What it proves is that the years do not change human nature, and the changes to society are frequently only superficial; but literature is eternal.

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