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  • Writer's pictureJulia Warren

An Evening In...

'La Lectora', Federico Faruffini, 1864

The Victorian era proved a time of great change and progress in many areas, including literature and reading habits. Since the eighteenth century, with its expansion of printing and rise in literacy, people increasingly read for pleasure, rather than just for educational or religious purposes. Significant changes in the availability of books made reading more accessible to the working class. These changes included:

  • The growth of public libraries: Over the course of the 18th century, books became increasingly available – for s subscription fee -- across the country by means of the circulating library. In the 19th century public libraries began to emerge around Britain, providing access to books for free or at a low cost. Many of the libraries were funded by philanthropists, and they were seen as a way to promote education and literacy among the working classes. Parliament passed the Free Libraries Act in 1850, and shortly afterward Manchester established Britain’s first publicly funded lending and reference library.

  • The growth of the publishing industry: During this time, the publishing industry rapidly expanded, with more books being produced and sold than ever before. This came about in part due to technological advances in printing and bookbinding, which allowed for mass production of books at a lower cost.

  • Cheap literature: A new form of literature emerged in the Victorian era, known as “Penny Dreadfuls” or “Penny Bloods.” These cheaply produced, mass-produced works of fiction sold for just one penny, making them affordable for the working class. The stories typically featured sensational plots and violent themes, though some often criticized them for promoting immoral behavior.

  • Serial publications: Popular novels often appeared first published in serialized form, coming out in weekly or monthly installments in newspapers and magazines, making them more affordable for the working classes.

Overall, these changes in the availability of books during the Victorian era had a profound impact on society, helping to promote literacy and education among the working classes and democratizing access to literature.

Novels persisted from the 18th century too - some deemed by now too immoral or decadent for Victorian taste - which is why, in ‘The Two Oaths’, Aunt Elizabeth seems so scandalised by Madeline’s enthusiasm for Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’. Both Mary in ‘The Ghost Bride’ and Madeline in ‘The Two Oaths’ would have been familiar with authors such as Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Fielding and Richardson, along with the Romantic poets - and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

By the late 1840s, when we join Madeline in ‘The Two Oaths,’ other major literary authors were just raising their heads above the water: beginning in 1847 and continuing until 1848, Thackeray serialized Vanity Fair in the Punch magazine. At the same time, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre had hit the press with vehemence, alongside her sister Emily Bronte’s work Wuthering Heights. Dickens had already made a name for himself with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and Nicholas Nickleby.

The Victorian era saw the novel become the dominant form of literature for several reasons.

Firstly, the increased literacy rates and the growth of the middle class led to a greater demand for entertainment and fiction that reflected their own experiences and aspirations. Novels provided a means for readers to explore and engage with social and political issues of the time.

Secondly, advancements in print technology made the production and distribution of books more accessible and affordable, making it easier for authors to reach wider audiences. This resulted in the rise of the mass-market novel.

Thirdly, the novel allowed authors to experiment with new forms of storytelling, such as the use of multiple narrators, complex plots, and detailed character development. This allowed authors to create more immersive and engaging stories that captured the imagination of readers.

Moreover, the novel provided a platform for authors to critique and challenge societal norms and conventions. Many Victorian novels tackled controversial issues, such as gender roles, class inequality, and religious hypocrisy, which helped to shape public debate and discourse.

Several factors drove the rise of the novel in the Victorian era, including increased literacy rates, technological advancements, and its ability to reflect and explore social and political issues of the time. Long live the novel!

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