The Victorian Age

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Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s life appears quiet and uneventful. She was born at the Hampshire and she had a home education. She was passionately fond of amateur dramatics, so she began writing prose, verse and drama at an early age. In 1801 her father retired and settled in Bath: she couldn’t write any more because she lived in a town. The return to the beloved countryside marked the beginning of the most rewarding period in Jane Austen’s life as a novelist. She started also the review of her first works. Jane Austen is considered the first great English woman novelist. Her novels are limited in settings and characters, which she described as «three or four families in a country village». All her novels are set in this provincial world; the characters belong to the rural middle class, the landed gentry and the country clergy. The subjects are courtship and marriage. All her novels are love story set in the country and talk about everyday life.

Northanger Abbey (1798), a parody of the Gothic novel; Emma (published in 1816); Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), two novels of manners: the same genre continue till now with sit-coms.

Narrative technique
All of Jane Austen’s novels centre on experience of a young woman, the heroine, who through a series of errors and delusions develops in her understandings of herself and of the other people, and all the books end with her happy marriage. We have a definite point of view: the heroine coincides with Jane Austen.
Jane Austen’s characters are very precisely described: her/his place in society, age, incomes and its source (land or investments, trade or inheritance), ancestry, marital situation and prospects (single, married, widowed) and social position. They are round characters and show the author’s fine psychological insight.
Jane Austen was deeply interested in the moral standards and rules of social conducts of her day. She condemn pitilessly anyone who is less anyone who is less than honest, responsible and kind. Her standards seem relatively easy to achieve, and yet almost all of her characters fail. Marriage is the best chance for a woman to get independence and status.
Dialogue is clear, witty, precise; it renders common place things and characters interesting. It does not illustrate a moral, but rather brings it into existence for the author to comment on. She uses an omniscient third-person narrator (taken from Fielding); her irony is always gentle, expressed in nicely balanced and acute observations.
Jane Austen is more typically an eighteen-century novelist: her insistence on morality, her interest in society and its values, and the didactic strain in her art, are all qualities very different from the qualities of most Romantic art. Chronologically she belongs to Romanticism but she is Augustan in spirit, education, moral values and inspiration: her model is Richardson. She is out of her time: there is no history in her novels, the political and social event of the time do not appear in her novels. She avoided all contacts with Romanticism and its literary experiments.

Mary Shelley

She was the daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin and of Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Right of Woman. In 1814 he met Shelley who was an ardent admirer of her father and often visited their London House. Mary and Shelley fell in love and met secretly; when she found she was pregnant they run off to Europe, wandering to France, Switzerland and Germany. Then they settled in Geneva, where Byron soon joined them. Byron proposed: «We will each write a ghost story». that Mary’s first work of fiction was written: Frankenstein, the first example of science fiction published anonymously in 1818. The last six years of Mary’s life with Shelley were filled with family disasters, culminating in her husband’s drowning during a sailing trip from Leghorn to Spezia. At twenty-four, Mary found herself a widow, with three of the four children she had had from Shelley already dead, and little money to support their only surviving son, Percy Florence. Mary devoted the rest of her life to editing and publicising her husband’s literary works and to writing herself in order to support her son.

Frankenstein (1818)
Dr. Frankenstein is a brilliant scientist devoured by the ambition to gain greater control over life and death. The book became one of the few modern myths: it exploits the horrific and macabre of the Gothic tale and it derives from the Romantics’ interest in the effects of science on man. Dr. Frankenstein is a scientifically updated version of Faust. He wants to overcome man’s limitations and acquire a God-like power over physical matter, taking life into his own hands. The monster created by Victor is a symbol of Romantic concern for the isolation of the individual by the society: he is an outcast of society who suffers for no specific fault of his own.

Main themes:
▪ The misuse of science;
▪ Social injustice;
▪ Man is originally good (Rousseau): at first he shows love and generosity, then he comes into contact with man (society). He is rejected for his look: this fact caused hatred and violence. The monster is the “noble savage”.
▪ Tragic ending: Victor must die for his ambition, like Faust

Walpole (The Castle of Otranto)

Victor is a forerunner of the hunt of the monster:
E.A. Poe in The Fall of The House of Husher and in William Wilson;
R.L. Stevenson in The Strange Chase of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde;
O. Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray;
Conrad in The Secret Sharer;
James in The Turn of the Srew;
Dostoevski in The Gambler.

Victor Frankenstein is an isolated individual: this isolation is self-imposed. The alienation of Victor is for a mad pursuit of self-satisfaction.
Also the monster is isolated but his isolation is imposed by the society because it had a prejudice against the alien: social injustice. So monster feels hatred and wants violence and death because they have what he is denied: love. The monster represent for Victor:
▪ His aggressive instincts;
▪ His fear of the family;
▪ His fear for the women;
▪ His horror of normal sexuality.
Elisabeth is a gift of God, she seems an ideal woman. She is also highly spiritualised.

Prose can be divided into two different genres: the essay and the novel.

Romantic essay

Prose can be divided into two different genres: the essay and the novel. There are many example of the essay through all the century:
▪ 16th century: Montaigne
▪ 17th century: Milton and Dryden
▪ early 18th century: Pope, the periodicals (Steale and Addison), Swift, Defoe and Fielding
▪ late 18th century: Johnson and Burke
▪ 1780-1830: Romantic Essay
Romantic essay is a short piece of prose dealing with one single subject: everyday life; personal memory; travel impressions; artistic and literary topics; philosophical topics. Most important writers: Charles Lamb with his Intimate essay (more personal; there is new personal approach to literary criticism); William Hazlitt and Hunt, Keats’ friends; Thomas De Quincey.

Romantic novel

Experimental stages: journalism and satire (Swift);
Defoe: detailed realism (autobiography);
Richardson: epistolary novel;
Fielding: epic novel (comic and picaresque adventures);
Sterne: anti-novel;
Walpole and Radcliffe: Gothic novel;
Jane Austen: novel of manners (following Richardson);
Mary Shelley: novel of purpose (propaganda of new scientific idea);
Scott: historical novel.

The debate on industrialization

All the most representative figures, including the Romantic poets, took part in the debate on the consequences of the industrialization and extreme economic liberalism. Many reacted violently and this caused the disappearance of the old rural England, with its time-honoured traditions: people were shocked at the consequences the new system was producing.

Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh. As a child he was stricken by polio, so he was lame and very delicate: he couldn’t do anything but read. His literary reputation was at first based on poetry: all on Scottish lore and life. So he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scotland: in fact he red legends, history, tales and story of Scotland. Then Scott turned to prose: he wrote Waverly (1814), a story in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745; Guy Mannering (1815) and The Antiquary (1816). Scott had a vogue for historical novels.

▪ Waverly (1814), a story in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745;
▪ Guy Mannering (1815);
▪ The Antiquary (1816);
▪ Rob Roy (1818);
▪ The Bride of Lammelor (1819): is the plot for Donizzetti’s opera;
▪ Ivanhoe (1820) set in the Middle Ages at the end of the 12th century, during the reign of king Richard I the Lionheart in the forest of Sherwood. It describes the struggle between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans.

These works are written in 3rd person narrator; Scott is an omniscient narrator and obtrusive. He had an enormous influence throughout Europe: Russia (Gogol, Puskin, Tolstoj); France (Victor Hugo, Dumas, Balzac; Stendhal); Germany (Hauff, Fontane); America (Cooper, Hawthorne) and Italy (Guerrazzi, Manzoni). Scott’s novels are a bridge between the Gothic novel and the serial narratives of the 19th century:

▪ Use the past as a setting
▪ Records historical events faithfully
▪ Describes the way of life of all classes (the poor, the middle classes etc.)
The Betrothed (1825/27, revisited in 1842) by A.Manzoni
Manzoni is the chief exponent of the Italian Romanticism: Promessi Sposi is considered the greatest masterpiece of Italian fiction. Manzoni wrote an historical novel after seeing the great popularity that Scott’s novels enjoyed. Manzoni admitted his debt to Scott in a letter to his friend Fauriel. Manzoni tok common people as main characters (as Scott) and gave a vision of history as experienced by ordinary people (as Scott). Promessi Sposi is set in the Lombardy of 17th century (it is a regional novel) during the period of the Milanese insurrection against Spanish domination. So Manzoni gave a patriotical ideal of absent national identity; so it underlines also the hatred for Hapsburg domination.
It is a story of two peasants whose love is opposed by the local tyrant, supported by the coward local priest. The hero and the heroine are two unknown peasants. The plot is well organised, the style is elegant also because the numerous revisions. Manzoni deals with time facts (historical events) because he has done a detailed historical research into papers and documents of the past. Very important in this novel is the theme of the Christian faith because Manzoni thinks that God intervenes in all human matters: Providence. Manzoni feels a strong aspiration towards justice and morality; he has no special feelings for nature.

Scott’s works
Scott has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scottish history, past and customs. He is able to recreate the atmosphere of past ages. The Romantic atmosphere is characterised by heroism, honour, loyalty, courage and moral code like chivalrous adventures: extraordinary and improbable. He proposes his novel to a society affected by commercial pressures and spiritual poverty. The Romantic atmosphere is also supported by beautiful natural descriptions. Scott tells about historical events with imaginary heroes: he is not historically accurate because he does not go deeply into the cause of the historical events. He looks to the events with the eyes of a faithful reporter, so he is very good at portraying peasants, humble folk, criminals, braggarts but he is less convincing portraying his heroes and heroines.

Both Manzoni and Scott:
▪ use 3rd person narrator;
▪ give an important role to common and humble people;
▪ use sense of humour;
▪ study old documents;
▪ have a strong sense of realism;
▪ use long digressions, especially in historical events (taken from Fielding and Sterne).