Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ten Ways That Jane Austen Is Not a Victorian Novelist

Jane Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817.  Most of her work was published between 1811 and 1818.  Yet she is repeatedly lumped together with authors from a much later time, such as George Eliot (1819-1880), Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), and Anthony Trollope (1815-1882).  Together, they and many others are referred to as "Victorian authors," even though Queen Victoria didn't come to the throne until 1837.

The reason seems to be because these authors, and more, frequently set their works in the English countryside, where towns were small, life was slow, and old landed wealth reigned supreme.  Of course Victorian authors covered much more than that, as anyone who has read Charles Dickens would know.  And while the countryside did, in many ways, seem suspended in time throughout the 19th century (something I comment on in a Downton Abbey post), it still experienced fundamental changes.  Changes that were beginning during Austen's lifetime, but would be more fully felt later in the century.

So here are just some ways that Jane Austen is not a Victorian author:    

1.  No mention of a train in her works.  Train travel started to become common in the 1840s.

2.  No major depictions of city life.  Whether it's Charles Dickens and London or Elizabeth Gaskell and northern cities, many of the most well-known Victorian authors went to great lengths to describe the smoke, factories, and degradation in cities, which were expanding at a rapid rate.  Whereas Austen kept mainly to the country.


3.  No major depictions of class differences.  Unless you count Fanny Price coming to live at Mansfield Park, which I don't.  Fanny was the niece of Lady Bertram and, while she lived a narrow existence in her youth, it's not like she was a servant.  Whereas Victorian novelists like Dickens, Gaskell, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Hardy wrote piercing critiques of classism and class differences.  From slum dwellers to aristocrats, no class was spared.  By contrast, Austen looked at characters from a fairly narrow circle: usually either the old gentry or the newly rich.

4.  No moral issues of the day.  This one isn't unique to Victorians -- plenty of Austen's near contemporaries, like Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote about contemporary moral and political issues.  But not so much about reforming prostitutes, cleaning up the sanitation systems, cleaning up city slums, or women's suffrage.  Those were very Victorian issues and Austen never took part.

5.  Plots are much too easy to follow.  It's a bit stereotypical to say that all Victorian plots are convoluted, but it was certainly in vogue to have a large cast of characters and multiple, almost unwieldy, plot lines.  See, for example, Middlemarch, anything by Anthony Trollope, and do I even need to mention Dickens?  (This also goes for some of their contemporaries in other countries, like Victor Hugo or Leo Tolstoy.)  With Austen, it was: girl meets boy, boy and girl misunderstand each other, girl thwarts selfish relative, girl and boy profess their love and live happily ever after.  See?  Simple.

Girl meets boy, boy obsesses over girl, girl and boy wed...
that's it?
6.  Books are much too short.  Because of the above, the longest Austen novel is lucky to reach the midpoint of, say, a Trollope novel.  While not all Victorian authors wrote long, it was definitely encouraged by journals that published their work in multiple parts.    

7.  The Royal Navy is supreme.  Austen wrote a fair amount about the Royal Navy because at least one of her brothers served, and from novels like Persuasion, the occupation appeared to be a source of rapid social advancement.  That was because Napoleon Bonaparte was a threat during Austen's time, and his attempts to invade by sea gave British ship captains opportunity to seize French vessels and become rich from a system known as Royal Navy Prize Money.  By the mid-Victorian Era, the Royal Navy also reigned supreme -- so supreme that there was far less opportunity for an ambitious naval officer to get rich from battle.

8.  Militias are prominent.  Not to say that there were no militias during the Victorian times (I don't know), but due to the threat of a Napoleonic invasion, they would have been very prominent during Austen's time.  Armed fighting in Victorian novels would have likely involved (1) the Crimean War, (2) battles throughout the extended "Empire," or (3) the Irish struggle for independence.    

Brrr...
9.  No references to Africa or Asia.  Austen's novels don't contain much about The Empire, except for some vague references to an Antiguan slave plantation in Mansfield Park.  Much of Africa and Asia were not on Britain's radar until after Austen's time.  Whereas in Victorian novels, you might see vague references to "battles with the Ashanti" or the like.  

10.  No references to the Queen.  To the extent that any of these authors would mention the Royal Family, if Austen referred to the "Queen," she would likely mean the Queen Consort or Queen Anne (1702-1707) -- not Queen Victoria.   

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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