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Reflections: Victorian novels to get you through the lockdown

Dr Clare Walker Gore, Junior Research Fellow in English, makes her pick of the best Victorian novels for lockdown.

With holidays cancelled, research trips on hold, and even trips to the library becoming a distant memory, I have been turning to one particular scene in a favourite childhood novel for solace. In Matilda, Roald Dahl describes how his heroine escapes isolation through reading:

‘The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.’

For me, it’s a wonderful image of the liberating and consolatory power of reading, summoning up its capacity to soothe, transport, excite, or just distract in the most difficult of circumstances. Reading can mitigate the loneliness and frustration of social distancing, both in being a wholly solitary pleasure – taking you out of yourself without involving proximity to any other person – and in providing an ideal basis for conversations, correspondence and remote book groups.

And if you’re stumped for what to start reading? They do say that if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that the current crisis strikes this Victorianist as a perfect time to dive into the treasure-trove of nineteenth-century fiction. With lengthening evenings to be filled and social plans on hold, I firmly believe that there’s a Victorian novel out there for everyone, and for every mood…

Novels to Soothe

For those looking to offset the barrage of bad news with some soothing reading, Anthony Trollope might be the perfect tonic. His novels enjoyed a surge of popularity during a previous time of worry and uncertainty, the Second World War, and it’s not hard to see why. There is something deeply calming about immersing yourself in the world of the Barsetshire series, following its vivid cast of characters from novel to novel and through the vicissitudes of clerical spats, familial feuds and thwarted (but on the whole happily resolved) love affairs. From the lively comedy of Barchester Towers to the restrained melancholy of The Small House at Allington and the final tour de force that is The Last Chronicle of Barset, this is a series to see you through the hardest of times.

For those who prefer parliamentary to clerical politics, Trollope’s Palliser series – favourite reading of a number of British prime ministers – is equally absorbing, with a little more scandal and a lot more duelling. (And with the added bonus that once you’ve read it, you can indulge in all twenty-two hours of Simon Raven’s brilliant BBC adaptation.)

If you like the sound of Trollope, but haven’t the time to begin a whole series, you might turn to Elizabeth Gaskell’s brief but beautifully drawn Cranford. Although slight in length and gently comic in tone, there’s nothing flimsy about Cranford: its initially sheltered but ultimately resilient protagonist Miss Matty is a true heroine for our age, and its subtle exploration of the nature and meaning of community has never been more timely.

Anthony Trollope by Samuel Laurence oil on canvas, circa 1864 NPG 1680 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Novels to Thrill

The so-called ‘sensation’ craze of the 1860s is definitely the place to start if you’re in search of a plot-driven page-turner to keep you reading late into the night. The obvious places to start are Wilkie Collins’s two best-known novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, which T.S. Eliot called ‘the first and greatest of English detective novels’. Both deserve their fame and have retained their power to thrill – but my favourite Collins is actually one of his later mysteries, The Law and the Lady, which stars an enterprising lady detective on a quest to clear her husband’s name following a ‘not proven’ verdict in a Scottish murder trial.

If you prefer your murder mysteries with a side of domestic melodrama, then I recommend Ellen (‘Mrs Henry’) Wood’s bestselling East Lynne. Supposedly, the future Edward VII – then the wayward Prince of Wales – caused his tutors to despair by reading this during his grand tour of the Holy Land instead of focusing his mind on weightier tomes, and once you’ve started, you may sympathise with his unwillingness to turn to theology instead. The plot is as far-fetched as that of any soap opera, involving murder, bigamy, elopement, and an estranged wife returning from the dead, all served up with lashings of sentiment and theatrical panache. (It went on to be successfully adapted for stage and silent screen, and you can see why.)

For those who like their crime novels to be both more gruesome and more outrageous, William Harrison Ainsworth Jack Sheppard – often cited as an inspiration for Oliver Twist – offers innumerable (and increasingly spectacular) escapes from Newgate, a series of daring and impressive heists, and a plot of escalating improbability. In its day, it was accused of corrupting the morals of the young; now, it just seems a thoroughly good read.

Wilkie Collins by Adriano Cecioni watercolour, published in Vanity Fair 3 February 1872 NPG 2703 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Novels to Amuse

If you’re looking for a novel to make you laugh, you can’t do better than turn to the work of ‘the inimitable’ himself: Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (which just squeaks into the Victorian era, first published in book form in 1837) is bound to make you chuckle. Mr Pickwick’s itinerant adventures, which take him all over the country by stage coach in the company of his irrepressible cockney servant Sam Weller, provide a welcome antidote to the enforced immobility of the current lockdown.

The same comic exuberance animates other early novels such as Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit, while my personal favourite, David Copperfield, offers some of the great comic set-pieces of nineteenth-century literature, with Betsy Trotwood’s campaign to keep donkeys off the green a particular highlight.

Trinity’s own William Makepeace Thackeray also offers rich comic pickings, from the wickedly cynical The Luck of Barry Lyndon to his masterly social comedy, Vanity Fair, which takes its readers from the heights of London society to the battlefield of Waterloo and the disreputable gaming houses of German spa towns as it follows the progress of its enterprising anti-heroine, Becky Sharpe.

For sheer laugh-out-loud silliness, however, I recommend the late Victorian Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome’s wonderfully ridiculous account of three friends getting up to very little, to great comic effect, as they holiday on the Thames. Neither Hampton Court Maze, nor wheels of cheese, will ever seem the same again.

William Makepeace Thackeray by William Lockhart Bogle © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

Novels to Make Time For

Even an enthusiast has to admit that the length of some Victorian novels are an obstacle for modern readers, who do not encounter them serially. The quieter evenings many of us are now facing, however, might offer an opportunity to tackle something brilliant but lengthy – perhaps Dickens’s Little Dorrit, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady – or to explore the work of an intimidatingly prolific and unjustly neglected author like Margaret Oliphant. Her wonderful comic series, the Carlingford Chronicles, is a great place to start, whether you plump for the sparkling comedy Miss Marjoribanks or the more sensational Salem Chapel.

Charlotte M. Yonge, similarly, deserves a wider readership; her bestselling The Heir of Redclyffe was said to be the favourite reading of soldiers during the Crimean War, and while she is best known now for her more domestic ‘family chronicles’, her swashbuckling romances, which combine high-minded idealism with shipwrecks, house fires, and heroic rescues, might be just the thing for a rainy Sunday afternoon indoors.

Charlotte Mary Yonge by George Richmond, watercolour and chalk, 1844, NPG 2193, © National Portrait Gallery, London

One thing that unites many of the authors mentioned here is their shared passion for Walter Scott, who was cited by most of them as their favourite author. I’ve never quite managed to make time to investigate why this was – but now seems the perfect opportunity to get the first of the Waverley novels down off the shelf, and find out.

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