VICTORIAN LITERATURENEXTIn a NutshellIt was the best of times for the serialized novel; it was the worst of times forsatire. Yep, that's the Victorian era for you. Named for a spiffy royal lady (youguessed it: Queen Victoria), this period lasted sixty-four years—not too longin the grand scheme of things, but that didn't stop writers from taking theirsweet ol' time. RememberA Tale of Two Cities? Yeah, that wasDickensat hismost concise.Satirewasn't exactly thriving in an age that prized all things bright-eyed andbushy-tailed. In fact, if you were to slap a label on the Victorian personality, itmight just be "earnest." Victorian writers are laced with earnestness, evenwhen they're making fun of it. So when Oscar Wilde took aim at Victorianmanners, he included a character named Ernest, and a gal whowillonlymarry a man named Ernest—andtitled the whole thingTheImportance of Being Earnest).Why was it important to be earnest? Well, being earnest meant you wereprobably trying to be a good person: thoughtful, moral, self-improving, andall around too-good-to-be-true. Today we're pretty skeptical about anyonewho seems too perfect (politicians, anyone?), but Victorians hadhonest-to-goodness heroes. Even everyday people could aspire to act like true ladiesand gentlemen. The age saw a whole slew of guidebooks for manners,household management, and self-improvement.Victorians didn't let their kids off the hook, either. What Victorianschoolchilddidn'trecite "How doth the little busy Bee / Improve each shiningHour?" (It's no wonderLewis Carrollwould parody it inAlice inWonderlandwith "How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail.")From thedidacticnovel to magazines that claimed to be wholesome for thewhole family, the Victorians found ways to improve every shining minute.Children could learn to behave better, adults could improve their knowledgeand morality, the nation could keep growing, trains could run even faster—you get the idea.The 19th century was also the age of good humor and joviality. After all, whatDickens novel is really complete without aChristmas party and some punch?This is totally a case of art imitating life: some Victorian parties are sofamous that they have their ownencyclopedia entries. Queen Victoria hadboth a Goldenanda Diamond "Jubilee" to celebrate her extended reign. And
when Prince Albert (her husband) wanted to showcase the nation's industry,he came up with what was basically an earlyWorld's Fair. He even hadtheCrystal Palacebuilt just to house it.If Victorian lit had a motto, it might well be "work hard, play hard"—whichmight explain all those 800-page novels: all that work for all that fun.Why Should I Care?The story goes that Victorians were so prudish they even covered piano legswith little pantalettes. Even saying the word "leg" at all was sometimesconsidered scandalous.