Ode to Victorian Literature

Copies of ‘Jane Eyre’ (Photo by Tanya Mardirossian)

Victorian literature has influened popular culture since the era’s end. As a result, we saw a shift in behavior by people living in a civilized society, which has led us to the culture we live with today. While we are more civilized now, the Victorian Era was a time of innovation and science while repression was still afloat. We see Victorian literature constnatly being churned out as films today, remade for modern audiences. If this is a genre, or an era being retold today, still being taught in high school English and history classes, or inspiring current box offices, perhaps there’s a reason for its continual desire for attention.

In 2015, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak was a work of art. The entire set, including the grand Victorian mansion, was handmade with amazing realistic detail, from grand entrances to portraits. Red clay seeps through the crumbling walls of the old “breathing” house, as it symbolizes the rotting of people, particularly the Sharpe family.

The Victorian-inspired film appeared to be a horror film by trailer, but audiences learn watching the film (and as told by the characters) that it’s in fact a gothic romance with ghosts in it. While the detailed set is worth a million words — the 2015 film could be a Victorian novel because of its detail and care — it’s predictable. Why? Because Victorian novels tend to have a generic formula, whether it be a gothic romance, mystery or horror.

Inspired by many books and films, Crimson Peak was the alternate outcome to Jane Eyre. Mia Wasikowska stars in the 2011 Jane Eyre adaptation and in del Toro’s film, which makes the films seem one in the same — only if Rochester’s wife was on the loose rather than hidden in a secret room in Thornfield Hall.

The Victorian formula goes like this: if it’s a mystery, there’s dark imagery and a somewhat frightening plotline about a creature that symbolizes the darkness of mankind (though nothing scares us much now in 2017). Similarly, if it’s a romance, there’s still an aspect of mystery, whether it be a mysterious man whose talent is to capture the heart of women or about the mysteries of families and their money. No matter, there’s always something about its darkness that people find intriguing and arguably more exciting or understandable than a Jane Austen novel or Shakespearean play.

Despite the formulas, Victorian literature and such themed films are still worthy to hold a place in today’s society. Often discredited, 19th century literature was the start of a change in society. Literature gave voice to women, quite literally. Women characters would swiftly speak their mind and earn the respect of the men they were speaking to. In exchange, women authors were also ripping the tape off silenced lips — or identities.

All the while, women were often portrayed as monsters, which also adds to the formula. The Victorian Era educated people of mental illnesses that were still being swept under the rug. A woman with a mental disorder wasn’t labeled insane or wasn’t treated properly, instead, she was of some other nature and kept away in a room until it was her breaking point. It’s sad to look back at it now, but it makes for a great story. Perhaps it’s this element — something we are more educated about now — that makes it a pleasure to indulge in. It’s of another time, another place, something literature is quite good at letting us escape to.

Ultimately, Victorian literature unveiled a new layer of emotion. It was not only an era of darkness and the uprising of women, but of expression, feelings, and enlightenment. Such novels are examples that introduced realism by cultural critique during a transitional period of society. We read about Sherlock Holmes and his use of science to solve mysteries. Literature made it okay to be dark and mysterious, and to empathize with such traits as did Mary Shelley with her creation of a monster. Likewise, it made it okay to empathize with Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego. It made it okay for men and women to encourage feminism, as did Charlotte Brönte with her carefully crafted dialogues between Edward Rochester and Jane Eyre.

The Victorian novel was shaped a long time ago, but there are still elements that linger in today’s society, and that’s why it matters. The Victorian novel allows readers to seek the closeness to the characters and plot by giving readers what they typically expect from a good read, but with the punch of a social or cultural issue. It’s realism within fantasy, which is still the best Victorian formula.

(Some) Good Victorian reads not mentioned in this article:

  1. Dracula
  2. The Mystery of the Yellow Room
  3. Oliver Twist
  4. Far From the Madding Crowd
  5. Jude the Obscure

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