The important writing of the Victorian period is to a large extent the product of a double awareness. This was a literature addressed with great immediacy to the needs of the age, to the particular temper of mind which had grown up within a society seeking adjustment to the conditions of modern life. And to the degree that the problems which beset the vvorld of a century ago retain their urgency and still await solution, the ideas of the Victorian writers remain relevant and interesting to the twentieth century. Any enduring literature, however, must transcend topicality; and the critical disesteem into which so much Victorian writing has fallen may be traced to the persistent notion that the literary men of that time oversubscribed to values with which our own time is no longer in sympathy. Yet this view ignores the fact that nearly all the eminent Victorian writers were as often as not at odds with their age, and that in their best work they habitually appealed not to, but against the prevailing mores of that age. The reader who comes to the Victorians without bias must be struck again and again by the underlying tone of unrest which pervades so much that is generally taken as typical of the period. Sooner or later he begins to wonder whether there is any such thing as a representative Victorian writer, or at any rate, whether what makes him representative is not that very quality of intransigeance as a result of which he repudiated his society and sought refuge from the spirit of the times in the better ordered realm of interior consciousness. Since, however, any tendency to exalt indixidual awareness at the expense of conventionally established attitudes ran counter to the concept of he role of the artist which the Victorian age tried to impose on its writers, there resulted a conflict which has been too often ignored but which must be taken into account in reaching any satisfactory evaluation of Victorian literaure. This was a conflict, demonstrable within the work of the writers themselves, between the public conscience of the man of letters who comes forward as the accredited literary spokesman of [ix/x]

Last Modified January 2000