These questions were originally created for English 394: The Victorian Novel from Dickens to Hardy, at the University of British Columbia, Summer Session Two, 1989. They have been augmented with pertinent excerpts from Tillotson's seminal criticism of the early Victorian novel for English 3412 (Victorian Fiction), Lakehead University, January through May 2004. For additional questions click on the "Contexts" icon at the foot of the screen.

Left: Portrait of Charlotte Bronte. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The general emphasis upon novels rather than novelists will have the perhaps surprising effect of making us more closely resemble the novels' first readers. Although they might hope to "see Dickens plain" at York Gate, or Brighton, or Broadstairs, they really knew much less about his life than we do. When David Copperfield came out, its autobiographical references were only vaguely guessed; and often guessed amiss; it was thought, for instance, that the writer might be a native of Yarmouth. 1 Mary Barton was not only a first novel but was published anonymously; there was the initial interest of guessing the author's sex. Most readers scarcely knew Thackeray's name when they met it on the cover of Vanity Fair. Nor had they any idea who were Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell — men or women, one or three." Again this did not restrain them from wild guesses; the rumour ran that Jane Eyre was the work of a discarded mistress of Thackeray's. 2

On the other hand, in order to confront these novels with the eyes of the eighteen-forties, as well as our own, we need more equipment than ignorance about the lives of the novelists. It will be necessary first to consider such matters as the status of the novel at this time; the relation of author and public, especially as seen in certain methods of publication; the areas of exploration allowed and forbidden to the novelists.


1 Fraser's (December 1850), p. 704. There is, however, a biographical notice in Charles Knight's Cyclopedia of Biography (6 vols., 1858), and perhaps earlier ones.

2 "Letter of Jane Carlyle to Thomas Carlyle, 14 January 1848" (first printed in L. and E. Hanson, Necessary Evil (1952), p. 360). This is the earliest record of a persistent rumour; see also Thackeray, Letters, ii, 441, 697.

Question Two

How does Tillotson go about creating the "effect of making us more closely resemble the novels' first readers" (pages 11-12)?


Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen-Forties. Oxford: Clarendon, 1955, rpt. 1983.

Created 25 December 2004

Last modified 20 January 2024