These questions were originally created for English 394: The Victorian Novel from Dickens to Hardy, 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.

The significance of this mass of propaganda novels must be considered later; it is enough at present to mention one extreme, if obscure instance —Mrs. Frewin's anonymous tale of 1849, The Inheritance of Evil, or The Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife's Sister. But this kind of novel is only one among many; within the novel, there is as yet no dominant type, but a surging variety of material and method, new fashions jostling old, new ground broken in time, place, purpose, and social class. The demand for novels was larger than ever before.

Novels [said a writer in Blackwood'] are not objected to as they were; now that every sect in politics and religion have found their efficacy as a means, the form is adopted by all. [1 October 1848, p. 462]]

The general embargo on novel-reading had gone except in a few circles —it was a freedom which was later to forge its own fetters. Looking back from the seventies, Trollope noted that in his youth in the twenties 'the families in which an unrestricted permission was given for the reading of novels were very few, and from many they were altogether banished' [Autobiography, ch. xii. The Saturday Review (24 February 1866) referred to the change as 'wonderful'.] Queen Victoria, we may remember, was allowed to read no novels in her youth except Hannah More's: her first real novel was The Bride of Lammermoor [by Sir Walter Scott]. In 1847 Fraser's said that thirty years earlier

every novel came into the world with a brand upon it. The trail of the Minerva Press was over all . . . . To the largest part of the reading public. . . the novel, like the pole-cat, was known only by name and a reputation for bad odour. [Fraser's (September 1847): 345.]

By the eighteen-forties the change was complete. It was Scott more than any other novelist who had been responsible, and through the breach that he had made rushed Dickens. [Tillotson 15-16]

‘Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity' —a distinction perhaps to be borne in mind rather then enforced (how many day-dreams of writer and reader get into Jane Eyre?). There is something in common in the reader's response to whatever novels he enjoys) on whatever level. Where does the devotee shade off into the addict? We had better admit that in all novel-reading there is an element of indulgence. Hence) partly) the endeavours of many early nineteenth-century parents (and a few at all periods) to ban it entirely) for abstinence is found easier to enforce than temperance. Any lines that are drawn will seem absurd-the prohibition of novel-reading in the mornings) or on Sundays) the allowing of Scott but not Dumas) of three-volume novels from Mudie's but not 'railway novels' from W. H. Smith. Macaulay's father forbade novel-reading to his daughters in the daytime 'except during Tom's holidays') and compared it to 'drinking drams in the morning'.1 The control of novel-reading was as ticklish as the control of sweetmeats.


1 G. O. Trevelyan, Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (1876), ch. i : The classic instance of prohibition in the mid-nineteenth century is that in the home of Edmund Gosse in the fifties; the only fiction he read before the age of eleven was some pages of a sensational novel which he found in the lining of an old trunk. In his later boyhood, when his father had re-married, one or two curious exceptions were made: Michael Scott's Tom Cringle's Log, and the novels of Dickens but not Scott (Father and Son, 1907, chapters ii, ix, x). Gosse's parents were Plymouth Brethren; in other Dissenting circles, the single exception was Uncle Tom's Cabin (Nassau Senior, Essays on Fiction, 1864, p. 436). The situation in Anglican households is reflected in Charlotte Yonge's novels (e.g., Scenes and Characters, 1847 ch. iii; The Young Stepmother, 1856-7, ch. iv; Magnum Bonum, 1879, ch. lx).

'Railway novels' made their appearance in the late forties; one popular series was Routledge's Railway Library, a shilling series of reprinted fiction starting in 1849. W. H. Smith secured a monopoly of the bookstalls on the London and North-Western system in 1851, and by 1862 had covered most of the important railways; his care in selecting books earned him the nicknames of “The North Western Missionary” and “Old Morality” [a pun on Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality] . . . . (Tillotson 18-19)

Question 4. Why did upper- and even middle-class parents in nineteenth-century England attempt to limit or even ban their children's reading of novels? (An example is Macaulay's father, p. 18.) Consider also why "Old Morality" felt it necessary to limit the reading choices of railway passengers.

Created 21 October 2003

Last modified 24 January 2024