Want to know how to navigate the Victorian Web? Click here.
This overview of the Victorian short story was originally created for English 3412 (Victorian Fiction), Lakehead University, January through May 2004.
Introduction to the Genre: Short Story and Novella.
There have always been "stories," of course; examples of short fiction — simple, straightforward narratives in prose or verse —are to be found in the folktales, ballads, fables, myths and legends of all nations and cultures. At first they were circulated and passed on as part of an oral tradition; later they were written down, and with the advent of printing in the fifteenth century, published and sold. [Pickering and Durham 1]
Although the displacement of oral forms by written occurred over several centuries in Europe, even late in nineteenth century published tales, sketches, legends, parables, and anecdotes continued to evidence the traces of spoken as opposed to written narrative, the most obvious of these oral residues being the persona of the tale-teller and his or her tendency to use vernacular expressions and a digressive method of recounting the events of the story. Lacking a traditional sense of the art and culture fostered by the aristocratic patron since the Middle Ages, the rising eighteenth-century middle class, buoyed up by capitalism and commerce, required entertainment to fill its leisure hours, but failed to find a satisfactory image of itself in contemporary drama and poetry, and so turned instead to prose fiction. As a distinct form some may argue that the short story in the form of the folk tale (as in Perrault's Histoires ou Contes du temps passé ) appears to be as the Old Testament and that in the form of the framed tale it was a medium of popular communication by the time of Boccaccio (The Decameron) and Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales) in the late Middle Ages, the perspective of Harmon and Holman in A Handbook of Literature (2000) is commonly accepted: although writers as late as Denis Diderot in France and Addison and Steele in England of the eighteenth century were making important contributions to the development of the short story in contemporary prose (as opposed to exempla, fabliaux, fables, informal essays, and narrative verse), the short story written in prose, generally for periodical publication, as a distinct literary genre emerged at the close of the eighteenth century. "It may be distinguished from the SKETCH and the TALE in that it has a definite formal development, a firmness in construction" (Harmon and Holman 481). Wendell V. Harris (1979) notes that the term "tale," so widely used in the nineteenth-century, often denoted an unsentimental narrative modeled on the orally-delivered, cautionary story, and was therefore a
part of the traditional lore of some culture [such as that of Hardy's Wessex], or was taken from historical events, or dealt in the supernatural and improbable, or was intended to make some serious point. 
Abrams defines the short story in terms of artistic unity, the "revelatory" possibilities of a single incident in the protagonist's life, and economy or "spareness":
. . . by and large, the short story writer introduces a very limited number of persons, cannot afford the space for the leisurely analysis and sustained development of character, and cannot undertake to develop as dense and detailed a social milieu as does the novelist. The author often begins the story close to, or even on the verge of, the climax, minimizes both prior exposition and the details of the setting, keeps the complications down, and clears up the denouement quickly — sometimes in a few sentences. 
Most critics note that a number of writers almost simultaneously "invented" the short story genre out of a number of recurring types, including "the character-sketch of a representative person (often satirically embellished); the Oriental tale, frequently allegorical" (Orel 1) and modelled on the fabulous narratives of The Arabian Nights (first translated into English in 1704); and anecdotes either humorous or shocking:
In the nineteenth century came Scott [whom Abrams credits with originating the form in England], Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, Mérimeé and Balzac, Gautier and Musset, Maupassant, Checkhov, and T. E. Hoffman. With these writers the short story as a distinct genre came into being. Some of these writers consciously formulated the short story as an art form. 
Foremost among these was the American Edgar Allen Poe, who in his "Preface" to Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842) emphasized that, far from being a "hack" who filled columns of white space in cheap periodicals with agreeable reading-matter when advertising or factual reportage fell short, the short story writer was a conscious artist striving through selectivity and "deliberate care" for a single "preconceived effect": "In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design" (cited in Laurence Perrine, Story and Structure, 269). Poe's own short stories show evidence of his critical paradigm, leading towards the surprise-ending story of O. Henry at the close of the nineteenth century. Its first critical theorist, Poe defined the "prose tale" as a narrative that one might be able to read at a single sitting, which suggests a maximum length of 15,000 words. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a "sketch" might be factual or purely fictional; it might be set in the past or present; it might be farcical, historical, realistic, or supernatural; it might be whimsical or edifying; it would always be brief and character-based. Whereas twentieth-century short fiction tends to run between 5,000 and 7,000 words, in the nineteenth century the dividing line between the novella (an extended work of short fiction such as Dickens's A Christmas Carol) and the novel seems to have been about 30,000 words. In the nineteenth-century British magazine that popularized the dominant forms of the short story, Blackwood's, one encounters three types: the humorous-satirical story, the re-told legend, and the ghost story or tale of the supernatural, a narrative of curious events, often with a foreign or colonial setting. For the most part, the authors present their pieces as "sober accounts of actual if unusual happenings" (Harris 28). Because fiction was associated with pleasure rather than intellectual and improving content, the general denial of the fictional nature of a short story was a necessary antidote to the common prejudice against reading fiction. The editors Victorian periodicals for the most part regarded their publications as socially improving, as vehicles for disseminating knowledge about culture, science, history, religion, and politics, so short story writers often attempted to suggest that their stories were reminiscences.
Harold Orel in The Victorian Short Story (1986) contends that in such mass periodicals as the Penny Magazine, the Saturday Magazine, and Chamber's Edinburgh Journal, the thrust was primarily educational, and that short stories were therefore "regarded as a useful (though not an essential) sugaring" (9). He asserts that the finest nineteenth-century British short stories
are astonishingly honest and dry-eyed in their examination of human problems that, all too easily, might have been treated sentimentally, or with condescension. They impress us by their economy of means; in them, the questions of why things happen as they do, and why people behave as they do, remain unanswered. (4)
The leading nineteenth-century British practitioners of what is now usually regarded as an American genre were William Carleton, Sheridan Le Fanu, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, R. L. Stevenson, Kipling, Conrad, Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells, although writers as distinguished as Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë, W. M. Thackeray, and George Eliot wrote compelling works of short fiction. H. E. Bates in The Modern Short Story, A Critical Survey (1942), however, feels that until the last quarter of the nineteenth century the genre languished in Great Britain, even while it flourished in America, because "no single writer applied to it a technique different from that of the novel" (23).
Dickens as a Writer of Short Fiction
In The Short Story in English (1981), the redoubtable Walter Allen praises the considerable volume of short fiction that Dickens produced as editor of the periodicals Bentley's Miscellany (1837-9), Household Words (1850-9), and All the Year Round (1859 until Dickens's death in 1870), as well as The Christmas Books (1843-8) as being "much less well known than they deserve to be" (12). However, Allen finds most of this productions to be unlike modern short stories in that they do not, like the short stories of Joyce and Mansfield, for example, focus on a moment of epiphany; rather, Allen describes the bulk of Dickens's short fiction as belonging to an older tradition that sets out "to startle and astonish." The fictions in Sketches by Boz. Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People (1836, 1837), contends Allen, come closest to the modern conception of the short story because the impressions of London characters they convey are artistic rather than merely documentary, and because they are studies of temperament rather than merely anecdotal.
In Dickens and the Short Story (1982), Deborah A. Thomas focuses on Dickens's short fiction, including The Christmas Books, as a distinct body of work in which the Victorian era's leading writer consistently provided —à la Edgar Allen Poe in The Southern Literary Messenger —"studies of the mentally abnormal" in works of short fiction generally published in his own periodicals, Household Words and All the Year Round. Although Dickens's penchant for outrageous farce on the one hand (as in "The Tuggses at Ramsgate") and spine-chilling melodrama on the other (as in "The Haunted Signalman") may be regarded as a tendency to explore abnormal or disturbed mental states, his framed tales such as the multi-voiced The Wreck of The Golden Mary (Christmas 1856 in Household Words) and his experimental novellas such as A Holiday Romance (Our Young Folks, January through May 1868) must be pulled and tugged considerably if they are to fit on Thomas's psychological, procrustean paradigm of "the mentally abnormal." Dickens himself spoke of his "somethings for Christmas" as explorations of "the romantic side of familiar things." In short fiction, he preferred works that appealed to fancy (imagination) through originality: "something more is wanted in such a Narrative, than its literal truth" ("To Rev. Edward Tagart," Letters VI: 177).
In The Victorian Short Story (1986), Orel reminds us that Dickens himself tended to undervalue his works of short fiction, regarding (for example) the seventeen tales in Sketches by Boz as "'little pictures of life and manners as they really are'; they were an 'experiment' at best" (59), trial-balloons for ideas he would develop at greater length and with surer artistry in his monthly-serialised novels.
His short stories, though they would have sufficed for lesser talents, were evidently by-products and on occasions only filler materials, as in Bentley's Miscellany. Dickens did not regard them as embryonic novels; what he set out to accomplish in each case, he usually achieved. The space allowed him permitted neither rounded characterization nor complicated plotting. (64)
Ruth Glancy, on the other hand, in "Dickens and Christmas: His Framed-Tale Themes" (1980) postulates that Dickens respected and valued the form of the short story, and that he felt that effective short fiction depends upon "a cohesive relationship among narrator, tale, and audience" (55). Finally, Michael Slater finds that the unifying feature of the five novellas collectively known as The Christmas Books (1843-1848) is Dickens's concern for beneficial effect of memory on the development of the individual's moral life. As a distinct aspect of Dickens's artistic output, his works of short fiction are connected by the motifs of jails and imprisonment, debts and obligations, class-consciousness, social pretentiousness, the reintegration of the socially aberrant individual, and the necessity of learning from experience.
Wilkie Collins: The King of Sensation
Although Edgar Allen Poe is often regarded as the originator of the detective story with "Murders in the Rue Morgue," Collins was the creator of the mystery novel, and wrote numerous shorter works about crime, detection, mystery, and the supernatural. The macabre tale "A Terribly Strange Bed" (1852, Household Words) Collins first displayed his talent for arousing suspense and excitement and for creating engaging personas with which to tell his tales, as well as his penchant for character-comedy and satire.
Thomas Hardy: "The Narrator Who Simulates a Spoken Story in Print" (Cassis 287)
Like many of the best short stories of the Victorian era, those of Thomas Hardy first appeared in various periodicals before being collected in volume form. Although he realized early on in his career as a writer that serialised novels rather than short stories were money-makers, he remained fond of short fiction because "it was sufficiently baggy to accommodate almost any kind of complication" (Orel 97). Belonging to the older, 'oral' tradition of the genre, Hardy's short stories usually have some basis in historical fact, and present themselves as reminiscences. Hardy's subtitling the first edition of Wessex Tales as "Strange, Lively, and Commonplace" gives the author's interpretation of the range of subject-matter in his short stories, which often hinge on the bizarre, the ironic, and the coincidental. Wendall V. Harris in "English Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century" (1968) feels that in design Hardy's short stories are somewhat unsophisticated and that, despite their enjoyable picturesqueness and local colour, they fall short of the modern standard "because they were directed toward no central effect or theme" (47). Hardy likened himself as a tale-teller to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, and therefore considered that the essential ingredients of a short story were what Alexander Fischler terms the ordinary and the uncommon: "A work must be sufficiently rooted in the ordinary to give the sense of reality, yet incorporate enough of the unusual to attract the interest of the reader and imply unique significance for unexceptional details" (435). The uncommonness must lie in the nature of the events and the culminating incident, the ordinariness in the natures of the characters. Wrote Hardy under the guise of his second wife, Florence: "the writer's art lies in shaping that uncommonness while disguising its unlikelihood, if it be unlikely" (194). In 1886, he stated: "It is not improbabilities of incident but improbabilities of character that matter" (231). Unfortunately, to convince the reader of the historicity of the story he often indulged in cumbersome explanations regarding provenance and lengthy descriptions designed to provide verisimilitude.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 5th edn. Chicago and Philadelphia: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988.
Allen, Walter. The English Novel: A Short Critical History. New York: Dutton, 1954.
_____. The Short Story in English. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.
Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Bates, H. E. The Modern Short Story, A Critical Survey. London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1941.
Beachcroft, Thomas O. The English Short Story. London: Longman's Green, 1964.
_____. The Modest Art: A Survey of the Short Story in English. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Cassis, A. F. "A Note on the Structure of Hardy's Short Stories." Colby Library Quarterly 10 (1974): 287-296.
Current-Garcia, Eugene. The American Short Story Before 1850: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
Fischler, Alexander. "Theatrical Techniques in Thomas Hardy's Short Stories." Studies in Short Fiction III, 4 (Summer 1966): 435-445.
Glancy, Ruth."Dickens and Christmas: His Framed-Tale Themes." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (1980): 53-72.
—. Dickens's Christmas Books, Christmas Stories, and Other Short Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography. New York and London: Garland, 1985.
Hardy, Florence E. The Early Life of Thomas Hardy. London: Macmillan, 1928.
Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Harris, Wendall V. "English Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century, III. The Rise of the Short Story in England. . . . ." Studies in Short Fiction VI, 1 (Fall 1968): 47-49.
_____."Beginnings of the True Short Story in England." English Literature in Transition 15 (1972): 269-276.
_____. British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary and Bibliographic Guide. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979.
O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1963.
Orel, Harold. The Victorian Short Story: Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Pickering, James H., and Lonnie Durham. Reader's Guide to the Short Story to accompany Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Stories. New York: Macmillan, 1988.
Slater, Michael. "Introduction." The Christmas Books. 2 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971. I: vii-xxv.
Storey, Graham, and Kathleen Tillotson, eds. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Pilgrim edn. Vol. 6 (1850-1852). Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.
Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and the Short Story. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
Some Web-Based Resources Listed by Writer —Wilkie Collins:
William Wilkie Collins." http://www.qub.ac.uk/english/imperial/india/wilkie-background.htm
"Wilkie Collins's 'A Terribly Strange Bed' (1852): Reading Questions." http:www.victorianweb.org/authors/collins/pva271.html
"The Wilkie Collins Pages." http://www.deadline.demon.co.uk/wilkie/wilkie.htm#MENU
"The Works of Wilkie Collins." http:www.victorianweb.org/authors/collins/works1.html
"Works and E-Texts." http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/Collins.html#Works
Some Web-Based Resources Listed by Writer —Charles Dickens:
"An Overview of Dickens's Short Fiction, 1833-1868." http:www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/2.html
"A Critical Analysis of Dickens's Short Fiction." http:www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/3.html
"Dickens' Aesthetic of the Short Story." http:www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/4.html
"A Comprehensive List of Dickens's Short Fiction, 1833-1868." http:www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/5.html
"Talking to Charles Dickens." http://www.talkingto.co.uk/ttcd/html/ttcd_answ_scat.asp?CatID=216&AuthorID=5
Some Web-Based Resources Listed by Writer —Thomas Hardy:
"A Chronology of Thomas Hardy's Collected Short Stories." Martin Ray. http://www.abdn.ac.uk/english/chronol.htm
"Thomas Hardy's 'The Three Strangers' (1883): Reading Questions." http:www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/pva56.html
"Magazines Featuring both Hardy Serialised Novels and Short Stories." http:www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/pva55.html
"The Textual History of Thomas Hardy's 'The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion' (1888)." http:www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/pva268.html
"Thomas Hardy's 'The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion' (1888): Reading Questions." http:www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/pva269.html"Thomas Hardy and the Victorian Short Story." Thomas Valeo, Jr. http://www.gettysburg.edu/academics/english/hardy/shortfiction/shortstory.html
"Two Victorian Tales." http://www.ray-sargent.net/two_victorian_tales.html
"Victorian Short Story Bibliography." http://twist.lib.uiowa.edu/viclit/shortstorybib.htm
"Nineteenth-Century Chronology." http://twist.lib.uiowa.edu/victwom/timeline.html
Last modified 24 October 2003