Last semester I took Digital Humanities with Dr. Schacht and learned so much that I decided to take another class with him this semester. He always chooses such enjoyable readings and formats the class so we all learn from each other. The weekly research he has different groups do really does a great job of giving some background information on the pieces we are reading. Overall, the most interesting thing I learned about Victorian literature this semester was the class structure in Wuthering Heights. It was so interesting I decided to write my research paper on this subject! It gave me a good sense of why the characters were acting in such a manner and the reason for their actions. The difference in class structure helped explain why the characters were so selfish and aided me in understanding the novel better.
Anti-Semitism had been seen as a disease passed down from generation to generation through the medium of printed word. Some common misconceptions of Jews over the years are that they’re greedy, communists, dirty and poor, and unable to be trusted. The English imagination seemed unable to free itself of Shakespeare’s text ridiculing Jews. In fact, Charles Dickens portrayed his character Fagin in Oliver Twist as “devilish” and referred to him as “the Jew” 257 times, while other character’s ethnicity was rarely mentioned. It was hard to find a piece of literature that positively represented the Jewish population. Luckily, Dickens was criticized for this portrayal of Jews and halted the printing of Oliver Twist to make more edits. He changed a part of the book and after chapter 38, there were no longer references to “the Jew”. Dickens later published the novel Our Mutual Friend in 1864 that appeared as he was trying to repair his past mistake by portraying the Jewish character Riah as the pinnacle of virtue, despite him still being a stereotypical Jewish moneylender. According to Linda Hunt in “Amy Levy and the “Jewish Novel”: Representing Jewish Life in the Victorian Period”, in her 1886 article “The Jew in Fiction”, Amy Levy was critical of the novelists portrayal of Jewish characters such as Dickens’ Fagin or LL. Clifford’s Mrs. Keith’s Crime where they are “offensive” and “condescending” depicting them as minor characters only used for comic relief. Levy also criticizes George Eliot’s “Jewish novel”, Daniel Deonda. Eliot’s book was at the time viewed as a model of how to treat Jewish people in fiction. Reuben Sachs then satirizes the idealized depiction of Jews in Eliot’s book. Indeed, the Victorian Era didn’t make Jews the protagonists in literature, but it did help advance their status and representation in literature.
Although prejudice still ran rampant, the Victorian Era saw a lot of legal strides made for Jewish people, specifically men. In fact, the Jewish population grew by 165,000 people over the course of the 19th century which shows how the Victorian Era aided in changing the environment. Right at the beginning of the Victorian Era in 1935, Jews received the right to vote. Moses Haim Montefiore was a British banker, philanthropist, and activist. He became the second Jewish Sheriff of London and was then knighted by Queen Victoria herself in 1837. He was born to an Itlaian-Jewish family and promoted the advancement of Jews in England through charity work. In addition, Sir David Salomons and Lionel Nathan de Rothschild represented the Jewish population in England during the Victorian Era. Sir David Salomons was the first Jewish Mayor of London, elected in 1855. He supported the cause of Jewish emancipation in England and was the first Jewish Sheriff of London. On the other hand, Lionel Nathan de Rothschild was the first practicing Jewish member to sit in Parliament, which is a big deal. Although this was such a be progression, Prime Minister Gladstone requested from Queen Victoria that he be made a peer and she refused saying that giving a title to a Jew would raise antagonism. The Victorian Era certainly did not solve antisemitism, but it increased the amount of representation, both in literature and in government, for the Jewish population and made England a slightly better place for them to live.
After reading the assigned chapters for this week, I thought it was very fitting for it being around Halloween. When I first started reading Chapter 40, it reminded me of Wuthering Heights. When Pip trips over the shadowy man crouching on the staircase it made me think of Lockwood being awoken by Catherine ghost. It seems to be a reoccurring theme in Victorian Literature that they believed in the afterlife and supernatural creatures. I’ve always been very interested in this subject and I find it even more interesting that this time period focused on ghost and scary stories. I’d be interested in learning more about this subject.
After reading chapters 20-29 of Great Expectations this week, it reminded me of our class discussions and research on England during this time period. The short poems England in 1819 and The Chimney Sweeper and Wuthering Heights gave us insight on the setting of house and work life during the Victorian Era. Cities were over crowded and diseases were spreading like wild fire. Dickens talks about how displeased Pip was when Jaggers takes him to London because of the stench and crowds. He mentions “an exceedingly dirty and partially drunk minister of justiceI” and says “this was horrible, and gave me a sickening idea of London”. I have a hard enough time visiting New York City in today’s age, I can’t imagine what it was like at this time.
After researching health in Victorian England last week, I thought it was very interesting to now read about Charles Darwin and Natural Selection. He starts this text off by saying “We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence.” He was right; it was very hard to live a healthy lifestyle during this time period. Natural Selection is all about adapting to your environment to survive and reproduce, but that was so difficult under these harsh conditions. As we learned, the urban areas tended to be worse due to the people being lower class. They couldn’t afford proper drainage systems so the towns would flood and lead to mold and fungi growth. In addition, the sewer water would often get mixed with the drinking water which caused a number of diseases such as Cholera. As a result, the poorer neighborhoods were more susceptible to disease and they died off faster than people with more money. We saw this in Wuthering Heights when most of the characters died during the plot of the story and the oldest person was only 39. As time went on, we gained more knowledge and technology that has helped us fight off these diseases, but during the Victorian era this is how Natural Selection worked.
After reading the first half of Wuthering Heights, I came to realize that it was very gloomy and mysterious. The first couples chapters are kind of confusing and there are many different odd characters that the readers have to get to know. It has a somewhat depressing beginning with Mr. Earnshaw and Catherine dying. Usually authors wait until further in the story to kill off characters, but Bronte decides to put them in the first few chapters. Then Bronte adds in the mystery when Lockwood sees the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw. At first, I didn’t get the sense that it was going to be a book on mystery so I was sort of surprised when I read that in Chapter 3. Finally, the first half of the novel ended with doom and despair with Heathcliff’s gradual descent into evil.
Although the first half of Wuthering Heights had a rough start, the second half does seem to turn a corner. Bronte spends most of it supplying chronological information and laying out the differences between the two generations. However, the novel as a whole is starting to end on a note of hope, peace, and joy, with young Catherine’s proposed marriage to Hareton. This aspect of the novel reminds me of Carlyle’s The Everlasting No. In this book, Carlyle states “Man is, properly speaking, based upon Hope, he has no other possession but Hope; this world of his is emphatically the Place of Hope.” Yes, most of the characters seem to have constant conflict in the beginning of the novel and even into the second half, they seem to still be holding onto hope, especially Catherine. After all she has been through, she is still able to stay headstrong, hold onto the possession of hope like Carlyle said, and have a happy ending.
After reading Wuthering Heights, I noticed a theme of social class. The Earnshaws and the Lindons were apart of the gentry, or the upper middle class. Because people in this group have no titles, their status is subject to change. We see this when Catherine talks about marrying Edgar so she will be “the greatest woman in the neighborhood”. Another example of this theme is how Heathcliff goes from being homeless to getting adopted and becoming a gentleman in “dress and manners”. This idea of status in the working world reminded me of the short poem we read earlier for class “The Chimney Sweeper”. In this poem, it discussed children becoming chimney sweepers to help support their families. Although they had to work hard for every penny they made, they were expected to put a smile on their faces and make the best of their situation. This can be compared to Catherine trying to make a better world for herself by marrying and moving up in status or Heathcliff moving up a social class by getting adopted. I’m interested to read further and uncover more details to support this theme of social class.
After reading Ada Lovelace’s letters and Harriet Martineau’s Society in America, it got me thinking about what we have read in John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus-The Everlasting No. Lovelace describes in her letters her ambition to further her studies in math and science. At this time, it was unheard of for most men to be literate and be educated, so the fact that she was able to study these subjects and write letters in order to gain more information was astounding. On the other hand, Martineau talks about how controlling the government was over women during this time period and how limited they were in their lives. She states “The interests of women who have fathers and husbands can never be identical with theirs”. This proves that women were subordinate to men at this time and weren’t taken seriously. In Mill”s Autobiography, he talks about the grief and difficulty he experienced in his life. Back then, it was rare to discuss this sort of mental health self awareness. On the contrary, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus resembles the opposite and more positive side of mental health where he explains how man “has no other possession but Hope”. I’m wondering how women coped with this inequality at the time. Were they used to their role in society and therefore became complacent? Or did they fight back like Lovelace and Martineau by educating themselves and hoping for a better future for women?
To be completely honest, I know absolutely nothing about the Victorian era or the literature that comes along with it. This course fit into my schedule, fulfills one of my English requirements, and I enjoyed my English course last semester with Dr. Schacht, so here I am. On that note, I have high expectations for this course because I can only go up from here when it comes to my knowledge on this subject.
When Dr. Schacht asked us to share our favorite piece of literature from the Victorian era in class, nothing came to mind because I’m not even sure what makes a piece of literature Victorian. However, when the other people in the class started mentioning different works I did recognize a few such as Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, and Charles Dickens. Overall, I’m looking forward to learning about this time period as a whole because I’ve never taken a course that focuses on this subject alone. What makes this time period so unique and why is it beneficial for me to learn? Since my major and passion is education, I’m also excited to make connections between education during the Victorian age and what I’m learning in my classes about education today.