Resilient Heroines of Victorian Literature

As I reflect on all of the texts that we explored this semester, it is safe to say that my initial admiration for Victorian literature stands strong as ever. Throughout the course of the semester, I was particularly drawn to the abundance of connections that existed between George Eliot’s essay on “Women in the Nineteenth Century,” Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charles Dickens Great Expectations, and Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs. While I was specifically interested in learning more about the various criticisms of gender roles that existed during the Victorian period, I think the weekly research assignments really enabled our class to unpack the various texts that we read and offered a multitude of perspectives that inevitably influenced and challenged my overall reading experience. It was in these research assignments that I learned more about Emily Bronte’s religious upbringing, Victorian conventions for women in the domestic sphere, the bleak consequences of industrialisation, and anti-semitic values that were present in Britian in the nineteenth century.

While I will admit that I enjoyed reading Wuthering Heights the most, I was surprised and oftentimes intrigued by the parallels between Bronte’s Catherine Earnshaw and Dickens’ Estella. I quickly realised that reading these novels side by side, further developed my understanding of the limited space and agency women were afforded in patriarchal societies.  At certain points in our discussions on the domestic spheres, I even found myself thinking of Jane Austen and her social criticisms in the eighteenth century, which was evidently relevant in the texts that we looked at in class. Overall, I suppose it’s safe to say that the most interesting thing I learned this semester was that the women in Victorian fiction, in my opinion, continue to be among the most resilient and calculating heroines I have encountered in literature thus far. While this may be due to their sheer defiance of Victorian conventions and passionate dispositions, I thoroughly and wholeheartedly enjoyed reading and learning about the experiences of women in the nineteenth century. 

What I enjoyed and learned about Victorian Literature

Since I am fairly new to the English major, before taking this class I had only ever taken one other English class; New Zealand Literature. Initially I was a little nervous that I would feel out of place in a 300 level English class but as the semester went on I realized I belonged in this class and I made the right decision to become an English major. I have always been interested in Victorian literature, especially reading texts whose story lines take place during the Victorian era so I knew I would enjoy reading various texts written by Victorian authors. I think the best part of the semester for me was reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I had never read this novel before and once I started reading, I simply couldn’t put it down. I especially enjoyed our classroom discussions about the novel and dissecting the various relationships and themes. I also think having groups really helped facilitate classroom discussion and allowed for groups of people to think things through and question what we have read before sharing our findings with the rest of the class. Another think I really liked about this class was that it was mostly classroom driven. Coming to class, I knew that we (the students) would be able to lead the discussion and be able to ask questions about the given text and hear the thoughts and feedback from others. I prefer this type of classroom setting over that of a lecture hall. Overall I really enjoyed reading a variety of Victorian Literature written by many different authors. This class was a lot of fun to attend every week and the readings were always interesting!

powerful women

At the beginning of the year, I wondered about the roles women had women in Victorian literature, over the course I have learned a lot about this topic, and I think the most interesting thing I learned was how to view things through multiple perspectives and how to form unique connections. Throughout the material there have been many interesting pieces that introduced me to strong female writers and characters, many I could relate to. Pieces such as Reuben Sachs and Wuthering Heights defy the normal gender roles during the time period. Victorian literature connects the past with the future in the name of exposing the way in which all, even that which seemingly contrasts, is connected. What surprised me was how much women writers used their writing to speak out against the oppression they were facing and worked towards social change. I loved studying women’s stories and the way each writer found a way to insert a strong compelling female character into their work. I was surprised when I learned about the female authors and how they projected themselves. I learned a lot and was pleasantly surprised with the powerful female authors and characters in Victorian literature.

What I’ve Learned

The most interesting thing that I’ve learned about Victorian Literature this semester is how stark the class differences were. When I first joined this class I thought the Victorian Era wasn’t as fiercely divided, Learning about the Chartist movement was one of the first classes that illuminated this divide for me. Another thing that contributed to this understanding for. Me was learning about the scientific and religious perspectives of this time and how the two were often intersectional. For example, upon reading Darwin’s Origin of Species and seeing how. The science behind his evolutionary theories was applied to gender and racial perspectives was very interesting because while it is a subject that was briefly taught in my high school education it wasn’t really delved into.

Most important thing I learned this Semester

One of the most important things I learned this semester was that stories in the Victorian era had a significant amount of political commentary. It was interesting to see views that were very similar to views that we have today, ranging from Dickens’ commentary on poverty to the poems we read. I was also shocked by the similarities between Wuthering Heights, which I had bought a copy of but never got around to reading before this class, and one of my favorite books, Jane Eyre. I learned that all of the writers from this period influenced each other because they came from the same circle with similar world views. Oscar Wilde and Amy Levy, for example, both new each other. It is hard from a modern standpoint to see the way contemporary writers influence each other, but looking to the past, it becomes a lot more apparent. I look forward to reading more books on my own time, and maybe re reading some classics I have already read before, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to see if any of these themes that I learned in class are seen in his book as well, especially after reading Wuthering Heights and seeing the way Heathcliff was described as a vampire. I wonder how many similarities there are between Bronte and Stoker’s descriptions and the world that they set up.

Most interesting thing I’ve learned

What a question! So much.

I feel like I have learned so many interesting things. I think Prof Schacht did a great job in selecting the texts for this semester. It made for interesting reads as we could tie connections and themes across different readings which is what English is all about, making a connection to something, developing that thought, and raising questions as well as sharing insight on that thought. Through the research every group was required to do every once in a while, I learned much about things in history during the Victorian Era which was probably the most interesting part to me. Being able to connect authors works with the history of the time period and aspects their personal lives was super cool. The most interesting one that stuck out to me would probably be knowledge about Oscar Wildes trials. Ironically, that was my groups topic which I think adds to why it was so interesting to me, particularly because of all the research and articles we looked through to gain insight on these trials. As it seems he shocked Victorian England with his behaviors throughout the trial, it was interesting to see this unfold in other aspects of readings we’ve done. How conventional attitudes are viewed, challenge, disparaged, yet on the other hand how they are followed and various reactions to these happenings. 

“Like a Bed of Oysters:” The Interconnectivity of Victorian Literature

I’ve always viewed Victorian literature as the space of snobbish literary pedants, what with all the focus on nigh-puritanical cultural inhibitions and cloying romantic dialogue. And no, this class has not completely changed this perception of mine, but it has given me some insight at least into the inner minds of those who wrote during the period. If I had read _Wuthering Heights_ without the proper context of Emily Bronte’s upbringing, I most likely would’ve perceived it as just another one of those ubiquitous-romantic-bildungsromans that make my mind swim and my eyes roll back into my skull (let’s just say that the lengthy passages focusing on the angst suffered by Cathy or Heathcliff or Catherine or were not my cup of tea). I would never have considered it was an analogy for Bronte’s angst about inter-English colonization, or the entrapment caused by religious and social roles. It’s not _just_ about the soap opera-esque romance plot.

Continuing that strain of thought, doing background research for my paper and for the presentation on Thomas Malthus were some of my favorite things to do. Having not known a ton about where capitalism actually came from, I was relatively unaware of the omnipresent Adam Smith, and it was fascinating reading about not only how he started the whole economic ideology, but how Malthus’ own policies grew out of them naturally. Come to think of it, a lot of the historical scenarios discussed in class were deeply imbued in the texts (but I guess that’s just the nature of studying literature; everything is a product of its time). I kept bringing in situations and context from my other class just because it was so fun to see how intertwined and centralized the world was becoming in this period. It’s a class that combined one part History with two parts English, and frankly, I think the context really helped flesh things out moreso than other English classes.

P.S. Lockwood was my favorite character in _Wuthering Heights_. Every passage from his perspective is absolutely hilarious. I think Bronte really nailed the haughty Southern London type, and I was disappointed that the majority of the novel was told from Nelly’s more subdued point of view.

The Finale

I initially came into this semester having no knowledge of Victorian literature- what novels were considered Victorian, defining features, or major authors. I even didn’t know much about the historical context and influences going on during this time. I had read Wuthering Heights in AP Lit senior year of high school, but I hadn’t even been aware of its Victorian roots and classification. So since this scope of literature was so new to me, I found many facets interesting. Particularly, I was especially intrigued by the evolving relationship between class and gender during this time, and how it was presented in literature. In both Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations this relationship was presented in such a way that puts class above gender. I found this interesting because I had always assumed that the relationship, especially during this era, was the other way around. In a society so male-dominated, having characters where women have the upper hand due to their status was enjoyable to read, and see a realistic scope into the past. Along with this, the presentation of emotion in genders was also an intriguing part to read about.

In terms of my favorite part of the semester, I really liked reading Great Expectations! I also enjoyed the structure of the course, and how we split into groups and each had different parts to conquer because we got a very full view on the Victorian era, not just the literature. By having historical context to each piece we were reading, and comments to focus our discussions, I felt I got so much more out of this class than if it was just a lecture with all of us completing the same homework every class. Overall, this class was fun and informative to be apart of!

Above and Beyond

Though I began this semester wondering about the gender roles and norms that women were subject to during the Victorian period, I, inevitably and thoroughly, learned about that topic and many, many other topics in my time in this course. However, despite the sheer variety of Victorian concepts and issues that I learned about, I think that it was through learning about and becoming aware of Victorian literature, and the concepts and issues that contextualized, informed, and inspired it, that I was able to learn something that was much greater than just the sum of these parts. Indeed, my experience in this class has taught me to see connections when their presence is not obvious. Despite the fact that all of the Victorian literature I engaged with this past semester dates well over a hundred years old, I felt that I could relate to some of the sentiments and struggles of the characters housed within the literary works I read. I could readily relate to Catherine’s attachment to her home, Wuthering Heights, and to the blustering, heath-filled moors that contained it. Her desire to see Wuthering Heights manifested as her own personal version of heaven reminded me of the love I have for the natural environment of my home in Long Island. Furthermore, I found myself relating to Pip’s growing pains and especially to his complicated feelings regarding leaving home and attempting to find success out there in the world, away from that which is familiar.

This class also taught me that Victorian literature, aside from transgressing the barriers of time through its ability to reach and relate to me and my own life, cannot be readily defined. Despite having taken a class entitled “Victorian Connexions,” I cannot say that I could decisively and concisely define Victorian literature. For example, while there are elements of Victorian literature that are focused predominantly on spiritual manners there are also many aspects of Victorian literature that are intensely preoccupied with the sciences and with the new scientific knowledge that became available during that time period. Moreover, the two are often found to somehow coexist within the very same piece of literature, sometimes without being completely resolved, as is the case in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam. Several pieces of Victorian literature, such as Wuthering Heights and Reuben Sachs, also seemed to simultaneously uphold and combat the gender roles and norms of which I was initially curious. Additionally, the Victorian period saw the employment of at least three distinct sub-genres: Romanticism, Gothicism, and Realism. These three sub-genres are entirely different from one another yet they do appear at work together in certain works of Victorian literature, for example, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It is thus undeniable that the genre of Victorian literature is enigmatic and multi-faceted. However, I think this is only to be expected, as the Victorian period of literature marked merely a collection of years wherein Queen Victoria ruled and not necessarily a particular style, ideology, or philosophy. Therefore, the period is bound to be filled with a vast array of distinct concerns, literary styles, and trends, that all inspired different authors in a variety of ways such that each author created a product that was unique from all else being generated at the time.

I think these aspects are what is really key to Victorian literature. While Victorian literature cannot be readily defined it certainly lends itself to connection. There is a great deal of connection latent within the tensions that exist between each work of Victorian literature, for each work is different yet simultaneously emblematic of the time period in which it was composed and of the individuals who lived during that time period, at least, in part. Moreover, Victorian literature, despite its age and despite the rigidity of its timespan, can be connected to today, particularly in its ability to communicate certain eternal concepts, particularly, the very concept of connection and how one perceives oneself as connected to others, connected to one’s environment, and connected to history and to the lives that have and are yet to have been lived. Victorian literature, despite its being framed by time, defies this seemingly concrete aspect of its definition in its ability to connect the past with the future in the name of exposing the way in which all, even that which seemingly contrasts, is connected.

Victorian Literature and Emotion

I suppose the most interesting thing I learned about Victorian Literature this semester was just how emotional it can be. I had already read Middlemarch prior, and was touched at the emotion and sentiment risen in that book, but had not assumed it to be typical of Victorian literature. But it turned out to be quite typical. Naturally, my favorite book was Wuthering Heights as it bartered most strongly in this emotion. Emily Bronte was able to write deep and meaningful characters that both spoke to a greater emotional depth, one that retains a certain primitive nature, and to the facade each of us wears to mask or convert our emotions into socially normative behaviors. Charles Dickens too worked in this emotional sphere. Great Expectations fundamentally revolved around the affective power of hope, and he noted both the power of fulfillment and disillusionment in terms of achieving goals (this referring strictly to material goals). I find all this interesting as well, that the Victorian writers played so heavily within emotional works, especially since their age was one of nascent mechanical growth. The streets of London were awash with the poor and the needy, and the air was black with the smog of factories. Yet all of this isn’t to say that the authors we read ignored this, rather they knew the importance of emotional effect in dealing with these issues. Their return to the natural and easily accessible offered the best way to begin to form frameworks for how to understand the change that was sure to come. So then, the most interesting thing I learned about Victorian literature was the power of its powerful emotion and its touchingly refined sentimentality.