Chesterton: The Victorian Age in Literature

May 30, 2014

The Victorian Age in Literature
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1989) [1913]
118 p.

Chesterton provides an opinionated survey of English literature in the Victorian period (and a bit later), covering the principal writers from John Henry Newman up through G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells. This was a period plump with major figures: Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, Tennyson, Browning, Ruskin, Arnold, Carlyle, Kipling, Wilde, and so on, and it is delightful to read Chesterton’s thoughts on them, which are always generous though not always approving. As is evident from that list of names, he discusses not just writers of fiction, but also poets and critics.

According to Chesterton the Victorian era had made a kind of compromise with the rationalism of the eighteenth century, assenting to its premises but resisting its various implications. He sees many of the principal Victorian writers as engaged in a reaction against this rationalism:

They have succeeded in shaking it, but not in dislodging it from the modern mind. The first of these was the Oxford Movement; a bow that broke when it had let loose the flashing arrow that was Newman. The second reaction was one man; without teachers or pupils — Dickens. The third reaction was a group that tried to create a sort of new romantic Protestantism, to pit against both Reason and Rome—Carlyle, Ruskin, Kingsley, Maurice — perhaps Tennyson.

I do not know enough to judge whether this is a sensible way of framing the discussion, but it at least helps to organize the book. One thing that is early evident is that Chesterton has written the book as a critique and analysis, not as an introduction. Upon its publication an anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement noted that he “writes not for those who wish to know, but for those who know already,” and this is quite true; having myself not read some of the authors he treats, I was, at times, at sea. But this was compensated by the lively good humour of the writing and the pithy judgments that he occasionally lets drop:

[On George Eliot] [The Victorian age] took, I will not say its pleasures, but even its emancipations, sadly. Definitions seem to escape this way and that in the attempt to locate it as an idea. But every one will understand me if I call it George Eliot.

[On Jane Austen] She could keep her head, while all the after women went about looking for their brains.

[On Charles Dickens] The art of Dickens was the most exquisite of arts: it was the art of enjoying everybody.

And so on. The TLS reviewer summed it up well when he wrote that

The book is everywhere immensely alive; and no one will put it down without the sense of having taken a tonic or perhaps having received a series of impertinently administered electric shocks.

The Victorian Age in Literature is not to be counted among Chesterton’s finest works, though if we confine our attention to his works of literary criticism it might rank, on the strength of its ambitious scope, ahead of much that he wrote — though well behind his marvellous book on Dickens.

**

I have been posting occasional excerpts from The Victorian Age in Literature at The Hebdomadal Chesterton; more will appear in the future. The full text is also available.

7 Responses to “Chesterton: The Victorian Age in Literature”

  1. Janet Says:

    Looking forward to reading this soon, but no time now.

    Just don’t want you to think I’ve deserted you–like I apparently have my blog.

    AMDG

  2. cburrell Says:

    I gather that you are busy with the house sale? Believe me, I understand about that. I’ve committed to doing this Chesterton festival, and I can’t even find time to sit down and respond to comments!

    Anyway, don’t worry about the blog. Whenever you have time you can resume it. Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday!

    • Janet Says:

      I actually wrote something on the blog yesterday. The house sale is done, and we are in Louisville visiting my youngest daughter. When I get back, I have to design the brochure for our transitional deacon’s first Mass next Sunday, so I’ll be busy, busy.

      AMDG


  3. If I had continued on the academic literary career I started, I would probably have specialized in the Victorians. They were a fascinating and often frustrating lot. They had figured out, or at least a lot of them had, that the loss of religion to modern civilization was a really big deal, but apart from Newman and a few others never figured out what to do about it.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I agree that it is an especially rich period in English letters.

    I was recently thinking about the roughly 100 years of novel writing between, say, 1800 and 1900 in comparison with the roughly 100 years of filmmaking between, say, 1920 and the present day. It seems to me that the novelists produced more and greater masterpieces than the film directors did during a comparable period: just look at that list of writers in my post, then throw in the great works by the Russians, the Americans, and the French. It is amazing how many great books were written during that time. But when I think about the last century of films, there are hardly a handful that I would consider to be achievements of the same order.

    Now, perhaps an intelligent and well-informed person would disagree with this assessment. Maybe it seems this way to me because of my ignorance of great films — and I have not seen, for instance, the films of Bergman or Bresson, so there could be something to that.

    But assuming there is something to my way of seeing things, I fell to wondering why it might be so. I wonder if it might have to do with the comparative resources required to make a book vs. a film: a film is so much more complex to make and requires so much more money to produce that both commercial pressures and sheer happenstance can cause them to falter. A man, with enough talent and determination, can make a book on his own, but a film needs a chain of talents, and a chain is only as strong as …. well, you know.


  5. Interestingly, your comment about the practical difficulties in the way of making a great film is more or less exactly the same thing a friend of mine said on the subject some forty years ago. It stuck in my mind as one of those things I’d never thought about but which, once brought to my attention, seemed clearly true and significant.

    I think I’d agree with your assessment of film vs. 19th c novel. But what of 19th vs 20th c novels? I’d be hard put to declare either to be decisively better in some absolute sense, with no qualification of that word.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Personally I think more highly of the 19th c. novel than the 20th c. novel. Figures like Austen, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Thackeray loom larger in my imagination than do, say, Joyce, Nabokov, and Waugh. I haven’t put much effort into discerning why I feel that way.

    Comparing books and films to one another is, needless to say, even more a matter of comparing apples and oranges. My remarks were just based on a general impression, which might well say as much about me as about the books/films themselves.


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