When most people think of Gothic, their mind usually goes immediately to the Victorian era. Of course, a book being either set in the Victorian era or published during the era doesn’t automatically make a book Gothic, but this was the time when the genre’s influence could be seen in more mainstream novels and brought us the birth of the penny dreadful – cheap weekly serial stories that were sold for a penny and commonly told stories of detectives, criminals, and the supernatural.
While Gothic books were still read by the general public, their popularity had declined and they had fallen out of favour with critics who started to dismiss them as trash. But who really listens to critics anyway? When we look at Victorian literature that wouldn’t immediately be categorised as Gothic, we can still see the genre’s massive influence and the Victorian era arguably brought some of the most creative Gothic works up to that point in time. Even Charles Dickens was heavily inspired by the Gothic, and its influences can be seen in his realistic works, as well as more spooky works like A Christmas Carol.
Something important I should mention is that the Victorian period was from June 1837 when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, to January 1901 when she died. Any books published before or after these two dates are not Victorian. The era before Victoria’s reign is known as the Georgian era (almost every king from this era was called George while the era directly after is the Edwardian era. So, no, Frankenstein is not a Victorian novel. Please do not call it one because it makes my blood boil when people do.
WHAT MAKES VICTORIAN GOTHIC SPECIAL?
One thing that I find really interesting about the Victorian period is that their interests were so morbid. Queen Victoria’s prince consort Albert died young at only 42 from typhoid fever and she spent the rest of her life in mourning, which then passed onto the rest of the country. If you’re old enough to remember when Princess Diana died, think of how the public reacted then but somehow amplified by a million because Queen Victoria never moved on from being widowed. Another thing to consider is that the Victorian era saw a return of religious and spiritual thinking, after years of more rational thinking that occurred during the Georgian era. Because of these two things, Victorians were obsessed with death. Gothic has always had death and the supernatural as a major theme, but this was a time when this was amplified.
This is a time period where people would post for photographs with dead bodies, coffins were built with bells inside in case someone was buried alive, grave robbing was on the rise, women were expected to be in mourning for at least two years, and towards the end of the era, ouija boards were a popular parlour game. People were really morbid.
Victorians were also pretty prudish. A woman’s ankles were considered scandalous to see and only middle and upper-class women were allowed to show their necks and shoulders. Even centuries-old plays and novels were victim to Victorian standards as they would be edited and censored to be made fit, and this was also a time when homosexuality was illegal. Oscar Wilde was famously imprisoned for his sexuality
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BOOKS?
Even though you don’t have to rake through endless amounts of historical context to really understand a Victorian novel, it does sometimes help to know about the society in which the novel was written.
Take Dracula, for example. This novel was written towards the end of the Victorian era, which was a time of advancements in science, technology, and talk of sexuality was becoming more commonplace. In one of the many readings of the book that I looked out, you could say that Dracula has a lot to say about sexuality. The Count’s seduction of Mina Harker is incredibly predatory and in some places extremely uncomfortable to read about. The same goes for the three brides in this castle. They act more like predators than human women, and reading Harker’s encounter with them almost sounds as if the Count stopped them from sexually assaulting them.
Another thing that can be seen in Dracula, is the advancement of science and technology that was going on at the time, especially in medicine. Lucy is seen been given multiple blood transfusions before her eventual transformation. The first successful transfusion was in the 1840s to treat haemophilia, but by the late 19th century, it was considered extremely risky as numerous patients had died from failed transfusions, just as Lucy does before she comes back as a vampire. Victorian medicine wasn’t exactly up to scratch as the ingredients were often poisonous and counterproductive. They really did need that OTT mourning culture after all.
Another extremely unfortunate part of Victorian society that managed to worm its way into literature is xenophobia. The British Empire had expanded to most of the world by the late 19th century, and because of that many people from the colonies had moved to Britain, and a lot of white British people did not like that. Because it’s not as if their countries hadn’t been invaded by the “civilised” white British or anything like that 🙄 Although most racist hostility would be towards Asians (specifically Chinese) and Africans, it also extended to other Europeans. Like I’d mentioned in my last Gothic post, you could read into Dracula that the Count himself is a manifestation of that xenophobic fear of the times: he’s a wealthy nobleman from Eastern Europe who has come to England so that he has new prey. Hopefully, I’d like to think that Stoker used this to show racist Brits how ridiculous they were being.
WHAT OTHER GOTHIC NOVELS WERE PUBLISHED?
If you haven’t guessed already, I haven’t actually read a whole lot of Victorian Gothic books. Oops. Studying Dracula in the amount of depth that I did at university took up a lot of my time, so most other Gothic books I’ve read and studied were actually Georgian.
But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have physical copies of Victorian novels that I do plan to read. So, here’s a mini list for you (maybe next year I’ll have read them):
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (yes, really)
- The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu
- The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe