Victorian Writers and Critics Clashed over Content—Who Won?

From a Lecture Series presented by Professor Patrick Allitt, Ph.D.

The late Victorian period is known for great literary talent and the controversies that embroiled it. For example, authors and critics clashed over the depictions of sexuality and of unhappy marriages in print and on the stage. But is it really true that there is no bad PR?

Thomas Hardy between about 1910 and 1915
Thomas Hardy between about 1910 and 1915

Henrik Ibsen and Thomas Hardy each found savage detractors and eager champions for their work during this period. The aesthetic movement of the 1890s which influenced both art and literature sidestepped this dispute by denying that art had anything to do with morality at all. Its best-known practitioner, Oscar Wilde, found that in his personal life, if not in his art, a lack of discretion could have very immediate and severe effects.

Probably the most famous novelist in Britain after the death of Dickens in 1870 was Thomas Hardy. Hardy had been born back in 1840 in rural Dorset in the southwest and apprenticed as a Dorsetshire builder. Later on, he became an architect’s assistant in London and participated in the restoration of old churches in the Neo-Gothic style. He published his first novel in 1871 and made a great hit with Far From the Madding Crowd in 1874. Hardy was masterful at evoking a rural England which is undergoing great changes. As the agricultural depression sets in in the face of American competition and as farming itself, from being an ancient rural craft, starts to become mechanized, he charts these changes very cleverly.

Learn more: Late Victorian Literature

For example, in Far From the Madding Crowd, the foreground plot is accompanied by a sort of Greek chorus of the yokels in the background. There are regular scenes of the Mole’s House, the old pub, where these yokels who have lived there time out of mind, and their fathers and their fathers, all sit around together and nothing seems to be changing on the surface; yet their conversations always seem to have a little edge to them as new developments are coming into the community.

I will read you a little passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, another of his great books, where he talks about how a new steam-powered threshing machine is being used in the harvest for the first time.

By the engine stood a dark motionless being, a sooty and grimy embodiment of tallness, in a sort of trance, with a heap of coals by his side: it was the engine man. The isolation of his manner and colour lent him the appearance of a creature from Tophet, who had strayed into the pellucid smokelessness of this region of yellow grain and pale soil, with which he had nothing in common, to amaze and to discompose its aborigines.

What he looked he felt. He was in the agricultural world, but not of it. He served fire and smoke; these denizens of the fields served vegetation, weather, frost, and sun.

So, the two are coming together, the steam-powered industrial world with all its smoke and the old farming world. Hardy’s two novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, this one from 1891, and then even more Jude the Obscure, from 1896, were as savagely criticized, or even more so, as the plays of Ibsen had been. Several publishers refused Tess of the D’Urbervilles altogether on the grounds that it was immoral in its sympathetic depiction of what was called a “fallen woman.” When the Graphic, one of the serializing magazines, finally accepted it for serialization, they cut the plot so heavily that the readers who read it in that form complained that they simply didn’t understand what was happening and what it was about Tess that made her objectionable.

This is a transcript from the video series Victorian Britain. It’s available for audio and video download here.

Critics were angered by his condemnation of marriage, which is portrayed very bleakly indeed in Jude the Obscure, and for his excessive frankness about sex. The Pall Mall Gazette called it a work of “dirt, drivel, and damnation.” Incidentally, the criticism was equally severe on both sides of the Atlantic. Here is a little snippet from the New York Bookman. “Many seemed to recall a spectacle of some foul animal that snatches greedily at lumps of putrid offal.” It was a tough time in which to be a painter or an author because you could expect very frank criticism indeed. Hardy himself hated being criticized and he himself never wrote book reviews, even though he was constantly being asked. He was so hurt by the criticism of Jude the Obscure, which he wrote in his mid ’50s, that he never again wrote any more fiction. It brought his fiction career to an end. He lived for about another 30 years, and the rest of his life he wrote only poetry, a great loss.

Jude the Obscure title page, 1895.
Jude the Obscure title page, 1895.

The thing about adverse reviews is that the more spectacularly bad they are the more they intrigue some people to see what the book is all about. So you shouldn’t get the impression that Jude the Obscure sank without a trace. Quite the opposite: It sold 20,000 copies in three months. It was the equivalent of a New York Times best seller. This in turn shows the rapid expansion of the reading public. More and more people were buying books and taking an interest in this kind of thing. In one of the very few essays that Hardy himself ever wrote about literature, called “Candor in English Fiction,” he tried to justify his new frankness about sex. He said, “Life being a physiological fact, its honest portrayal must be largely concerned with, for one thing, the relation of the sexes.” He said he regretted that Britain had no magazines “in which the positioning of man and woman in nature, the position of belief in the minds of man and woman, things which everybody is thinking but nobody is saying, might be taken up and treated frankly.”

Keep reading:
Late Victorian Literature: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement
Late Victorian Literature: Sherlock Holmes’ Enduring Legacy

From the Lecture Series: Victorian Britain
T
aught by Professor Patrick N. Allitt
Images courtesy of:
Thomas Hardy, By Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jude the Obscure title page, See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons