It will be obvious that any estimate of Victorian literature has to take into account the outstanding achievements of the Victorian novelists. From the time of Charles Dickens (1812-1890), early in the period (his first novel, Pickwick Papers, was published in the same year as Victoria became queen), to the final decade when the late novels of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) such as Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) appeared, a long time of novelists continued to turn out monumental masterpieces that delighted their contemporaries and that continue to delight readers today.


AfterDicken's epoch-making early novels had appeared on the scene in the 1830s, each subsequent decade featured the emergence of new novelists of stature such as Charlotte Brönte (1816-1855) and Emily Brönte (1818-1848) in the 1840s, and William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)m whose prominence in the 1850s was a challenge to Dicken's continued preeminence and popularity. In the 1860s, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) established himself as a portraist of mind-Victorian society, and in the 1870s, George Eliot (1819-1880) published what is generally regarded as her finest novel, Middlemarch (1872), although she had already established her reputation earlier with Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860). In the 1880s, George Meredith (1828-1909) -a less well known novelist today- finally began to receive adequate attention from the critics and public for novels he had published earlier such as The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859). In addition to these major novelists from Dickens to Hardy, several of the Victorian novel, such as Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), and George Gissing (1857-1903).


Often these novelists confront the same issues and employ similar styles as their contemporaries among the poets and essayists (the stylistic affinities between Browing and Dickens, for exemple, are striking). One significant difference, however, is that the novelists for the most part do not share the preocupation of the Victorian poets and essayists with humanity's relationship to God. Like their greatest predecessors -Fielding, Richardson and Austen- most of the Victorian novelists were primarily concerned with people in society and with those aspects of experiance categorized by the title of Liones Trilling's essay "Manners, Morals and the Novel", to which we can add an additional topic -Money. Typically these stories center on the struggles of a protagonist, male or female, to find himself in relation to other men or women, in love or marriage, with family or neighbors, or with associates in his or her working career. Ocasionally such a search may take on quasi-religious, as in the later novels of Thomas Hardy or in Emily Brönte's Wuthering Heights (1847), and more indirectly, in George Eliot's novels, with their persistent concern with the role of free will and fate in the lives of their characters. On the whole, however, the major Victorian novelists were less accuped with people's relation to God than with their relation to other people.


And for the most part, the other people were the reader's contemporaries. The historical novel, as established by Sir Walter Scott, remained popular throughout the post-Romantic period, but it was a form especially congenial to the lesser novelists, such as Bulwer-Lytton (The Last Days of Pompeii, 1834) or Charles Reade (The Cloister and the Hearth, 1861). While the major novelists occasionally tried their hand at historical fiction, their preference was for the contemporary or the recent past. Whether the story was set in the rural landscapes of Eliot's Warwickshire and Hardy's Wessex, Trollope's cathedral towns, or Dicken's fogbound London, readers expected a representation of daily nineteenth-century life that would be recognizably familiar to them.


To satisfy such expectations they were provided with a rich fare. Dickens was praised by Walter Bagehot for having described "like a special correspondent for posterity". His contemporaries and successors among the novelists were also skillful reporters, and most of them were more scrupupously concerned with detailed realism tham he had been. Disputes about the degree of Dicken's realism have persisted among critical readers from his day to ours, but what is now generally recognized is that he was much more than a brilliant reporter, and that are very different from straihtforward realism. "Every writer of fiction", he said, "although he may not adopt the dramatic form, writes, in effect, for the stage." The attitude to this aspect of his writings by other novelists is of crucial importance in understanding how the Victorian novel developed. Among Dicken's rivals and successors there was a common agreement that the stagey aspect of his novels was his most glaring fault, and each of the novelists in turn set out to correct that fault by an example of what he or she believed was a more realistic representation of life. Thackeray's masterpeace Vanity Fair (1848) has to a modern reader many mannerisms of its own but is much less blatantly mannered than a characteristicDicken's novel. "The art of Novels," Thackeray affirmed in a letter, "is to represent nature: to convey as strong as possible the sentiment of reality." In Thackeray's discipline, Anthony Trollope (and later in the naturalistic narratives of George Gissing, a lesser figure), these is a similar reduction of stagelike scenes and effects. In George Eliot this reaction against novelistic theatricalism took a more influential turn: she set out to explore what the theatrical writer rarely explores -the inner lives of her characters. Early in the 20th century, the young D. H. Lawrence, beginning his career as a novelist, remarked to a friend: "You see, it was realy George Eliot who started it all, and how wild they all were with her for doing it. It was she who started putting all the action inside. Before, you know, with Fielding and the others, it had been outside. Now I wonder which is right)" Lawrence himself decided, as a practicing novelist, that Fielding and his Victorian followers could be as right as George Eliot, but most early-twentieth-century novelists preferred to follow Eliot's example and concentrate on the inner lives of their characters, and critical readers, adapting their tastes to the new mode, were disposed at that time to undervalue Victorian novels that had portrayed people acting rather than people recollecting, or reflecting, or trying to come to decision.


Contributing to his undervaluatio of the Victorian achievement was the assumption that novels published in serial form (as Victorian novels had usually been published) must be slapdash productions altogether deficient in arte, or as Henry James characterized them, "large loose baggy monsters". Jame's affectionate derogation is applicable to such a novel as Dicken's early Pickwick Papers, but it does not apply at all to some of Dicken's later novels such as Bleak House (a masterpeace of narrative construction), Eliot's Middlemarch (1872), Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895), or the tight and intricate plotting of Wilkie Collin's detective novel The Monnstone (1868). Serial publication, as later critics have come to recognize, did not necessarily preclude artful storytelling, and it had advantages to offset the possible disadvantages of fragmentation. Publication by installments challenged the novelists to sustain the interest of their readers; in every single number they had to entertain them or, to use the traditional critical term, to provide delight. Like actors or public speakers, the Victorian novelists had a sense, during the very process of writing their books, of how their audience was responding to their performance. And it was an audience that offered a special challenge because of its exceptional diversity; Victorian readers ranged from the sophisticated and well-read lawyer to the semiliterate household servant. The present-day division of the novel-reading public into highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow existed only in embryonic form in the Victorian age and did not become a significant controlling influence on the novelist until late in the century.


This popular genre is thus especially representative of all the religious attitudes that have benn emphasized in this account of the Victorian period: tha earnest sense of responsability, the occasional lapses of taste, and the overflowing creative energy of its writers. Near the end of his life, Thackeray drew a comparison between himself and Dickens: "I am played out. All I can do now is to bring out my old puppets... But, if he live to be ninety, Dickens will still be creating new characters. In his art that man is marvelous". Wrung from a novelist whose own writings occupy more than twenty thick volumes, this compliment is quintessentially Victorian.