I’m fascinated by the Victorian period. In some ways it is as alien and different from our time as the ancient Aztecs, yet its influence is still felt on us today. It is therefore no surprise that some of my favourite writers should have sprung from the nineteenth century, so here, in no particular order, are some of my preferred authors and books.
Firstly, for pure fun, there is the Sherlock Holmes canon, and in particular The Hound of the Baskervilles. The windswept, desolate moor, the spectral curse that haunts a family, Watson at the scene reporting back to Holmes who sifts the essential from the romantic to arrive at the truth... It’s a great read, evocative, atmospheric, conjuring a world of adventure and romance which probably never existed. But we can suspend disbelief, jump into a four wheeler, and be carried away by the story and characters. Perfect reading when the wind is howling and the rain lashing against the window on a dark night.
Moving backward in time, we have Charles Dickens. Dickens is an odd author in that I either love his work or loathe it. In the latter category you’ll find Little Dorrit, Martin Chuzzlewit, David Copperfield, and The Old Curiosity Shop. In the former category are Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, (often referred to as the least Dickensian of all his works), Bleak House, and my favourite, Our Mutual Friend.
Why is OMF my favourite? It is no more powerful than Bleak House, no more evocative than Hard Times, no more moving than any other of his works. The usual criticisms can be made against the book concerning Dickens’ views on women, or how realistic his characters are. So, why favour this novel?
For me, the reason is psychological. The key symbols of OMF are water (mostly shown as the filthy river), and the ‘dust’, meaning the refuse collected and stored by dustmen. What these symbols seem to represent in Dickens’ last completed work is a bleak, existential despair about humanity. We come from the dust and water which, taken together, seems to be the primordial soup of creation, and we can only rise so far from our base beginnings.
I’m going to cheat with my next recommendation and have an author instead of a novel. Or, at least, I’m going to have one facet of an author. EF Benson wrote around one hundred books, ranging from family drama to biographies, but today he is remembered for his horror stories, (found in many a modern anthology), and his Mapp and Lucia series, in which he mercilessly pilloried the snobbery and pretensions of the upper middle classes.
Although the Mapp and Lucia series is excellent, I want to draw attention to another work in the same vein, Secret Lives. In this, a set of characters who have no real purpose in life except to fill their days with the latest fads, gossip, and neighbourly warfare, are depicted with a scalpel wit. All the trademark Benson elements are present; the hypocrisy, the snobbery, the long empty days that have to be filled, yet his exposing of his characters’ frailties is always done with humour and believability – especially as nothing ever really changes by the end of the book.
Finally on Benson, his observations on the Victorian period in As We Were and As We Are are a treat for those who enjoy fine prose, mordant wit, and an observing eye which moves from rose-tinted nostalgia to sharp social commentary and back again. It’s a peek into a world now gone, in which stately aristocratic ladies hold a variety of social events, whirl through London society, and elegantly avoid anything that could be considered coarse, from social climbers to evidence of their husbands’ infidelity.
My last choice is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most famous vampire novel of them all. The book itself isn’t that good; after a strong opening it tails off badly when the action moves to London, especially as the heroes spend an inordinate amount of time chasing Dracula around the city, though the pace eventually picks up again for the conclusion.
What is of real interest is how much the novel reveals about the fears of the author and his times. Dracula is an immigrant, an immoral, sexual, financial predator, invading the West to leech off weak-willed degenerates, wicked women, and the capitalist system, thus reducing Britain’s moral, financial, and political stock.
Depressingly, these themes are still the obsessions of the British press today. The racism, insularity and sexism of Stoker’s time is alive and well, and like Dracula himself, seems to be invulnerable to any attack of rationality.
Those, then, are my recommendations for a good, or at least an interesting, read. I could have mentioned Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, or John Polidori’s The Vampyre, which kick started the literary vampire, but space is against me. So I’ll finish by hoping that you enjoyed the article, and in wishing you all happy reading.