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What Is Victorian Fiction?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Victorian fiction refers to imagined stories written during the reign of Queen Victoria of Britain. Queen Victoria reigned for 64 years between 1837 and 1901. The novel rose to preeminence during this period of time and became the leading literary form. The most famous proponent of Victorian fiction is author Charles Dickens, but he was not alone.

Like many eras, the Victorian is an arbitrary period of time used by historians to give a sense of shape and distinction to large swathes of history. It covers a period of time across the Western world where the fiction novel developed. Victoria’s influence on this development is considered minimal at best. Victorian fiction is preceded by the romantics, but such has been its influence that fiction from Victoria’s age continued to be popular in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Idealized portraits of humanity formed the major theme of Victorian fiction. They tended to feature hard-working protagonists and story lines where the good won out and the wicked were punished appropriately. As the 19th century wore on, the structure of the novel became ever more complex. This experimentation led to the ever greater variety seen in the modern era. The era is also notable for the development of a number of genres and for the successes of female writers.

The Victorian era is an important era in the evolution of female writing. Built upon the successes of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley prior to Victoria’s reign, female writers gained in popularity and critical success. While writers like the Bronte sisters did well in their own right, Mary Anne Evans still felt the need to use a male pseudonym, George Elliot, to have her works taken seriously.

One genre of Victorian fiction most linked to the socio-economic changes in 19th century Britain is children’s fiction. During Victoria’s reign, politicians and social groups worked hard to end child labor and see to it that every child became literate. As a result, many writers, like Lewis Carroll and Robert Louis Stephenson, wrote books specifically aimed at children for the first time.

The 19th century also gave rise to the detective novel. Owing its inception to Edgar Allen Poe in America and then Charles Dickens, the genre came into its own towards the end of the era. In 1868, Willkie Collins, Dickens’ protégé, wrote what has come to be seen as the archetypal detective novel, "The Moonstone." In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented the genre’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Victorian fiction was not afraid to go into the supernatural and the fantastical and to explore science fiction. It was an era of scientific discovery and one where the likes of Charles Darwin challenged perceived notions about the world. It was no surprise, therefore, to see a more scientific and modernized version of mythological tales finding its their way into Victorian fiction. Key examples range from Bram Stoker’s "Dracula" to H.G. Well’s "Time Machine" and "War of the Worlds."

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