A View of Victorian Literature (Magill's Literary Annual 1979)
Geoffrey Tillotson’s A View of Victorian Literature is a text distilled from the author’s wide-ranging drafts and notes by his wife after his unexpected death in 1969. Kathleen Tillotson is a brilliant Victorianist in her own right and memorable for her remarkable book, Novels of the 1840’s. What Geoffrey Tillotson had written before he died was intended originally to comprise the first volume and portions of the second volume of the new Oxford History of English Literature, so that what we have in the present text is a collection of nine essays, each treating one literary figure dominant in England during the first half of the Victorian period. As Kathleen Tillotson states in her preface to the volume, “all, except for Carlyle, were born in the remarkable decade 1809-18.” In addition to Carlyle and Charlotte and Emily Brontë, who are discussed in a single chapter, the writers who are treated in separate chapters here include Dickens, Thackeray, Mrs. Gaskell, Trollope, Tennyson, and Browning. These chapters are introduced by what turn out to be the freshest chapters of the book: the Introduction and a thirty-page excursion onto the Victorian table-land of “Earnestness.”
In his authoritative and now essential study, The Victorian Frame of Mind, Walter Houghton quite sensibly pronounced that “to look into the Victorian mind is to see the primary sources of the modern mind.” In the first two chapters of Tillotson’s study of Victorianism from a literary viewpoint, he continues and extends the kind of analysis of Victorian values begun by Houghton, and he does so with zeal, originality, and with the same brand of scrupulous scholarship that has made Houghton’s book a classic of intellectual history. Like Houghton, Tillotson in his “Introduction” brings forward from numerous primary sources—such as Victorian periodicals, letters, and memoirs—a representative and telling selection of observations on the Victorian literary scene. These powerfully reveal the self-consciousness of the age (“the first century that saw itself as having a number”); the Victorian desire that literature reflect the modernity, complexity, and originality of the age, especially in its self-analytical aspects and its attempts to establish new and coherent values appropriate to an industrial age; and the unique relationship between literary figures and their age, a relationship in which writers were not looked upon by the public merely as sages, but also and perhaps more often, as heroes whose lives, like their works, could provide instruction.
As one might well expect, in his chapter on “Earnestness” (obligatory in any general work on the Victorian period), Tillotson analyzes and evaluates the compulsion which came to dominate and which, indeed, became a prerequisite for much of Victorian literature: the writer’s serious attempt to reflect on the multitudinous and many-faceted social, moral, and spiritual ills which afflicted the age. Tillotson appropriately observes that concern with these ills is what drove many of the greatest writers of the period to choose prose nonfiction rather than poetry or the novel as their medium. Such concern, he also notes, compelled great authors such as Arnold, Carlyle, and even Ruskin, to abandon their well-established potential as “creative” writers. They were in part succumbing to their readers’ skepticism about any indulgence in the arts in an age pervaded by problems that demanded immediate solutions. However, as the genre of prose nonfiction benefitted from this anxious and pragmatic atmosphere, the other genres suffered somewhat from it. Tillotson especially notes the dominance of “novels with a purpose” among the 40,000 the age produced. Heavy-handed and obtrusive treatment of social and political problems in these novels reduced their value as literature. But, Tillotson maintains, the greatest novelists of the age—Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot among them—were able successfully to create an art that was didactic. These novelists were able to retain a “requisite coolness,” or to use the word Tillotson quietly borrows from Matthew Arnold, the “calm” that is crucial to great art and that Wordsworth claimed “subsists at the heart of endless agitation.”
The seven chapters which follow these two introductory sections of the book are, for the most part, general and appreciative. They provide context for each author and display wide-ranging use of contemporary Victorian criticism and commentary. Admittedly, they are not especially original or insightful, and a...
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