Were the Victorians Really that Dumb?

Richard Altick’s Victorian People and Ideas presents theories about the kinds of literature Victorians read as well as their motivations for doing so. His theories include that the majority of the reading public belonged to the middle class, and that most of those people who read did so to escape and avoid mental strain, and that they were mostly unable to read serious, well-written literature. In this piece, I will use Altick’s text as a lens to understand the form of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, while also exploring the limits to this approach. 

Altick argues that many Victorians read for entertainment, not facts, which is partially reflected in the way that The Moonstone is written. The narration is done from several different points of view, and all but one of these accounts are written from the perspective of the future, with the characters recalling past events. In introducing several different viewpoints, the novel provides different interpretations of the events depending on each character’s beliefs and experiences. It also means that each character’s feelings and ideas are also an integral part of the text, which means that much of the novel includes not only the events of the narrative, but also the characters’ worries and anxieties. This makes sense using Altick’s ideas, because he claims that “Because (the majority of readers) possessed virtually no general information, their reading matter had to be devoid of all but the most familiar literary and historical allusions; they could not be expected to waste time puzzling over any more recondite kind” (Altick 61). Using this idea of Altick’s, the need for familiar allusions explains why so much of this novel is dedicated to expressing common anxieties of the time. An example is Miss Clack’s preoccupation with religion, and the fate of her friends’ souls, which reflects the importance that Victorians placed on religion and living by the Church’s moral standards. However, using Altick to understand The Moonstone is limited in that this claim ignores some of the underlying ideas present in the text. 

Besides being a novel reflecting common Victorian anxieties and ideas, The Moonstone also has elements of class critique, which seems to be written for the middle class, that Altick states is the majority of the reading public. He argues that the working class did not have the time to read, and the upper class tended to avoid intellectual stimulation. Therefore, the class critique of The Moonstone illustrates both the benefits and limits of using Altick as a lens. The character of Betteredge is an example of a critique of the lower class. Betteredge is the head servant, which gives him exaggerated self-importance and belief in his abilities. He scoffs at Franklin Blake when he proposes to find the moonstone, saying “How can you hope to succeed (saving your prescence) when Sergeant Cuff himself made a mess of it,?” forgetting that Blake is above him (Collins 321). Furthermore, the characters of Mr. Ablewhite, with his contributions to charities such as the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society and his mother Mrs. Ablewhite, with her refusal to do anything requiring physical or mental exertion are critiques of the upper class, and are satirically exaggerated. This makes sense through Altick’s view that the majority of the novel’s audience would have been middle class. However, this also illustrates a limit to this approach because satire requires a certain level of intellectual capability to understand, and therefore undermines Altick’s claim that the majority of the reading public was uneducated and read only simple texts.  



Great Expectations?

These two quotes are slightly different variations of the ending to Great Expectations. While they contain only slightly different wording, they may convey significantly different messages and therefore are well worth exploring. The first version appeared in the 1862 3-volume edition, and the second version was the wording that appeared in the 1861 serial publication and the edition that was first published in the U.S. This alone brings up the first interesting question about these quotes: if they were being published virtually simultaneously, and Dickens was endorsing both of them, do they mean the same thing? And if they don’t mean the same thing, why would Dickens endorse both? At first glance, one might say that of course they mean the same thing, because the wording is so similar. However, a closer look reveals that the differences in word choice could signify vastly different endings to the novel.  

For example, the first version, in saying that Pip saw “no shadow of another parting” from Estella, this could mean that he never foresaw leaving or parting with Estella again, now that they had been reunited. In this case, the “shadow” could be the looming possibility of another separation, the absence of which Pip is noting. In this case, the first version indicates that Pip and Estella stayed together for the rest of their lives. However, it is also possible that the “shadow” is already behind them, and that it refers to the separation that led to their current reunion, and Pip is not noting its absence, but rather saying that it is behind them. Furthermore, Pip might not be expressing a matter of certainty at all. He might be saying that at the time of this event, he did not predict that he and Estella would ever separate again, but they have since then, and although Pip didn’t see the “shadow” of their parting at the time, it eventually appeared, and they did go their separate ways. After all, Pip is telling this story from an unspecified point in the future.  

The first version of the ending is complicated, evidently, but the second version has its own complicated implications that are different from those of the first version. For example, the word “no” is not referring to the shadow in this case, but to the act of Pip and Estella parting. This creates new, different implications. This could mean that Pip, at the time of his reunion with Estella, could see the metaphorical shadow coming off of the rest of his life with Estella. Like the other version, this wording could also mean that Pip is not expressing a matter of certainty, and that he thought but didn’t know for sure that they would stay together. However, unlike the other version, this wording gives little to no indication that Pip and Estella ever parted, because the word “no” is attached to their parting, rather than the shadow. In this case, the “shadow” could represent a gloomy dread that Pip feels at expecting that he and Estella will remain together, or simply that, again, he sees the metaphorical shadow coming from this future event. Either way, this version at least strongly implies that they remain together forever.  

Based on this analysis, it is possible that Dickens was endorsing two different endings that meant vastly different outcomes for the characters of his novel. While we will almost certainly never know why he would do this, it is important to the study of this novel to consider this possibility to get a better understanding of what Dickens intended the reader to walk away with. Maybe he intended to confuse his audience. Maybe he meant to give two different endings to two different countries to see which was received better. Whatever his intentions, examining the two versions certainly leaves the ending up to interpretation. 

Liminal Spaces in Great Expectations

“It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes.” (Dickens 56) 


This passage from Great Expectations describes the first time Pip encounters Miss Havisham, a rich elderly woman who invites him over to ‘play’. At first, Pip sees nothing but white in her room, as it is filled with all of the items that would be needed for a wedding. Then, in this passage, he realizes that all of the items are old and rotting, much like Miss Havisham herself, and this is where some interesting implications of the description can be drawn out. The fact that Pip did not notice the state of everything in the room ‘in the first few moments’ may speak to the sheer volume of items in the room, or the degree to which everything in the room was organized, as if for a wedding in the near future (Dickens 56). Then he realizes that all of it is old, including the would-be bride. This serves to introduce both Pip and the reader to Miss Havisham, a lady who was left at the altar and has been waiting for decades for her fiancé to come back, and has refused to move forward with her life. Her life paused at this point, and so did her room, but time still has affected her, despite her refusal to acknowledge its passage. 

Miss Havisham’s position in her room and surrounded by the preparations for her wedding, as if she is still anticipating it, put her in an interesting liminal position in several ways. Firstly, she is forever stuck between a state of married and single, two positions which in Victorian times both held distinct roles and characteristics. By being forever stuck between the two, Miss Havisham has removed herself from the expectations of both positions, and placed herself outside of the social norms of marriage. She is not expected to look for a husband, as she would be if she were single, and she also does not have to do housework, as a consequence of her class but also the fact that she does not have a husband or family to care for. Secondly, the description of her as “withered” and her eyes as “sunken” serve to characterize her as a deathly figure, or someone who is stuck between the states of life and death, similar to a vampire or zombie. This is also an example of another way in which Miss Havisham occupies a liminal space in her life. Her occupation of this liminal space speaks to the fascination of Victorian readers and writers with the ideas of the Gothic, and its obsession with death, life after death, and life intertwined with death. Similar ideas can be found in Whuthering Heights, with Catherine’s promise to haunt Heathcliff as a ghost, and Heathcliff’s climbing into Catherine’s coffin. 


Wuthering Heights’ Rebellion Against Social Norms

“I want to know what I should do. Today, Edgar Linton has asked me to marry him, and I have given him an answer. Now, before I tell you whether it was a consent or denial, you tell me what it ought to have been.” (49) 

I will be analyzing this quote from Wuthering Heights through the lense of Victorian social norms, and how the novel comments on and transgresses those norms. To begin with, this quote has a number of literary elements that work to create a sense of urgency and desperation on the part of Catherine in her appeal for Nelly’s advice. For example, Emily Bronte uses the repetition of the idea that there is a “correct” choice for Catherine to make when responding to Edgar’s proposal. The words “should” and “ought” show Catherine’s desire to adhere to what is considered socially correct, and her anxiety around how to judge her actions so that they fit these norms. Additionally, the phrase “consent or denial” presents a binary choice that does not allow for deliberation on Catherine’s part. She does not think that she has the option to think about a marriage proposal after receiving it, and this is due to societal expectations. In Victorian times, women were often only valued as wives and mothers, so there would have been a lot of pressure on Catherine to get married soon, especially now that she is at what was then considered an appropriate age. Therefore, so far, the passage has shown an adherence to these Victorian social norms, by illustrating Catherine’s desire to meet them as well as her perceived lack of choice in the matter. 

However, paradoxically, this passage then goes on to show a departure from these same norms, and this contributes to the ways in which the novel and its characters stray from what was generally expected. To show this, it is important to note the context in which Catherine says these words. She is talking to Nelly Dean, her family servant, and asking for her advice. Catherine is from a moderately wealthy family, as shown by the fact that they can afford to have servants. Additionally, during this time, social classes were much more rigid than they are today. This meant that there was often not a lot of interaction between servants and their employers on a personal level, including in the context of asking a servant for their advice on a crucial life decision. It can be argued that this situation does not represent a drastic defiance of social norms, because Catherine does not have many other female influences in her life, and Nelly was probably the most convenient person for her to consult. However, there is another layer to the transgression of social norms. Catherine is being quoted here by Nelly in her story to Mr. Lockwood. Given that social classes were so rigid, it would probably have been unusual for a servant to tell stories about their employers to this extent. Therefore, this passage is used as a way to show the novel’s lack of regard for these social norms.  

Given this evidence, I conclude that this passage was meant to argue that Victorian social norms are unnecessary and did not need to be observed. Between Catherine’s flagrant disregard for Nelly’s position as her servant and Nelly’s disregard for her employers’ privacy and dignity, the novel presents a clear rebellion against the norms of the time. Additionally, the story would not have happened without this disregard, so I think it is reasonable to conclude that this was Bronte’s purpose in writing. 

The Portrayal of Leisure in Mary Barton

The line I chose to examine in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is “There were homes over which Carson’s fire threw a deep, terrible gloom; the homes of those who would fain work, and no man gave unto them—the homes of those to whom leisure was a curse” (Gaskell 58). This passage is written in the context of the fire at Carson’s mill. The imagery of the ‘gloom’ covering both types of people’s houses, the rich and the poor, shows that there is a perceived unification of the two classes that in reality does not exist. Some people, the rich who “would fain work,” can afford leisure time and have an abundance of it. For others, “leisure was a curse” because they must work constantly to earn their living, and any rest they take could mean that they or their families starve. This is partially illustrated through the description of the gloom as “terrible,” because this can be interpreted to mean that its coverage is deceiving. This line therefore brings to light the intense contrast between the lives of the two social classes living so close to one another. It also throws into light the dystopia that this class division creates.  

Similar themes can be found in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. The main character, Edmond Dantes, starts out as a peasant earning just enough to get by, and when he is promoted, he is betrayed by his friend because of a moment of leisure, when they discuss this event that should be celebrated. Instead, he is thrown into jail to rot for life as a result of this moment of leisure, so one could argue that this leisure turned out to be a curse for him. Later, he escapes from prison and becomes very wealthy, and uses his wealth to punish those who betrayed him. This is a similar contrast to the one found in Mary Barton, where Henry Carson and his family are cursed for having too much leisure and not allowing their employees to have any. 

Both texts, therefore, share the idea that leisure is a privilege that is only reserved to the most fortunate, and those who are less fortunate are punished when they try to take advantage of this same privilege. By illustrating this position, Gaskell uses what she has seen in her life to try to convey the struggles of the working class in a way that people can understand. This is also an example of the “venting” about class struggle mentioned in Richard Altick’s ‘Victorian People and Ideas,’ which he argues is the reason that “Victorian England escaped class struggle” (Altick 72). Whether Altick’s claim is true and supported by evidence or not, messages of this type were common in Victorian novels because of the pressing issues of the time. 

The passage contributes to the novel as a whole by setting up the context for the later class struggle that leads to the murder of Harry Carson. By showing the stark contrast between the lives of the working class and the rich, especially by saying that to the working class “leisure was a curse,” this helps to explain the working class people’s motivation to form a union, and later to take drastic measures to try to achieve their goals. Leisure is a common human desire, so this helps to foreshadow and explain later events in the novel. The juxtaposition of the two types of homes is therefore meant to contribute to the overall spirit of justice in the novel.