19th-Century Literature

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19th-Century Literature

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Edited: Aug 18, 2007, 6:30 pm

I figure it is high time that we have a thread that discusses some aspect of books and reading beyond your typical "What are you reading and how do you like it?"

Since I am currently in the midst of my 3-book Victorian Era kick, I decided that was a good enough topic as any to discuss.

How do you like 19th-century authors and their works? Are they eloquent masters of writing, or are they superfluous and verbose? Do they magically manipulate and craft words together to create great pieces of work, or are they just pumping out as much writing as they can to pay for their opium and laudanum habits? Discuss.

Last weekend I had commented to my brother how "With Victorian authors it seems that it's not so much where they're going that's important, but how they get there" to which he scoffed that they don't even care about where there going, and the more Victorian works I read, the more I have to agree with him. Yes, at times, the overly flowery descriptions are enjoyable and add an some nice flavour to the story (I think most people would prefer a lively descriptive story over a bland monotonous one), but it often seems to be misplaced, and like my brother suggested, as if it's not for furthering the story any, but just for the sake of being flowery. I find they often go at length about trivial things that aren't necessarily integral to the plot while briefly glossing over the truly vital parts.

Take Frankenstein for example: Shelley spends 14 pages of the 166 pages introducing Victor Frankenstein, but only a couple pages on how his creature came to be. And even then, the creation of his monster is anti-climatic in the extreme. There's no "IGOR! IT'S ALIVE!" MUHAHAHAHAHA" like we see in the movies, all it is is "Oh, why I do believe I saw him twitch and his eyes flutter. Jolly good, my task is complete, I shall go to sleep now." I definitely would've preferred sacrificing the intro for a basic "My name is Victor Frankenstein and this is my story"-style intro and used the extra 14 pages to make the creation of the monster more dramatic than "Ah yes, good, it seems I have found how to animate the dead as it were, now I shall nap."

What do you think? Am I crazy and have no idea what I'm talking about, or am I preaching to the choir?

Aug 20, 2007, 5:24 pm

I agree about Frankenstein - I enjoyed some points of it, but overall found it to be a bit of a let-down. i much preferred the style and tone of Dracula.

I have several Sherlock Holmes books on mount To-Be-Read, and I always find them quite humorous in the in the innocence of crime solving displayed (things like fingerprints overlooked because they're not "proper evidence", but a man treading in some creosote is enough to get the dogs out on the trail - LOL!).

Aug 20, 2007, 7:09 pm

I find the problem with Victorian novels is that whilst (note the use of the word "whilst") reading one you have the urge to talk like the prose. "Well, my erstwhile fiance who is presently my spouse, I attempted repeatedly to reach you after the midday meal despite the difficulties of communicating with your recalcitrant assistant. Might you have nonetheless received the messages and paid a short visit to the purveyor of produce and canned goods?"

If you don't have anyone to do this with, or at least an accepting spouse/partner/whatever, you can feel pretty silly.

Does this happen to you guys?

BTW, this seems like a fun group. Mind if I join? I'll introduce myself on the intro thread.

Aug 20, 2007, 7:38 pm

Hahaha, so true!

Aug 21, 2007, 8:18 am

Well, I think, it depends on the author. Victorian novels are full of details, one cause, what makes them often so thick. ;-) Contemporary novels describe persons, things, rooms or surroundings rather sketchy, to have more room for action. Victorian novels often go over one or two pages to describe a room for example very explicit, before the charakter enters and the action begins. For someone, who isn't used to so much details it may be hard to read 19th century classics. But I think it really depends on the author how he/she is skilled to work with the details. Some make the details very dreary - but some had a good hand in weaving details with actions.

Wilkie Collins novels are a good example. At the begin they are a bit boring more or less - but than one just turning page after page, and all the details combined with the action result in a clear picture, that hung in your head fast pacing like a action movie. I really like the fine developed charakters with their longwinded backgrounds, family history and so on which gave a book more dept. The fine tuned black humor, that often turns in a satirical mirror, which point out the less nice facets of people in social encounters. And the magnificent art to weave manifold themes in one plot. Therefore it's often not just "a story" but a broad picture and criticsm of the social cirumstances of that time of low and high ranking people, which makes such a novel so rich. One just doesn't only "consume" such a book, but can learn a lot from them about things that even in our time are still ongoing.
And - what really funny is, that most victorian novels are full of emotions. Deep and wild emotions in glances, a queeze of a hand, in a pianoplay, in shaking voices. The pages are dripping with emotions the more as the social codes of that time were so rigid in that aspect. A glance between victorian lovers contains sometimes more passion than a kiss between lovers in a contemporary romance novel. That's very fascinating!

I have read some of the top authors of victorian novels and of authors before that time. I think every one has his own skill to make his books interesting and it's difficult to compare them, the more, as they are not wrote in one and the same category. One read a sensation novel in the line of Wilkie Collins in a different way than a novel of matters like Jane Austen's or George Eliot's.

Perhaps one just need a bit more time to allow oneself to enter in such a book and its own special pace to cope with its peculiarities. The longer I read such books I have learned to regard that peculiarities. I sometimes got the impression, that most of the authors that wrote bestsellers today just wrote a good fast-paced action plot, that one can consume easily, but not take the time to develop their charakters and to think about things and themes that gave a book more depth and background. May be the publishers today gave their authors not so much time to work out their books better - but on the other hand - victorian authors had to cope with sometimes weekly deadlines to finish parts of their work, to be published in the next edition of a magazine.

I have often thought: how did they do that??

Aug 22, 2007, 3:48 pm

#3 citygirl - I often have that problem with Jane Austen - for a while after reading one of her books, I find that all the letters I write to my penpals could have come right off the page, and I do find myself speaking to people and using their honorifics - "Why yes, Mr. Croft, that is certainly a point to consider. I shall remember that as I endeavour to complete that task for you to the best of my abilities!"

Sep 1, 2007, 11:24 pm

Great topic! Something I discussed recently with coworkers, leading to polite nods and blank stares.

Actually, I think they are both. Eloquent masters of superfluous verbosity. ;) Plot was simply less important than the character development and setting. The point isn't always the story; sometimes, it's the words themselves. To me, wanting the author to get on with it is like listening to a great jazz artist improvising and thinking, come on, hurry up and play the last note already!

I can enjoy a fast-paced story too, but if Thomas Hardy or Melville wants to riff on their words for 20 pages at a shot, I definitely want to listen.

Edited: Sep 2, 2007, 5:12 am


Jazz and 19th-century literature - what an interesting appropriate comparison!

Sep 2, 2007, 8:33 am

I began to read some of the "classics" about four years ago after receiving and Barnes & Noble gift certificate for Christmas. Reprints of the most popular classics were being offered three for two, and I decided to load up. My reading backround was sadly devoid of these books, so it seemed like a good time to read them. I vowed to read them all.
I haven't done much with "Plato's Republic" and "Moby Dick" which I read in college, still puts me to sleep. But over time, I have fallen in love with the slow rhythm of these books. Wordy, yes. Flowery, overflowing with details, slow to get into, YES, YES, YES... But once my brain picks up the author's style, it locks in and stays there. For myself, I am so deep into 19th century literature, I'm finding it impossible to read anything more contemporary.
Thanks so much for this topic; it's so rarely discussed.

Sep 2, 2007, 1:30 pm

One thing I love about books from the 19th century is how, if you're in the right frame of mind, you can jump right in and experience a world that bears some resemblance to your own, but all the little details are different, creating a different mindset. I feel a little elevated when reading the Brontes or Dickens. Often you're forced to go at a slower pace to get all the details and observations, but you're rewarded with a reading experience that's often unforgettable. I can see Miss Havisham as clearly now as I did when I was a teenager or mentally romp in the snow or frolic at a picnic with the Marches.

Sep 9, 2007, 10:45 am

My next read is The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. First published in 1895, it's considered the first, and possibly greatest, portrayal of time travel (according to the blurb on the back of the book). I've seen old movie adaptations (although I've not seen the most recent one starring Guy Pierce), and am looking forward to reading this one. From what I know, it's a great study of interaction between social classes and class structure - I think it will be very interesting!

Sep 17, 2007, 3:13 pm

One of the things I love about 19th century literature is the absence of technology. I am rereading Pendennis at the moment as a rest from Leo Perutz. It is very refreshing. No gloom or doom or politics.

Sep 17, 2007, 3:17 pm

I found the lack of medical knowledge in Dracula quite humorous.

"She needs blood quick!"
"What blood type does she have?"
"Pish posh! Just roll up your sleeve and prepare for a transfusion."

Edited: Sep 17, 2007, 3:41 pm

I just finished Jane Eyre (which invariably touchstones as Wuthering Heights) and, along with the fact that all yesterday I was thinking with her "voice," (thank goodness I refrained from calling my husband "sir" and "Master" - he would have gotten ideas) I was struck by how frequently physiognomy came up. I had forgotten that for awhile people really thought you could discern character traits in people by the shapes of their foreheads, noses, etc. And talk about lack of technology! Can you imagine traveling all day in a vehicle to go 20 or 30 miles? No wonder rich people were always on horses. I was also struck by how much a person can get done where there is no tv (painting, sewing, music, languages, hiding a madwoman in the attic, cooking, what-have-you) and the amount of effort they put into their parlor games! It's exhausting.