At the back end of 2014, I became obsessed with the Penguin English Library series. I spent large amounts of time (worrying large, bearing in mind that I have a child, a job and Netflix) staring at the beautiful covers and putting little circles around the ones I wanted in preparation for compiling my Christmas list. And then Christmas came around, I received a big pile of these glorious books and started spending large amounts of time stroking them rather than just looking at pictures of them.
Ahh, the Victorian novel. As a teenager with dreams of reading English at university, I had early and predictable passions for Emily Brontë and her crew of northern lunatics; the BBC adaptation of Vanity Fair was on and, after reading Thackeray’s novel too, I became obsessed with Becky Sharp (disturbingly, photos probably still exist of the time I dressed up as her for World Book Day. Man, I was a cool teenager). When I finally went to uni, I eagerly signed up for a course on ‘The Victorians,’ which almost crushed my burgeoning love. The professor gave an emotional speech in our first seminar about “the good old days” when women couldn’t participate in higher education, and compiled a reading list featuring a grand total of one female writer – and even then it was George Eliot, who had to pretend to be a man to be published. Perhaps it was because of this less than inspirational educator that, on first reading, I hated The Mill on the Floss and fell asleep during our seminar on Jude the Obscure.
13 years later, I finally felt ready to submerge myself once more in the 19th century rural-urban divide, industrialisation and women having no relevance. And what a magical time it was.
My principal epiphany concerned Thomas Hardy. After my undergraduate experiences, I thought I hated Thomas Hardy. I was kind of making this my “thing;” “oh, you like Hardy? I hate him. Here are some hipster Victorians I prefer because I am hardcore cool.” I literally couldn’t have been more wrong. Beginning with Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which broke my heart and made me hate all men, I embarked on a thrilling journey through Hardy’s novels, which allowed me to fall in love with Gabriel Oak, develop a bit of an obsession with Eustacia and, most significantly, discover that Jude the Obscure, while probably the most depressing story ever committed to paper, is astonishing and devastating and brilliant. And Two on a Tower; I don’t know if I can talk about it properly without just making emotional, guttural sounds. It’s so beautiful and tragic and I would like to have time to read it once a week purely for the goodness of my soul.
Why did my misogynistic professor, who may actually have been a Victorian himself, not put Elizabeth Gaskell on our terrible reading list? (I will point out here that he made us read In Memoriam by Tennyson, which was one of the most cripplingly dire things I’ve ever endured.) This year, I treated myself to some time with Mary Barton; the thing I love most about Gaskell is her ability to transport me to a time and place so convincingly that I feel like I can smell the atmosphere, which was perfectly evident in North and South and a key factor in Mary Barton too. With an obligatory serving of tragedy and melodrama thrown in, it’s a novel which evokes real misery but also tremendous humanity, as well as an epic and admirable hero in Jem. I read Wives and Daughters this year too, which I loved; Gaskell’s creation of a true evil stepmother, with superpowers of passive-aggression, drives the reader’s empathy for Molly, even if Gaskell’s inconvenient death meant the ending is annoyingly abrupt after 700 pages of gentle exposition.
I had a little bit of a Brontë binge in amongst all this Victorian-worship too, obviously. I read Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a teenager but the Penguin English Library edition was so beautiful that I had to buy it and read it again in February and OH MY. I think Anne is my favourite Brontë. Although Agnes Grey is a bit boring, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a literary achievement which is, I think, unfairly overshadowed by Jane Eyre (which I reread this year too) and Wuthering Heights. Helen Graham’s story is beautifully told, without self-pity and with admirable stoicism; although I spend the whole book shouting at her to run away and get some peace and quiet, she’s a nuanced heroine, created with a sensitivity and delicacy which I think Anne possesses in greater quantity than her more famous sisters. As for Charlotte, her Mr Rochester always makes me a healthy level of angry; why is he so horrible to Jane and why are we supposed to think that’s ok? I also reread Villette and was deeply traumatised by how (I feel like I am going to be struck down for saying this) boring it was.
My final realisation from my months of reading historically was that reading Dickens takes more effort than I am capable of giving these days. Maybe The Old Curiosity Shop was just a really bad choice; it is particularly long and, in standard Dickens style, there are 7,000 characters, most of whom would fit quite comfortably in a pantomime, and the mawkish Little Nell stuff is all a bit much. So, there you go, Dickens fans; I committed to reading one whole novel to reassess my view on your hero, and it didn’t work.
I had to emerge from my Victorianism after two months of reading exclusively 19th century novels; I was genuinely starting to think in the voice of a Victorian woman (a rich one, obviously) and it was making everyday life pretty awkward. I will return though. In 2016, my aim is to do to my view of Eliot what 2015 did to my attitude to Hardy. So look forward to a grovelling love letter to Middlemarch soon.