An Essay on the Noble Science of Writing a Victorian Novel

Chris Rogers, Writer

Aspiring writers know the situation all too well: you take a seat on the comfy leather couch in a local Starbucks, sip on a latte, and decide to open up your laptop to write the next greatest Victorian masterpiece, when, almost out of nowhere, you realize that you have no idea how to write one. You proceed to slam your laptop shut, cry about how you’ll never be a great author, and go home. Don’t stress; this happens to all writers. A Victorian novel is a particularly grueling task to start and finish. Those who have the potential to write one usually choose not to because it is a back breaking, carpal-tunnel-causing challenge. However, if some simple guidelines are followed, they are actually quite simple pieces to tackle.

First and foremost, if you are going to write a Victorian novel, you will need a thorough understanding of all the intricacies of wealth, class, and gender. You simply will not be able to write a Victorian novel if you are unable to meticulously explore the way these categories impact everyday life and relationships among your characters. For reference, you might analyze Pip and Estella in Dickens’ Great Expectations, Rochester and Jane in Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. For the wealthy, do not skimp on parties, balls, dancing, drinking, and various sorts of merrymaking. Be sure to understand seemingly irrelevant information, whether it is about the precise shape of a gentleman’s facial hair, the exact trimmings of a woman’s dress, or the specific fork someone uses to eat salad. These factors can be very important, as they could make an enormous difference in the way characters perceive one another’s position in society. Simply taking guesses about what is and is not appropriate can be risky. Did you allow that chambermaid to set foot in the dining room? Did the lady of the house discuss her ambitions outside of domestic life – out loud? Without being reprimanded? If so, waste no time and press that delete button as hard as you can. You are about to lose your credibility. Alongside the characters adhering to strict codes of behavior, do not forget about the character that is rebelling. Always incorporate this. There must be at least one person who does not fit in. Maybe the gentleman sneaks off in the middle of the night to cook a soufflé in the kitchen, and then must quickly destroy all of the evidence by morning.  Maybe while the lady pretends to spend hours reading, she is really solving pages of complex mathematical equations tucked inside her poetry book. The possibilities are endless. Get creative.

For those characters in your story that are members of the lower class, you must be able to lay on the misery quite thickly. I’m talking orphans, poverty, hunger, abandonment, that sort of thing. Some of your characters living wretched existences must spend their days catering to every whim of their wealthy employers. Some must find themselves with bare feet in December with nothing on their bodies but dirty, ragged raiment. Go ahead and tug on some heartstrings. Much of it will be settled in the end! One excellent way to reinforce that the character is not wealthy is to have him or her speak with imperfect grammar. In Victorian novels, lack of education screams low class. Take the man who Pip encountered early on in Great Expectations (I will not give away details about the fate of this man so as to not spoil anything for the deprived few who have not read the piece). Between the clothing and the language, there can be no doubt of this man’s status. His attire is ragged, and he asks Pip for “wittles” instead of vittles. It’s so obvious that this guy is poor. We thank Dickens for being so crystal clear with us. If you do not have an interest in the intricacies of wealth, class, and gender in the 19th Century gender, then this may not be the genre for you.

Once you do understand wealth, class, and gender, do not assume you are automatically ready to write. There is still so much more to be aware of before writing your piece. Do you enjoy extremely long-winded descriptions of settings and thoughts going on inside your characters’ heads? I hope so, or else you will never fit in with Victorian writers. Let’s not forget, since Victorian writers got paid by the page, they dragged out sentences and overstuffed paragraphs as much as humanly possible. Why use five words to describe something when you can use twenty-five? Hey, a writer has to make a living! And cater to your audience! They don’t want to hear about adventurous journeys of exploration. They are tired of unrealistic stories that dwell on heroes coming to the rescue of fainting women. They are narcissists! They want to read about their own lives, their culture, the social problems of their day. Give them the consistency they want.

When you create the vivid descriptions necessary for writing good Victorian literature, you have a great opportunity to show off your ability to access a dictionary. Your audience will be in awe that you not only know words like “soporific,” “somniferous,” and “hypnagogic,” but also know how to use them in a sentence. Did it snow last night? No, but there certainly was perfect blanched  precipitation plummeting from the pencil-lead colored clouds that were covering the star speckled night sky, making for conditions on the ground in which people may potentially slip on a series of water droplets that have been bound in a closer form due to lower, breath revealing temperatures that allow children to pretend that they are smoking high grade tobacco from their grandfathers’ best mahogany pipes, thus causing people to use caution when leaving their manors for the town, utilizing their good spectacles so that they may perhaps see the slippery matter before gently placing their leather boots on the surface so that they may not slip and wearing an extra layer of possibly raccoon – all happening in just one night’s time! See how much better that is? You’re trying to fill up around five hundred pages (assuming you’re an amateur) and simple subject, verb, object formation simply will not suffice. I find it insulting when a sentence is too easy to read. When Jane Eyre tells us, “Reader, I married him,” (chapter 38), I felt like Bronte was insulting my intelligence. A four-word sentence is preposterous. How old does Bronte think I am? It is very important that you use as much vivid detail and as many phrases as possible. The audience will eat up every last word. They have a voracious appetite for words, and you must satisfy each and every one of them as much as you possibly can. Serve them up a hefty dish, and always leave them wanting more.

How do you plan on ending your piece? A good end is always very important. It unites all the actions that happened in the beginning and middle. The best way to unite your piece and bring it to a logical close is to fill it with coincidences. I’ll give you an example. Sir Duke Warren Wellington was in panic. He wanted to marry the lovely Madam Esther, but he also wanted to support his brother during a time of need. As he sat in the coffee shop, he thought he saw something strange. He got up and followed a dark figure into the bathroom. He opened the door and there they met. This man was a duplicate of Wellington! The same blue eyes. The same long brown hair. Down to the last detail! He could send this man to go support his brother whilst he could marry the lovely bachelorette. Do you see how a huge problem in a Victorian novel will be so easily solved with the simple, believable, highly probable addition of Sir Duke Warren Wellington’s long lost identical twin? The arrival of this twin is just about as perfect as the scene in Jane Eyre when Jane suddenly was able to hear Rochester telepathically. Again, a simple, believable, highly probable coincidence saves the day, and Jane is prompted to return to Thornfield Hall instead of leaving the country with St. John. Well done, Bronte. Well done. The reader should ultimately be left satisfied and should not feel like there are any holes in the story. A final example is in Great Expectations, where in chapter 28 (spoiler alert) we find two convicts on a stagecoach. One is telling a story to the other about a time when, ten years ago, he gave a two-pound note to young boy. This young boy he is referring to happens to be Pip. Meanwhile, Pip, who is sitting nearby, overhears the whole conversation and panics. It should make no difference to the readers that not only is this oddly convenient that these characters would share a stagecoach, but that the incident in question occurred at least ten years earlier. Why would the convicts be discussing it now? Who cares! This scene is obviously thrown in just for the fun of Victorian coincidence because it does nothing to further the plot. In chapter 42, the reader finds that after not seeing Compeyson for a similarly extended period of time, Mr. Wopsle, who is on stage absorbed in the role of Hamlet, looks across the crowded theater and recognizes him sitting behind Pip! See how easy that is? See how much more interesting the story becomes? We all thrive on coincidence, and you should too.

Taking these pointers into consideration will greatly help you when it is time for you to sit down and write your voluminous masterpiece. These pointers will help you get published. The reading public thrives on these elements in the novels that they read. I do not doubt that you will be not unsuccessful if you follow this advice. Your book will end up being adulated in classrooms in the future. Freshmen and seniors alike will take one look at your name and your novel on the course syllabus, and they will breathe sighs of relief, thinking of the slow-paced, leisurely read in store for them in the semester ahead. I understand this must be why you want to write a Victorian novel. You want to be a favorite of students, especially the ones searching for a cure for their insomnia. You also dream of being the subject of book clubs, where varied interpretations of your novel will be discussed over and over and over again. Did Bronte mean to highlight Jane’s powerlessness? Or did she mean to show her overcoming her circumstances? Now in the 21st century, we added – could Jane be attracted to women? They will talk, talk and talk some more. All you need to do is write, write and write some more.

Go ahead, set up a romance between a poor, working class girl and a rich, upper class man. Discuss how their backgrounds clash. Explore her limited options in the world. Make your readers sympathetic to the struggles of the poor. Throw in an orphan or two. In the process, describe every detail of the wallpaper. Point out the direction of every intricate little swirl. Go off on a few tangents, mid sentence! Success will be inevitable.