My Battle With Victorian Literature

We all know the names… Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope… The ones that when people talk about “books you should have read” the names always always crop up.

Bookshelf by Radu Marcusu on Unsplash

Well I have a confession to make; I have never read a book by any of the above authors in it’s entirety. This isn’t something I’m proud of – as someone who would class themselves as a book worm, I find this omission to be somewhat embarrassing. It’s also not that I haven’t tried – I have. I have tried to read many of these novels time and again, thinking that I should fill this void in my literary education. But I just can’t.

I recently picked up Great Expectations by Dickens, thinking that if I tackle any Dickens, then it should be this one, because this is the one that appears on all those “must read” lists. Within the first three chapters I was so frustrated I just couldn’t keep going. I’m going to say it outright; Dickens’ characters annoy me. To me they seem really flat and two-dimensional. There is no nuance to them. They almost come across as parodies of themselves; so-and-so is fat and loud, and is never anything else; Mr such-and-such is thin and mean, and is never seen acting in any other way. It find it very tiring and it wears thin extremely quickly for me. The same fate occurred when at various times I have tried Oliver Twist, Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities. 

As for Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles was on my A-Level English Literature syllabus, and I confess that I never actually read the thing from cover to cover. I read the bits I figured were important, various chapters and extracts and stuff, but I couldn’t face reading the whole thing. I still got an A* (probably more to do with the fact that I did enjoy many other texts on our syllabus, rather than anything else!). I have the whole collection of Hardy novels from the Folio Society sitting on a shelf in my flat, all beautiful bound and printed, and I haven’t touched any of them (I didn’t buy them – they technically belong to my father).


Other than those forays, I have, at various times, attempted to read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, Les Miserables, Vanity Fair… and just… nope. None of them grab me enough to want to wade through the pain and stick with them. I’m sure they all have beautiful language and nuance deep within, but I find them such a slog that it ceases to be enjoyable.

One thing I do find strange, however, is that I do have time and a penchant for Gothic Literature with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein being one of my favourite books. I also enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Grey, Dracula, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (okay, so that’s a poem, but hey). So why do I struggle so much with “traditional” Victorian Literature? I genuinely don’t have an answer to this, and if you’ve got any tips or ideas as to how I might break the back of this genre, as it were, and actually read some of these supposedly “must-read” texts, then I would be delighted to hear them. For now, these works remain out of my reach, and I have learned of their stories either through popular culture references, film, or other means.


6 thoughts on “My Battle With Victorian Literature

  1. You have my sympathy – although I do not recall Tess of the Turds (as we called it at uni!) being on the A level English Lit syllabus! But seriously, you don’t have to feel bad about Dickens, and if you want a way in, Hard Times – which is more political – is where I started, and stopped. Middlemarch is a treat when you are ready for it; I did use that as an A level set text one year, so be glad it wasn’t yours! Wuthering Heights IS unreadable…

    1. I think it was one of the texts in the Love Through Ages Module – along with Cold Mountain and Anthony and Cleopatra? I think…. I was definitely supposed to read it!

  2. Your admission is one many of us (myself included!) could make. I read _Great Expectations_ but only because of a class; and luckily (being in the U.S.) I was able to sort of minor in American lit. in college. Somehow even _Moby Dick_ was easier than most of the Victorian English stuff. Nowadays, I don’t feel guilty for what I didn’t read. There’s just not enough time. And I read to write better–and, really, I’m not writing for a Victorian English audience! (Plus, the BBC film of _Tess…_ is wonderful!)

    1. I think I was supposed to watch that as well… never got round to it! I might give it a watch; it tends to make these things a bit more palatable!

  3. That’s okay, I haven’t read all of them either. Some of them I’ve read only because of school, like Wuthering Heights, which I absolutely hated because none of the characters were likeable. I read Tess on my own though because my sister had it and I was really interested in reading it and actually enjoyed it.

    But if you’re wondering how to get into Victorian Literature, I’m not sure there’s really a way. Are there any Victorian Literature books you’re interested in reading because the plot sounds interesting to you? That might be the way to start.

    I love Gothic Literature too. Dracula is actually one of my favorites, I haven’t yet read Frankenstein though I have it on my bookshelf in my room. But I enjoy it a lot.

  4. Your “confession” raises a debate that was raging when I took post grad courses in education 20 years ago. Should literature be taught like calculus, that is to say, learning codes which only become accessible to the average college bound student who sweats hard, in the hope that over time, translation and historical cross referencing will give way to some enjoyment (though this not a goal and by no means guaranteed)? Or should life long learning be the goal at the expense of reading “the canon” This means a hit and miss approach to teaching and reading. It means reading from a menu that goes beyond (shudder the thought!) all things white European/North American and male from Chaucer to about WWII? There have been some well made feature movies of some of the Victorian novels you have cited. If you find those unwatchable or boring, then it may be time to accept that you have a genuine and probably valid aversion to the genre. I would suggest that its male dominant, mechanical- industrial, post Romantic-Gothic aspects are distasteful to you, not to mention that writers like Dickens published his originals in periodicals or series (we all know what Netflix would be like if we were forced to watch 5 seasons of a show we did not choose). this may also have much to do with your dislike of them. Having said all this, I was told as a 17 year old that Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a great novel, as was Wuthering Heights by fellow male HS peers. So, guess what? I loved them on first reading. Not so great today. 30 years of valid feminist and turn of the 20th century criticism has knocked these classics off their perch and that too affects how it feels reading them. Rereading them now, I ask myself, why did it seem so “cool” to make the effort when I was younger? But I actually had HS English teachers and university professors that still thought those books were cool (mostly male, of course). The “canon” is now in the museum where it should be, but it is still worth preserving and visiting and watching on PBS feature presentations. That’s where I would start. if I watned to give Victorian Lit one more try. Then read the particualr novel after you have seen a good film version. BTW, you must have seen Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the movie? That made Shelley’s somewhat awkward prose really riveting for me, after the fact. I know this because 75% of the HS essays I had to mark on the “book” were really based on the movie, even though my students would sear on a bible, even though Shelley would have been scandalized by both unbridled plagiarism and Christian values (it is my favourite version, though there have been several other good ones). Cheers. I enjoyed this blog.

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