Every summer, I turn my eye to old Victorian-era literature. Basically anything from like the 19th or early 20th centuries.
In the past, I’ve read basically every book by Wilkie Collins, J. Sheridan le Fanu, Bram Stoker, the Brontes, and a smattering of other novels from other authors of the period. A couple years ago, I tried to read Les Miserables, but couldn’t get into it, though I did enjoy Toilers of the Sea, also by Victor Hugo.
Much like with Moby Dick, people are confused by my reading habits, asking “is that for a class?” But no, it’s just the kind of stuff I like to read when the weather gets hot. It’s my comfort food, in some strange way, the stuff I’m reading for fun, not out of some sort of scholarly interest. I’m only doing my big deep dive (no pun intended) on Moby Dick because I’ve read it so many times and find it especially fascinating.
This year, I’m giving Charles Dickens another shot, and inspired by the wonderful Waypo-, sorry, Vice Gaming podcast series, Jane Austen. I usually try to read from the beginning of an author’s works through to the end, which is what tripped me up with Dickens in the past. I couldn’t get through the Pickwick Papers, and only barely slogged through Nicholas Nickleby. But I think all of Austen’s work is considered good enough that I won’t have that issue.
Also inspired by that aforementioned podcast series, I decided to try reading Bleak House by Dickens, a novel from much later in his career. It’s very good so far, the comedic relief feels more integrated into the plot and less cartoonish. You can still tell he’s being paid by the word, though I believe this one was published in a magazine that he owned.
For Austen, I’ve got Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice lined up on the ol’ Kindle. It helps a lot to read these with an ereader, I can just grab ’em off Project Gutenberg and go to town. Especially when it’s some gigantic tome like Moby Dick or War and Peace.
Anyway, I didn’t write this post just to let you know about my weird reading habits. I was thinking, why do I always do this? Why do I enjoy reading these books, from this particular era?
It’s a window into the past which views itself as contemporary. It is not myth-making, it is not seeing itself in the same context through which we would view it now, but on its own terms. It’s recent enough to be easily understandable (most of the time) but still far enough back that it feels totally alien at times.
The Victorian era is a time when something resembling our modern society was slowly starting to emerge, but wasn’t quite there yet. You can see many of the bones of things that would eventually develop. People from that period are just relatable enough to your own life that it’s easy to connect with them, but it also gives you a feeling for how much things have changed in the past ~200 years.
When considering the distant past, it is very easy to dehumanize people. Ancient Greeks or Egyptians may as well be from another planet for how similar their lives were to ours, despite the fact that they had the same kinds of bodies and minds as us. Even knowing that fact, it’s hard to really feel it when you’re reading some dry textbook or incomprehensible, translated piece of mythology or what-have-you.
Reading a book from the Victorian era, though, allows you to see through their eyes, and not have any sort of intervening factors. The unfiltered look at contemporary issues, even from the elevated position of someone employed as a writer, is fascinating. People do not know their place in history while it is in the process of happening.
Plus, occasionally you come across stuff that is really interesting but almost totally unknown. Last year, I read the Bram Stoker novel The Lair of the White Worm, and it is buck fucking wild. It’s about a small rural community where the lord is terrorizing the countryside with a magical magnetic kite tied to a castle. A local woman is revealed to actually be an ancient, gigantic snake, who the protagonist explodes with dynamite at the end. There’s a lot of weird stuff out there! It’s fun to explore.
A few years ago, I read The Redemption of David Corson, after it was prominently featured on an episode of Boardwalk Empire. It was apparently an extremely popular book, the best-seller of the year 1900, and it shows in the writing, which is very easy to get through. Just some real nice prose that flows right off the page and into your head.
When all you read are these famous, difficult classics that are admired for their artistry, you tend to skip out on the stuff that was actually the most popular and easy to read. The plot of that book was nothing to write home about, your standard racist narrative about an ~innocent white princess~ kidnapped by Roma as a child (the author does not use the term “Roma”).
Besides being well written, it also had some interesting tidbits about life at the time, or a couple decades earlier when it was set. A character makes a living by his gift for oratory, just his ability to give a speech to a crowd. Imagine a time before mass media, before radio and TV, before mechanical reproduction of sound of any kind! No wonder this ability was highly valuable. Going from place to place, giving speeches on various topics, that was a job you could have.
These sorts of little insights into the past are the main reason I love reading fiction from the Victorian era, of all different kinds. It all comes with not seeing reading as a contest or an obligation. I don’t have any reason to keep up with the latest literary trends, I’m not looking to land a job in publishing. I’m only reading for my own entertainment.
So much of our modern life is tied up in competition and self-improvement. If you’re not doing something to advance your position in society or your health or well-being in some way at every minute of the day, you’re somehow falling behind. This is only going to lead to finding yourself unsatisfied and burned out. Go easy on yourself!
It’s important to have some hobby or other where you are totally uninvested in the wider context. Where you are content to an amateur, with no dreams of mastery. Life is not a series of puzzles to be solved, of skills to be built, a great staircase to be climbed. It is something that should be experienced, and sometimes just enjoyed for its own sake.