The Victorian era has bought us some of the most famous writers in history – Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, the Bronte sisters, W.S. Gilbert, Robert Browning and George Bernard Shaw. These playwrights, poets and authors created works that continued to delight us, long after their deaths – but what was it really like for the Victorian writers?
Victorian Literature and Overnight Celebrity
It was during the Victorian era that fiction novels started to grab the public’s attention. Poetry has been the mainstay up until that point, however, the darker plots and gothic themes of the novel gained momentum and finally took over as our main form of literary entertainment.
Most writers started out creating serials for the magazines and newspapers, (including Dickens and his ‘The Pickwick Papers’), making them overnight celebrities. They often then rebound these popular works into long, plot-heavy novels. The popularity of these novels could be attributed, in part, to the fact many of the Victorian writers used recent history and the current reality of life, as the basis of their plots – something many Victorians were turning a blind eye to. Thackeray satirised high society in ‘Vanity Fair’ and his other novels – yet the Lords and Ladies of that same society craved his attention and company.
But, regardless of the celebrity status, these writers had turbulent lives. Often their upbringing had been less than ideal, they were often linked to scandal and affairs and were frequently criticised for pushing the boundaries of ‘good manners’ in their written works.
One of the most famous writers of that time, Dickens, had no formal education, but found work writing plays and editing for others, in an effort to provide an income for his family, after his father had been sent to debtor’s prison. Thackeray squandered his family inheritance on his gambling addiction and the Bronte sisters grew up in relative isolation.
The life of Victorian Writer, however, was a continuously busy and hard-working one. If you wanted to write or work in an art-related environment, you needed to ensure a regular income – this is why W.S. Gilbert was also a drama critic and illustrator, the Bronte Sisters (apart from Emily) became governesses, Thackeray also took to art and writing book reviews for The Times and Dickens edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote plays and non-fiction articles.
Regardless of their upbringing and social status, these writers continued to produce works that delighted and entertained their audiences. Some had to write under pseudonyms, some even had to write as the opposite sex in order to gain popularity, but they all continued to write literature that even now, continues to shine a light on what life was really like in Victorian times.
W.S. Gilbert’s home at The Grim’s Dyke
The Grim’s Dyke Hotel was home to the W.S.Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) from 1890 until his death in 1911. His wife, Lady Gilbert, continued to live at The Grim’s Dyke until her passing in 1936. For more information on The Grim’s Dyke, please see our history.