Victorian Writers and Poets


cover W&P

Now that my Victorian Writers & Poets has been remaindered, you might like a glance at just a handful of the entries (from the first half of the alphabet):

William ACTON (1813-75)

Doctor and writer specialising in ‘indelicate’ topics whose first book (1841) was on the ‘generative organs’ and whose most famous (1857) was on their ‘functions and disorders’. His 1858 treatise on prostitution led to the Contagious Diseases Act of 1866 and his 1870 revised edition criticised and helped improve the Act. He was one of the few writers brave enough to view the ‘social disease’ and its purveyors with sympathy, though the guidance in his texts was impaired by his impracticable morality.


A journalist and author of thrilling historical stories – the Newgate Novels. The dashing Ainsworth (1805-82) had enormous success with Rockwood (1834) which glamorised Dick Turpin as much as Jack Sheppard (1839) did for its own criminal hero, though he wrote a touch more soberly in Old St Paul’s (1841) and The Lancashire Witches (1849) et cetera. (He wrote almost 40 novels.) His serial, The Tower of London (1840), sumptuously produced by publisher Bentley and lavishly illustrated by Cruikshank, was so successful that Bentley made Ainsworth editor of Bentley’s Miscellany. Ainsworth went on to produce his own Ainsworth’s Magazine, in which a few more of his novels were illustrated by Cruikshank, till the two fell out in 1844. (Cruikshank later claimed not only to have collaborated but to have invented these novels – but he laid a similar charge against Charles Dickens. The claim was as nonsensical as his drawings.) A huge seller in his day, both in book and magazine serial form, Ainsworth is wisely ignored today.

Henry Spencer ASHBEE (1834-1900)

Under the pseudonym ‘Pisanus Fraxi’ he compiled a massive Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1877), the first serious bibliography of erotica and pornography. Centuria Librorum Absconditorum expanded it in 1879 and Catena Librorum Tacendorum completed the work in 1885. Biographer Ian Gibson claims that Ashbee also wrote as ‘Walter’.


Public opinion is a permeating influence, and it exacts obedience to itself; it requires us to think other men’s thoughts, to speak other men’s words, to follow other men’s habits. Of course, if we do not, no formal ban ensues; no corporeal pain, no coarse penalty of a barbarous society is inflicted on the offender: but we are called ‘eccentric’; there is a gentle murmur of ‘most unfortunate ideas’, ‘singular young man’, ‘well-intentioned, I dare say; but unsafe, sir, quite unsafe’.  From his essay on The Character of Sir Robert Peel

Bagehot (1826-77) is one of the Victorian historians you can still read with a degree of pleasure. His The English Constitution (1867) remains a classic work, and was reissued in 1963. At the time he wrote it he was editor of The Economist (he had married the founder’s daughter) and had previously been editor of The National Review. ‘The best reason why Monarchy is a strong government,’ he said in that book, ‘is that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other.’

He was both a political and literary critic, and most of his works still stand up well, even if Physics or Politics (1872) is at times an awkward marriage of state politics and theories of natural selection. Among his works on literature, Literary Studies (1879) stands out. He was sound on financial analyses, as in his Lombard Street (1873) and Economic Studies (1880) – though it is said that he spelt badly and could barely add up. His words of 1880 seem especially pertinent to the economic maelstrom whipped up in 2008 & 9:

The result is that we have placed the exclusive custody of our entire banking reserve in the hands of a single board of directors not particularly trained for the duty – who might be called ‘amateurs’ – who have no particular interest above other people in keeping it undiminished – who acknowledge no obligation to keep it undiminished – who have never been told by any great statesman or public authority that they are so to keep it or that they have anything to do with it – who are named by and are agents for a proprietary which would have a greater income if it was diminished – who do not fear, and who need not fear, ruin, even if it were all gone and wasted.   From Lombard Street

It is to Bagehot that we owe the comforting belief that the role of the Bank of England is to underpin confidence and to be the ‘lender of last resort’.


A late Victorian (1867 – 1931), more a 20th century figure, but his output was so voluminous that, although his first stories appeared as late as 1890, more than a million of his words had been printed by the time Victoria died. He came from resolutely middle class stock; his father was a solicitor and young Arnold was expected to follow that profession, but at the age of twenty-one he left home to make his way in London, starting as a clerk while trying to establish himself as a writer.

The first stories appeared in Tit-Bits (1890) and the Yellow Book (1895), and his semi-autobiographical The Man From The North came out in 1898. Earlier, in 1893, he had become editor of Woman magazine and, for much of his life, journalism was to play a large part in his career, although it is for his 20th century fiction, brilliantly describing middle class and usually provincial life, that he is most remembered. The Clayhanger series and, best of all¸ the many stories, short and long, set in his ‘Five Towns’ (broadly based on the pottery towns around Stoke on Trent) have been his most successful, although The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) is perhaps his greatest.

It is also worth seeking out his lively and revealing diaries, begun in 1896 and continuing till 1929.

February 13th, 1897

Yesterday afternoon, a sandwich-man in Coventry Street, stooping with difficulty owing to his encumbrances, picked up a cigar-end out of the gutter.

‘My first today,’ he exclaimed to his mate who was in front of him.

Tuesday, June 29th, 1897

I wonder if women realize the acute pleasure which men derive from the sight of them in their fresh, cool, clean, summer toilettes – openwork stockings, diaphanous sleeves, and general impression of musliness.

Sunday, December 31st, 1899

This year I have written 335,340 words, grand total. 228 articles and stories (including 4 instalments of a serial of 30,000 – 7,500 words each) have actually been published. Also my book of plays – ‘Polite Farces’…. My total earnings were £592 3s 1d, of which sum I have yet to receive £72 10s.


A colossus of the Victorian stage, his first success came in 1841 when London Assurance was put on at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. (The RSC revived this comedy with some success at the Aldwych in 1970, and the National Theatre had a sensational success with it in 2010, showing the play via a live telecast into cinemas worldwide.) Boucicault had a succession of crowd-pleasers, including in 1852 two big hits, The Corsican Brothers and The Vampire. The following year he emigrated to America, and he continued to dominate the theatre both there and in Britain, satisfying American, British and Irish audiences. (He was Irish himself.) His biggest hits were probably The Octoroon (1859, a melodrama about a glamorous freed female slave), The Colleen Bawn (1860, an outrageously Irish romantic melodrama), and The Shaughraun (1874, roping in all three audiences with a swirling tale of an escaped Irish convict betrayed by a fellow Irishman, reluctantly arrested by a noble Englishman, and a final emigration of the hero and his sweetheart to America). Apart from being a successful dramatist, Boucicault (1820-90) strove to improve the rewards for his fellow writers, earning for them the right to royalties from their plays (rather than a niggardly once-off payment) and copyright protection in America.

Mrs (Mary) BRADDON

When your first novel is a sensation – indeed, when it is disparagingly called a ‘sensation novel’ – it can be hard for you to get your later work looked at seriously. So it was for Mrs Braddon (1835-1915). She (or rather, her husband, the publisher John Maxwell) published her first novel, Lady Audley’s Secret, in 1862. This vigorous saga of a bigamous blonde femme fatale who murders her first husband, shoves him down a well, then has a good crack at both her second husband and his interfering nephew, was an enormous smash hit. What should Mary Braddon do next? She tried some more in the same vein (she would have been foolish not to) with rapidly-produced titles such as Aurora Floyd (1863), John Marchmont’s Legacy (1863), The Doctor’s Wife (1864), Sir Jasper’s Tenant (1865) et cetera, but the bulk of her later titles were placed a rung or two up the intellectual ladder. She did her own take on Madame Bovary with The Doctor’s Wife (1864), wrote satires, society novels, historical romances, tragedies and ghost stories – some 80 novels in all – and found time for a good deal of journalism. She also edited Belgravia and Temple Bar.

Her early life could have provided source material for her novels. An actress, fatherless, who took to the stage in part to support her mother, she lived with John Maxwell and looked after his children for a decade and a half before his insane wife died and Miss Braddon (as she then was) could marry him. He and she added six more children to his original brood of five. She had written several serious books before Lady Audley’s Secret, including Garibaldi and Other Poems, a quite different work. These early pieces are difficult to find.

Elizabeth Barrett BROWNING

When one thinks of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) one pictures a delicately frail young woman with long dark tresses, permanently reclined on a chaise longue, tucked beneath a tartan blanket, and perhaps feeding titbits to her red cocker spaniel, Flush (born 1842).

A precocious student when a child, Elizabeth Barrett suffered a spinal injury at fifteen which left her semi-invalid for the rest of her life (hence the chaise longue). Her first book of poetry, The Battle of Marathon (juvenile but not without interest) was privately printed in 1820. A second work appeared in 1826 but must have seemed of little consequence against the sudden death of her mother in 1828. The family moved to Wimpole Street in 1835, and it wasn’t until 1838 that she produced her first notable book, The Seraphim and Other Poems. That same year she was sent to Torquay to recover from a haemorrhage. (It was there that her beloved brother Edward would be drowned in a sailing accident two years later. She lost another brother, Samuel, who died in Jamaica around that time.)

She returned to London in 1841, but it was not until 1845 that an exchange of letters began with the younger, less popular poet, Robert Browning. Her renownedly tyrannical and widowed father had forbidden any of his (originally) twelve children to marry without his consent but, in September 1846, she and Robert married secretly and fled to Italy. Their only child (Robert Wiedermann) was born there in 1849. After 15 years of happy marriage she is said to have died in her husband’s arms.

Her book, Poems (1844), had been enthusiastically received (one of its poems, The Cry of the Children, being widely quoted and discussed) but it was not until 1850, after the birth of her son, that she published a second Poems, a book which included her famous Sonnets from the Portuguese (verses she had actually composed during her courtship). Casa Guidi Windows followed in 1851 (Casa Guidi was their Florence home) and perhaps her greatest work, Aurora Leigh, appeared in 1857. The theme of Italian liberation had been visible in Casa Guidi Windows but it came to the fore in her late work, Poems before Congress (1860), where it alienated many of her readers. After her death, her husband prepared a final Last Poems and had it published in 1862. Volumes of letters and memorabilia swiftly followed from several pens.

Was a writer’s life in the 19th century so very different? Here, in a sense, is the writer’s life as seen by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her quasi-autobiographical poem, Aurora Leigh. Despite the occasional high Victorian line, I think today’s writers may feel it strikes a chord.

I worked on, on,
Through all the bristling fence of nights and days
Which hedges time in from the eternities,
I struggled, —never stopped to note the stakes
Which hurt me in my course. The midnight oil
Would stink sometimes; there came some vulgar needs:
I had to live that therefore I might work,
And, being but poor, I was constrained, for life,
To work with one hand for the booksellers
While working with the other for myself
And art: you swim with feet as well as hands,
Or make small way. I apprehended this –
In England no one lives by verse that lives;
And, apprehending, I resolved by prose
To make a space to sphere my living verse.
I wrote for cyclopaedias, magazines,
And weekly papers, holding up my name
To keep it from the mud. I learnt the use
Of the editorial ‘we’ in a review
As courtly ladies the fine trick of trains,
And swept it grandly through the open doors
As if one could not pass through doors at all
Save so encumbered. I wrote tales beside,
Carved many an article on cherry-stones
To suit light readers,—something in the lines
Revealing, it was said, the mallet-hand,
But that, I’ll never vouch for: what you do
For bread, will taste of common grain, not grapes,
Although you have a vineyard in Champagne;
Much less in Nephelococcygia
As mine was, peradventure.
Having bread
For just so many days, just breathing room
For body and verse, I stood up straight and worked
My veritable work. And as the soul
Which grows within a child makes the child grow,—
Or as the fiery sap, the touch from God
Careering through a tree, dilates the bark
And roughs with scale and knob, before it strikes
Summer foliage out in a green flame —
So life, in deepening with me, deepened all
The course I took, the work I did. Indeed
The academic law convinced of sin;
The critics cried out on the falling off,
Regretting the first manner. But I felt
Heart’s life throbbing in my verse to show
It lived, it also — certes incomplete,
Disordered with all Adam in the blood,
But even its very tumours, warts and wens
Still organized by and implying life.


The classic fin de siècle poet of decadence, deeply immersed in the closeted Yellow Book and Savoy circles, he epitomised decadent behaviour, falling in love with a girl of twelve, toying with Roman Catholic exoticism, whiling away his hours between Dublin, Paris and mainly London, with its Café Royal, luxurious drawing rooms, seedy taverns and damp gutters beneath the stars. Born in 1867 he died, in character, of excess, in 1900. Dilemmas, a book of stories, came out in 1895; Verses in 1896; The Pierrot of the Minute, a one-act verse drama, in 1897; Decorations (with more experimental poems) in 1899. Two poems of his will always be anthologised: ‘They are not long, the weeping and the laughter’ and ‘Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae’, better known (incorrectly) as ‘I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

George du MAURIER

Born in Paris, though the son of a naturalised Englishman, du Maurier was one of the most well-known illustrators of the Victorian age, a mainstay of Punch and other periodicals, and a first choice to illustrate the novels of major authors. (It was more common in those days for adult novels to be issued illustrated.) From the ’60s he had been writing comic verse, much of which appeared in the magazines he illustrated or for which he supplied cartoons.

In 1891 he published his first novel, Peter Ibbetson, and then, in 1894, the short novel which made an enormous impact and is remembered to this day – though in some ways it was just a skit (he caricatured some of his friends as characters in the story). The book was Trilby, and it tells how young Trilby’s singing voice comes to her through the aid of Svengali, the mesmerist, and how it is lost when Svengali dies.

Du Maurier’s one other novel, The Martian, was published posthumously in 1897. He was the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, and lived from 1834 to 1896.

Elizabeth GASKELL

Not merely one of the best women writers of the Victorian age but one of the best novelists, remembered (and still enjoyed) as author of the delightful Cranford (1853), the ‘social conditions’ novel Mary Barton (1848), the ‘shocking’ (because of its non-condemnation of illegitimacy) Ruth (1853), the ‘condition of England’ North and South (1855) and, perhaps the most enjoyable of her ‘serious’ novels, Wives and Daughters (not quite finished, 1866).

Gaskell (1810-65) was the daughter of a Unitarian minister and never strayed from her down-to-earth religious faith. She married a minister of that faith, and it was while mourning the death of their son that she wrote her first novel, Mary Barton. (By then she was in her mid-thirties, and had been writing shorter pieces for years; she was renowned within the family as a ‘born story-teller’.) Despite her background, any ‘preaching’ within her novels was far from pious: she loathed social injustice and cruelty and she used her stories to speak out against them. But her stories were neither blasts of bombast nor polemical: her tone was positive, always seeking better understanding and communication between different classes – whether those classes be employers and employees, the rich and poor, or simply, the generations within a family. Like many Victorian writers, she packed detail into her stories but, where other writers padded out, she wrote with absolute clarity and made her readers see vividly how it was to live in a near but distant world.

She was a journalist too, and a contributor of ‘pieces’ to magazines, and it is significant perhaps that her first recorded publication, although a poem, was entitled Sketches Among the Poor, No. 1. It appeared in Blackwood’s in January 1837. Only a few, random pieces came out over the next decade until Mary Barton in 1848, but the success of that novel (published anonymously at first) led to her being celebrated in London and having pieces taken by Dickens’s celebrated Household Words. She swiftly became one of his principal – if often tardy – contributors. (The first sketches for what would become Cranford appeared in that magazine.)

In August 1850 she met the equally celebrated (though less prolific) Charlotte Brontë, and the two became great friends. From that friendship grew the choice of Mrs Gaskell as Charlotte’s biographer, following her early death (in 1855). The Life of Charlotte Brontë was a warm, readable and, at the time, controversial book – controversial because, far from painting the Brontë family in a rosy light, the book revealed many of the family skeletons: Charlotte’s brother Branwell and his adulterous affair, the mistreatment of children at Cowan Bridge School, the authoritarian demands of Patrick Brontë. There were threats of libel cases, and parts of the book had to be rewritten (only after its second edition, by which time the damage was done). Yet, to this day, Mrs Gaskell’s account remains a fine, and perhaps the best, Brontë biography.

In 1865, with her husband newly retired as a minister, the Gaskells moved to a new and more suitable home. They had not finished unpacking when, unexpectedly, Elizabeth Gaskell, in the middle of a happy conversation, stopped mid-sentence and died.


Hawker (1803-75), an eccentric priest cum poet based in Morwenstowe on the Cornish coast, became addicted to the occult and to opium and, in his church, chose to wear a fisherman’s jersey, to compare himself to Saint Francis, and to welcome animals to his services. His poems tend to reflect his Cornish background, his eclectic beliefs and his take on history; and his one prose work of note was Footprints of Former Men in Far Cornwall (1870). The best poetry collection was his The Quest of the Sangraal (1864) and his most famous individual poem ‘The Song of the Western Men’ includes the lines:

A good sword and a trusty hand!

A merry heart and true!

King James’s men shall understand

What Cornish lads can do!

And have they fix’d the where and when?

And shall Trelawny die ?

Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men

Will see the reason why!


Though of English ancestry, he was born in Argentina in 1841 and lived there till 1868 when his father died. He contracted rheumatic fever at the age of 15, became unable to live the outdoor life to the extent he wanted, but nevertheless immersed himself in nature, especially ornithology. Some of his natural history contributions appeared in Argentinean journals (they would later in British ones) and his Argentinean upbringing is beautifully recalled in Far Away and Long Ago (1918). Hudson travelled for a while, then came to England, but was not naturalised till 1900. Ensconced here, he continued writing on nature, earning next to nothing from those writings. He produced two novels, The Purple Land (1885) and The Crystal Age (1887) but they do not compare to works such as Argentine Ornithology (1888) to which he contributed, The Naturalist in La Plata (1892), Idle Days in Patagonia (1893) or British Birds in 1895. He remained desperately poor, though he was helped by his publishers, Dent, and his editor Richard Garnett, and was given a Civil List pension in 1901. Later would come his most successful books, Green Mansions (1904) and A Shepherd’s Life (1910). He is remembered as one of our finest writers on the natural world. He died in 1922.


Kavanagh (1824-77) was a novelist who did much to improve the image of the French in John Bull’s island. Though born in Ireland, she spent much of her youth in France and fell in love with it. Her admiration fills the pages of novels such as Madeleine (1848), Nathalie (1850) and Adèle (1858) and, as if to show that her France was no fiction, she produced Woman in France During the Eighteenth Century (1850) and a fine French Women of Letters in 1862 (then an English Women of Letters in 1863). A British-based Bessie appeared in 1872 and a book of short stories, Forget-me-nots in 1878.

Following a discussion on Victorian Writers and Poets in the TLS in October 2010, Francis Wheen, the journalist and biographer of Karl Marx, wrote to say that “Bronte-esque is probably the best adjective for her novels”. He passed on the DNB’s judgement that while Nathalie (1850) was influenced by Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Bronte was in turn influenced by Nathalie when writing Villette (1853). The women corresponded. But, he continued, “here’s the most interesting fact about Kavanagh from my point of view: her father, a failed novelist and philologist named Morgan Peter Kavanagh, was Karl Marx’s landlord in Soho in the early 1850s, subletting two rooms at 28 Dean St. The place has since become the restaurant Quo Vadis“.

A blue plaque gives the wrong date for Marx’s occupancy, Mr Wheen went on, “but there is no memorial to Morgan Kavanagh, author of The Discovery of the Science of Languages (1844), fairly described by the DNB as a ridiculous work on philology that provided highly dubious evidence for the origin of all languages”. When Morgan’s novel The Hobbies was published in 1857, “he claimed it had been edited by Julia, by then a successful author”. His attempt to capitalize on his daughter’s fane sparked threats of legal action, and an angry correspondence between Julia and the publisher in the Athenaeum.

(This is yet more proof that there’s more knowledge in Francis Wheen’s mind than in anyone else’s I can think of.)


Today’s readers associate Kingsley (1819-75) with The Water Babies (1863), though that book is untypical of his output or his mission. For Kingsley was a man with a mission: to reform. His first novel, Yeast (serialised in Fraser’s Magazine in 1848) and his second Alton Locke (1850) were both campaigning novels – for (and at times, against) Chartism, for education, for improved sanitation, for the working man. (The working woman was seldom noticed then; Kingsley cannot be blamed for that.) His historical Hypatia (Fraser’s again, in 1851) told of a philosopher torn to pieces by early Christians, and outraged sturdy Victorians more than had his socialist stories. Then came his spirited (and today, his second most famous book) Westward Ho! (1855), another historical novel, set in Elizabethan times, which again upset many (though not most) of his readers with its lip-smacking violence. He continued to alternate historical with political novels: Hereward the Wake (1866) was more approved of (a frequent ‘school prize’) and The Heroes (1856, about Perseus) inspired or was presented to young readers also. The Water Babies was unambiguously aimed at them, although its exposure of the plight of chimney-sweeps (a relatively short part of the novel as a whole) tugged at the heartstrings of more adult readers, and changed the law.

Kingsley was one of the ‘great names’ of the Victorian book-world, despite the number of times he gave offence to readers (attacking exploitative employers one day, Roman Catholicism the next) and despite the paradoxes of his nature – viz: he was a staunch churchman whose writings show he enjoyed sex (with his wife); he was a ‘Muscular Christian’ although he stammered and suffered from breakdowns; he was a fierce patriot who attacked the establishment; he attacked slavery yet would descend to racism. He was himself the son of a clergyman, and in 1844 he became the rector of Eversley (Hants), a village in which he lived for the rest of his life. A prolific writer (he believed in cramming every minute with things well done) his collected works would fill some 28 volumes.


Britain’s most derided poet (1830-1902) displayed his appalling wares in Poetic Gems (1890), a volume which contains many unintentionally hilarious odes including his famous ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’. Born in Edinburgh, the son of an Irish weaver based in Dundee and, for a while, a weaver himself, he let his ambition carry him back to Edinburgh where he read his verses in public houses and sold them in broadsheet form.

I must now conclude my lay

By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,

That your central girders would not have given way,

At least many sensible men do say,

Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,

At least many sensible men confesses,

For the stronger we our houses do build,

The less chance we have of being killed.

Wise words from his The Tay Bridge Disaster.

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