Non-Fictional Prose of the Victorian Age

Victorian literature is characterized by its abundance in the field of non-fictional prose, the range of variety of which is baffling. Non-fictional prose writers of this period explore a fine art of living while simultaneously carrying the message of immediate public concern. They focused on society while also encompassing within its realm, theology, histories, scientific endeavors, biographies, ethical and philosophical treatises, literary and art criticisms and so on.

Thomas Carlyle is undoubtedly one of the most important literary figures of the Victorian Age. His major historical works are The French Revolution, a series of vivid word-pictures full of audacity and color, rather than sober history; Oliver Cromwell's Letter's and Speeches, a huge effort relieved from tedium only by Carlyle's volcanic methods; the genial and humane Life of John Sterling and The History of Frederich II of Prussia which was enormous in scale and heavy with detail. His works dealing with contemporary events include Chartism, Past and Present and Latter-day Pamphlets. The series of lectures that he delivered in 1837 was published as On heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History. Carlyle's method was essentially biographical and his aim was to make History alive by means of his masculine imagination and pithy style.

After Carlyle the next great Victorian non-fictional prose writer is John Ruskin who wrote remarkably on art and the social and economic questions of his time in a style that was delicate, graceful and almost lyrical. His Modern Painters was a defence of Turner's paintings whereas The Stones of Venice, which is his masterpiece in thought and style, was written in appraisal of the Gothic style of Art. Ruskin's Unto This Last and Munera Pulveris comprises of a series of articles on political economy. His other important works are Sesame and Lilies and Two Paths which are a course of lectures and The Crown of Wild Olives which comprises of a series of addresses.

The noted Victorian poet, Mathew Arnold also holds his place in English Literature as a tireless critic. His most renowned work Essays in Criticism where he criticized Shelley's poetic circle is marked by wide reading and careful thought. His Culture and Anarchy and Friendship's Garland aimed at broadening the mental and moral horizon of the English people; whereas his Literature and Dogma and God and the Bible undertook the task of reconstructing Christianity on grounds of naturalism. Arnold's writing style is typically elegant and for multiple reasons he is acclaimed as a prophetic critic.

Thomas Babington Macaulay contributed five biographies for Encyclopaedia Britannica. His essays dealt with either literary subjects like Milton, Byron, Bunyan etc or historical studies including his famous compositions on Warren Hastings and Lord Clive. His opinions were often one sided, and his knowledge was often flawed with actual error or distorted by his craving for antithesis, but his essays are clearly and ably written and disclose an eye for picturesque effect. His History of England remained unfinished with four volumes of the book completed during his lifetime. His treatment of history is marked by picturesque details, desire for brilliant effect which resulted in a hard, self confident manner and in a lack of broader outlines and deeper views.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a moral essayist whose eleven volumes of lectures and essays cover a wide range of subjects which chiefly deal with the conduct of life.

Walter Pater (1839-94) is known both as a stylist and a literary critic. He devoted himself to art and literature producing some remarkable volumes on these subjects. The collection of his first essays appeared as Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). The essays were chiefly concerned with art. Imaginary Portraits (1887) deals with artists and Appreciations (1889) is on literary themes with an introductory essay on style. Pater was a representative of the school of aesthetic criticism. He was a strong believer of the theory of art for art’s sake. He focused his attention always on form rather than subject matter. His own style is among the most notable of the Victorian prose writers. It is the creation of immense application and forethought; every word is conned, every sentence proved and every rhythm appraised. It is never cheap, but firm and equable.

Symonds who was also among forerunner of literary critics wrote Studies of the Greek Poets and his master-piece The Renaissance in Italy in which he contests Ruskin's views on art.
Mention must be made of the historians Henry Thomas Buckle, who wrote History of Civilization in England and Edward Augustus Freeman who gave us the very valuable History of Norman Conquest. John Richard Greene's A short History of the English People took the rank of a text-book which was also literature.

Essays were also written on scientific subjects. Charles Darwin's ground-breaking On the Origin of species and The Descent of Man and Thomas Henry Huxley's Man's Place in Nature are notable for their masterly gifts of exposition and argument.


Thus it can be very justifiably concluded that Victorian non-fictional prose was varied as well as useful, interesting as well as edifying in what they offered to the diligent readers.

Last modified: Tuesday, 5 September 2017, 2:13 AM