Brown, Julia Prewitt. A Reader’s Guide to the Nineteenth-Century English Novel.

NY: Macmillan, 1985.

The title of this slender but useful volume is actually a bit misleading; the real focus is shown in the descriptive subtitle, “An informal introduction to the world that shaped the novels of Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy, Eliot, and Bronte.”

Brown headed the Degree Program in History and Literature at Harvard and her intention here is to provide the context necessary to understanding what those major writers of the Regency and Victorian eras were saying.

Her approach is topical, with chapters on class and money (money motivated everything in Victorian Britain, whether they admitted to it or not), the aristocracy and the gentry, the special place of the Church of England, with a balancing chapter on evangelicalism and the dissenters (the spread of whom were a key factor in “Victorianism”), the growth of education and the professions (mostly because of the Industrial Revolution), the changing role of marriage, and the structure of government and its eventual reform. Throughout, she provides examples from major works of fiction — how Austen saw the “gentleman,” how Dickens’s view of education changed over time, how the growing importance of professionalism changed the middle class in Eliot’s work, and so on. She also makes note of the problems American university students often have in understanding British social institutions that have no real counterpart in the U.S. — or in present-day Britain, come to that. The style is easy and straightforward and the author’s examples may send you back to reread the books she cites with a new understanding.

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