Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe
Literary culture in Anglo-Saxon England flourished in two languages—Anglo-Latin and Old English—although the written record of that flourishing is uneven. The literature in these languages of culture did not develop in isolation from each other: vernacular literary works often show a keen awareness of Latin texts and textual practices. Vernacular literature in Old English was precocious in its early expansion from secular and religious poetry to homiletic and documentary prose, as well as translations of the Bible, saints’ lives (in prose and in verse), histories, and philosophical works. The best known of all Old English works is Beowulf, and close behind are the short lyric poems generally, though misleadingly, known as elegies. Not always clear from even the best Modern English translations is the way that these intense poems share techniques of composition and echoes of shared formulas with other long and short poems. The saint-heroes of Elene, Juliana, and Judith share heroic values and poetic language with Beowulf and The Wanderer. This kind of appropriation—where the language of secular poetry was repurposed for religious subjects—was the miracle Bede saw in Cædmon’s Hymn.
Old English literary prose developed in the late 9th century in conjunction with a program of translation from Latin associated with King Alfred. Within a relatively short time, Anglo-Saxon scholars translated into Old English Gregory’s Dialogues, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, the first fifty psalms, and, further, Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and Orosius’s World History. The late 10th and early 11th centuries saw an efflorescence of Old English prose, particularly in the works of Ælfric of Eynsham and Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Spanning the 9th century to the 12th, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports and reflects on the events of its time, in verse and in prose.
From ancient Greece on, fictional narratives have entailed deciphering mystery. Sophocles’ Oedipus must solve the mystery of the plague decimating Thebes; the play is a dramatization of how he ultimately “detects” the culprit responsible for the plague, who turns out to be Oedipus himself. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines a successful plot as one that has a conflict (which can include, and often does include, a “mystery”) that rises to a climax, followed by a resolution of the conflict, a plot line that describes not only Oedipus Rex but also every Sherlock Holmes story.
A particular genre of mystery writing is defined by the mystery at the center of the story that is crucially, definitively solved by a particular person known as a detective, either private or police, who by ratiocination (close observation coupled with logical patterns of thought based on material evidence) uncovers and sorts out the relevant facts essential to a determination of who did the crime and how and why. The form of detective fiction throughout most of the 19th century was the short story published in various periodicals of the period. A few longer detective fictions were published as separate books in the 19th century, but book-length detective fiction, such as that by Agatha Christie, was really a product of the 20th century.
Most critics of detective fiction see the beginning of the genre in the three stories of Edgar Allan Poe which feature his amateur detective, Auguste Dupin, and were published in the 1840s. Although Poe’s 1840s stories as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which first appeared in the 1880s, are probably the most well known of 19th-century detective fictions, a number of other writers of generically recognizable detective fiction published stories in the almost fifty years between Poe and Conan Doyle, including a number that featured female detectives. Finally, from the 1890s into the early 20th century, a plethora of new detective fictions, still in short-story form for the most part, appeared not only in Britain but also in France and the United States.
Detective fiction has always been popular, but serious critical interest in the genre only developed in the 20th century. In the second half of that century, this critical interest expanded into the academic world. The popularity of the genre has only continued to grow. Both detective fictions (now nearly all novel length) and critical interest in the genre from a variety of perspectives are now an international phenomenon, and detective novels dominate many best-seller lists.
Troy J. Bassett
Beginning in the 18th century and continuing throughout the 19th century, circulating libraries became an integral part of the literary marketplace as the chief means of distributing books. Subscribers paid an annual or per-book fee to rent volumes: during the Victorian period, the typical subscription rate was one guinea (21s) per year to borrow one volume at a time. The relatively high price of books made circulating libraries an economical means for many middle-class families to access books: for less than the price of one three-volume novel (one-and-a-half guineas, or 31s 6d), a subscriber could borrow dozens if not more volumes. Hundreds of circulating libraries existed during the Victorian period, but the two largest were Mudie’s Select Library (1842–1937) and W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library (1860–1961). Mudie’s, headquartered in London, had upwards of 50,000 subscribers, established branches in other major cities, and shipped books around the world. W. H. Smith added a library department to its pre-existing network of railway bookstalls with larger branches in major cities. Between them, Mudie’s and W. H. Smith became the largest purchasers of books and thereby had a direct and indirect effect on Victorian literature. In particular, the three-volume novel system—whereby the high price limited sales to the libraries who then had a monopoly on new fiction—encouraged British readers to become book borrowers instead of book buyers. The format of the three-volume novel led to certain generic conventions influencing areas such as characterization, plot, and style, which remained until the format was abolished in 1894. Since the libraries, especially Mudie’s and W. H. Smith, largely controlled the distribution of literature, they often exerted an informal censorship on literature which some authors, such as George Moore, advocated against.
The romance genre is geared financially to a female readership worldwide: a genre written and consumed overwhelmingly by women, and with a male readership of around 14 percent. Since the 21st century, romance novels have generated over $1.3 billion dollars in sales per annum in the United States, where one out of four books sold and one out of two mass-market books sold are romance novels. According to romance publishing behemoth Harlequin Mills & Boon, the company publishes 120 new titles each month, drawing from a stable of 200 authors within the UK and a further 1,300 worldwide. A Mills & Boon volume is sold every four seconds in more than one hundred countries, translated into twenty-six languages. But the romance genre consists of more than Harlequin Mills & Boon novels. According to industry definitions in the United States and Australia, a romance novel consists of “a central love story” and “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (Romance Writers of America website). As long as these two basic requirements are met, romance novels can have any tone or style (barring a mocking or derisive one) and be set in any time (past, present, or future) or place (in the real world or in a fantasyland). They may include varying degrees of sensuality, from the modest discretion of Christian “inspirationals” to highly explicit descriptions of sexual acts in romantic erotica. They may also overlap with any other genre, such as chick lit, historical, crime, suspense, or thriller. The roots of the romance novel can be traced back to Shakespearean comedies, with the celebratory betrothal of the romantic couple forming the happy ending of such plays as Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or As You Like It. In prose fiction, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) are considered literary forebearers. The modern romance was shaped by British publishing firm Mills & Boon, which became a market leader in the genre by the 1930s with a distribution network in all British Commonwealth countries and colonies in the first half of the 20th century. During the 1950s, Mills & Boon novels began to be distributed in North America by Canadian firm Harlequin, and the two companies merged in 1971 to form the romance publishing powerhouse Harlequin Mills & Boon, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s when it became the world’s largest publisher of romances, having 80 percent of the world’s market share of fiction. Over time, the genre changed its representations of gender and attitudes toward women’s work and domestic life. The 1970s and 1980s saw a gradual Americanization of the genre as New York firms muscled in on Harlequin Mills & Boon’s territory, publishing historical romances and diversifying contemporary romances to include American romantic protagonists, settings, and themes. The genre also became increasingly sexualized during this period through its depiction of sexual activity. The turn of the 21st century witnessed an increasing fragmentation of the genre as the rise of independent publishers afforded writers and readers the opportunity to explore niche markets: erotica, African American stories, paranormal romances featuring vampires, phoenixes, and werewolves, among other shapeshifting romantic protagonists, and many others.
Xavier Aldana Reyes
The writings covered to by the umbrella term “Gothic” are so varied in style, thematic interests, and narrative effects that an overarching definition becomes problematic and even undesirable. The contemporary Gothic, drawing on an already fragmented and heterogenic artistic tradition, is less a genre than a vestigial type of writing that resuscitates older horrors and formulas and filters them through the echo chambers of a modern preoccupation with the social value of transgressive literature. In a century when the Gothic has once again exploded in popularity, and following a period of strong institutionalization of its study in the 1990s and 2000s, establishing some of its key modern manifestations and core concerns becomes a pressing issue. The Gothic may be fruitfully separated from horror, a genre premised on the emotional impact it seeks to have on readers, as a type of literature concerned with the legacy of the past on the present—and, more importantly, with the retrojecting of contemporary anxieties into times considered more barbaric. These have increasingly manifested in neo-Victorian fictions and in stories where settings are haunted by forgotten or repressed events but also by weird fiction, where encounters with beings and substances from unplumbed cosmic depths lead to a comparable temporal discombobulation. The intertextual mosaics of the contemporary Gothic also borrow from and recycle well-known myths and figures such as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster in order to show their continued relevance or else to adapt their recognizable narratives to the early 21st century. Finally, the Gothic, as a type of literature that is quickly becoming defined by the cultural work it carries out and by its transnational reach, has found in monstrosity, especially in its mediation of alterity, of traumatic national pasts and of the viral nature of the digital age, a fertile ground for the proliferation of new nightmares.
Monica F. Cohen
When Victorian writers talked about the home, they invoked a range of contested ideas and complex affects about the material and imagined space where self and society meet. Emerging as a fully developed ideology by the middle of the 19th century, domesticity organized beliefs about the family, gender identity, sexuality, subject formation, socioeconomic class, work, civilization, and empire. As an ideology, Victorian domesticity pivots on two figures: the figure of separate spheres and the figure of the domestic woman. The binary logic of separate spheres identifies a private domain where femininity, leisure, feeling, and an ethic of care coalesce in opposition to a public domain where masculinity, work, industry, endurance, and an ethic of achievement preside. Governing the private sphere, the idealized middle-class domestic woman exercises a moral authority that derives from her naturally self-sacrificial spirit, a socioeconomic authority in managing a labor-intensive household, and a creative authority in using the materials of private life representing the family’s social status as a matter of financial and ethical respectability. In this sense, the home provided a rhetoric and narrative form for mapping an individual’s accommodation of social categories and economic forces. For better or worse, the image of the family hearth’s comfort, coziness and good cheer—its status as a haven in a heartless world—presided over a large swath of the Victorian imagination despite ripped patches that exposed domestic violence, sexual transgression, gender subordination, and socioeconomic coercion. For every sentimental Dickensian Christmas feast displaying a repentant miser breaking bread with a disabled waif, there were equally popular stories in which children are beaten, wives incarcerated, and households blighted by industrial suffering and bureaucratic indifference. Victorian domesticity thus relied on both mythologizing and demythologizing energies.
Robert W. Rix
From the 1750s until the 1840s, the interest in Icelandic manuscripts of mythology and heroic sagas, as well as various forms of Nordic folklore, entered a new phase. One of the central reasons for this was an emergent attention to vernacular, national, and even primitive literature associated with the rise of Romanticism. Investigations of the Nordic past had been carried out before this time, and a popular craze for all things “Viking” came later in the 19th century, but the Romantic period marks a major juncture in relation to providing the Old North with cultural meaning. If the intellectual history of rediscovering Old Norse texts (i.e., poetry and prose written in the North Germanic language until the 14th century, known primarily from Icelandic manuscripts) and medieval Nordic folklore (found in medieval ballads, sagas, and heroic legends) differed in various European countries, there was also a remarkable sense of common aim and purpose in the reception history as it developed during the Romantic period. This was because European scholars and writers had come to see medieval Nordic texts as epitomizing the manners and literature of a common Germanic past. In particular, Old Norse texts from Icelandic manuscripts were believed to preserve the pre-Christian religion, as this was once shared by Scandinavians, Anglo-Saxons, Germans, and the Franks. Thus, interest in such texts circulated with particular intensity between Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain, as well as, to a lesser degree, France. Paradoxically, if medieval Nordic texts were seen as wild and unwieldy pieces, unaffected by classical learning and sophistication, they were also sought out as triumphant records of the vernacular and national. In addition to this, the untamed use of fantastic and sublime elements in these texts fitted into a new Romantic emphasis on the primitive and imaginative resources of literature.
There are three interrelated areas in which Nordic texts made an impact. The first of these was in the field of antiquarian studies. Scholars had taken an interest in the texts and culture of the Nordic past beginning in the 17th century, publishing their findings primarily in Latin. But efforts were redoubled after Paul Henri Mallet, a professor at Copenhagen, published a popular history of the Old North (1755) and a selection of Norse poetry (1756) in French. These works gained wide European traction and influenced the reception history in fundamental ways during the Romantic period. The second area of impact was the acceleration of translations and/or adaptations of original manuscript texts that began to appear in modern European languages. But, in effect, a relatively small body of texts were repeated and reworked in various national languages. The third area in which the interest in Nordic literature asserted its impact was among writers and poets, who trawled antiquarian works on Norse history and mythology as an ore to be mined for the purpose of creating—or rather reviving—a national literature. This was a literature that consciously broke with classical models and decorum to provide a new poetic orientation that was both more vernacular and imaginative.
The celebration of medieval Nordic literature cannot be treated in isolation, as if it were an independent phenomenon; it was part of a wider revival of ancient national/vernacular literary forms around Europe. To a significant degree, the attention to Old Norse texts was propelled by the phenomenal success that the Gaelic Ossian poetry enjoyed across Europe. Norse poetry was harnessed as a Germanic parallel that could match both the vigor and purported ancientness of the Ossian tradition. Sometimes the Nordic past was invoked as a larger legacy that represented a shared ethno-cultural past; at other times, it was used with a more focused nationalist aim. But, whatever the intent in individual circumstances, the rediscovery of the Old North took place through the circulation of ideas and key texts as part of a wider European exchange.
Factory girl literature emerged as a powerful critique of the culture of industrialization, delving into mills, canneries and sweatshops to detail the lives of the women and girls who generated industrial development. First appearing in 19th-century Euro-American fiction, from the early 20th century, the form has been dominated by authors writing from Asia. Penned by working women themselves, many of these autobiographies, memoirs, short stories and novels have become literary classics in their own language but their translation and dissemination was impeded by Cold War qualms about sponsoring ‘leftist culture’. Factory girl literature is related to broader categories of industrial and proletarian literature that underline the agency of working-class protagonists. It is unique in highlighting the sexed figure of industrialization and this focus on the gendered experience of rapid development uncovers the costs of the sexual and class violence of industrial life for women. A genealogy of factory girl literature reveals the importance of writing and authorship in labor activism, and feminist politics.
In the new middle-class world of 19th-century Europe and America, whose development parallels that of the realist novel, dress was a clear sign of order and hierarchy—key subjects of the genre’s concerns. In the shift from a traditional aristocratic order to that of the bourgeoisie, dress was of anxious concern to those who lived through this change. It was a minefield, and failure to navigate its codes courted disaster: Dress could conceal and flatter, but also betray, deceive, and seduce—all of which provided the novelist with powerful material. The quest for social and economic success was central to the novelistic plot, though this took one trajectory for men and another for women—whose goal was matrimony. The French Revolution, Honoré de Balzac explained, banished hierarchies, and in dress left only nuances, which became increasingly important to the novel: details were foregrounded, while outfits as a whole were understood.
In mid-19th century England, Charles Dickens, considered the quintessential realist, in fact used dress sporadically for comic effect or quirks to identify a character; the role of dress in William Thackeray’s novels, on the other hand, were more structured, often symbolic. By late in the century, men were less interesting in dark suits. As women were now more visible in work and in public spaces, their clothes became of concern to the novelist. Male dress was about hierarchy and status, female dress about cost, taste, and, above all, morality. Husband–hunting heroines advisedly wore white, but novelists grew less judgmental of the pleasures of dress.
In allegedly classless America, women enjoyed greater social freedoms than in Europe, producing more nuanced approaches to fictional dress. For Henry James, dress was a “brick” in his House of Fiction; sparingly deployed but crucial. Stereotypes were questioned, as was “proper” dress. Throughout the 19th-century novel, clothes and money interacted in relation to family and inheritance. Fin de siècle America was both immensely wealthy and class-conscious, and Edith Wharton, though a member of New York’s elite, confronted her consumerist society with what its frivolity could destroy.
Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge
Victorians experienced a revolution in the novel’s form. In the early 1800s, books were largely unillustrated, perhaps containing a frontispiece (often a stock decorative illustration with little connection to content). Although Walter Scott and Jane Austen built their careers upon unillustrated fiction, by the 1830s and 1840s, technological innovations—wood engraving (developed in the 1790s) and steel engraving (popularized in the 1820s)—enabled the cheap, efficient integration of images and letterpress. Not all subsequent fiction was illustrated, but these innovations birthed the possibility of a new form that, upon a novel’s first publication, melded text and image as partners in meaning making: illustrated serial fiction (appearing either in periodicals or in individually wrapped numbers). Examples of the new form appear in Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836–1837), published in numbers and illustrated largely by Hablôt K. Browne (Phiz); Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837–1839), published in Bentley’s Miscellany and illustrated by George Cruikshank; William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839–1840) and The Tower of London (1840), both published in numbers and illustrated by Cruikshank; and William Makepeace Thackeray’s self-illustrated Vanity Fair (1847–1848), also published in numbers. All used visual elements—wrappers, chapter initials and heads, full-page images, and tailpieces—to establish character and setting, create ironies, and predict plot, uniting pen and pencil in a single art form. While authors such as the Brontës and, later, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell published all or most of their work unillustrated, the prevalence of literary illustrations rose dramatically. In 1842, the Illustrated London News announced the marriage of art and literature.
By the 1860s, often recognized as book illustration’s golden age, illustration flourished. Family periodicals such as the Cornhill Magazine, Once a Week, and Good Words highlighted the collaborative work of prominent novelists and artists (including many Royal Academicians) as essential to middle-class culture. Periodical publication in installments overtook individually wrapped numbers as the dominant form of illustrated serial fiction. Editors paired Eliot with Frederic Leighton (Romola 1862–1863) and Gaskell with George du Maurier (Wives and Daughters, 1864–1866), both in the Cornhill; Harriet Martineau with John Everett Millais (her “historiettes,” 1862–1863), in Once a Week; and George MacDonald with Arthur Hughes (At the Back of the North Wind, 1871), in Good Words for the Young. (Notably, this list includes authors such as Eliot and Gaskell, whose work had been unillustrated upon their first break into the market.) The traditionally high art of painting intermingled with the traditionally lower craft of illustration: Luke Fildes transformed his illustration “Houseless and Hungry” into the painting Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, displayed at the 1874 Royal Academy, and Millais sold watercolor paintings of his illustrations for Martineau.
From 1881, photographic reproduction revolutionized late-century book and periodical illustration. Images became even more economical to reproduce, enabling editor George Newnes to promise illustration on the Strand’s every page. The 1890s saw a bifurcation in illustrated texts: popular periodicals such as the Strand and Pearson’s Magazine exploited the text–image relationship with innovative layouts, wrapping images around letterpress (as in H. G. Wells’s 1897 The War of the Worlds, in Pearson’s, illustrated by Warwick Goble), whereas the experimental Yellow Book turned away from text–image complementarity in favor of stand-alone artwork by such artists as Aubrey Beardsley. The legacies of Victorian illustrated fiction appeared in the early 1900s, when cinematic adaptations of Victorian novels wowed audiences, the modernist revolution challenged conventional book design, and children’s literature flowered as Arthur Rackham’s and E. H. Shepard’s illustrations popularized Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), The Wind in the Willows (1908), and Winnie-the-Pooh (1926).