I really like Victorian novelists, almost all of them: Dickens, Thackeray, WIlkie Collins, the Brontes, George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, Trollope. They could all tell a story, make up characters that entice the reader to care what happened to them, come to a satisfying conclusion. Modern novels are so often lurid, sexually explicit, and inconclusive. I’d much rather lose myself in a Victorian literary world where certainly bad things happen: Becky Sharp prostitutes herself for money and security; David Copperfield is put to work in a sweat shop by his evil step-father; Jane Eyre is almost trapped into a bigamous marriage. Nevertheless, the authors don’t describe violence and sin in excruciating, and ultimately boring, detail. And still in Vanity Fair, I read the story of a young girl who becomes a fallen woman, trapped in a vain and empty life by her own evil desires. Anthony Trollope said of Thackeray, “Whatever Thackeray says, the reader cannot fail to understand; and whatever Thackeray attempts to communicate, he succeeds in conveying.”
And he did it without spending multiple pages describing the intimate details of Becky’s dissolute life. Nor is Thackeray concerned in describing the Battle of Waterloo with giving us a gory narration of every nasty thing that happens in war. He describes George Osborne’s death thusly: ï¿½Darkness came down on the field and the city; and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.ï¿½ Can you imagine what distracting and lengthy description a modern novelist would have given of such a death scene? Because the Victorians had some sense of propriety, we’re allowed to get on with the story instead of skimming through the gore.
And it’s a great story, too. Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair to illustrate the emptiness and futility of life without God. “Thackeray expressed this sentiment in a letter to his mother: ‘What I want is to make a set of people living without God in the world (only that is a cant phrase) greedy pompous mean perfectly self-satisfied for the most part and at ease about their superior virtue.'”
Read more about Vanity Fair here, or just read the book. Writers who complain about the restrictions Christian publishers place on the treatment of sensitive subjects could learn a few lessons from the Victorians. They certainly didn’t let such restraints keep them from writing fine literary fiction.