Fin de siècle

What characterises literature at the end of the 19th century? How did writers respond to the desires and anxieties of the time? How did literature reflect attitudes to gender, sexuality, immigration, class and scientific discovery?
Aestheticism and decadence

Aestheticism and decadence

Article by:
Carolyn Burdett

‘Art for art’s sake’? Aestheticism and decadence shocked the Victorian establishment by challenging traditional values, foregrounding sensuality and promoting artistic, sexual and political experimentation. Dr Carolyn Burdett explores the key features of this unconventional artistic period.

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‘Man is not truly one, but truly two’: duality in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

‘Man is not truly one, but truly two’: duality in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

Curator Greg Buzwell considers duality in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, exploring how the novel engages with contemporary debates about consciousness, homosexuality and criminal psychology.

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An introduction to The War of the Worlds

An introduction to The War of the Worlds

Article by:
Iain Sinclair

Writer Iain Sinclair discusses how H G Wells’s The War of the Worlds disturbed the public by combining journalistic sensationalism, scientific fantasy, suburban mundanity and fears of invasion.

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Class in The Time Machine

Class in The Time Machine

Article by:
Matthew Taunton

Dr Matthew Taunton reveals how The Time Machine reflects H G Wells’s fascination with class division, the effects of capitalism and the evolution of the human race.

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The Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelites

Article by:
Dinah Roe

Dr Dinah Roe introduces the unique band of artists, poets and designers known as the Pre-Raphaelites, charting their formation and evolution from the 1850s to the late 19th century.

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Post Darwin: social Darwinism, degeneration, eugenics

Post Darwin: social Darwinism, degeneration, eugenics

Article by:
Carolyn Burdett

Dr Carolyn Burdett explores how Victorian thinkers used Darwin's theory of evolution in forming their own social, economic and racial theories, thereby extending Darwin's influence far beyond its original sphere.

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H G Wells’s politics

H G Wells’s politics

Article by:
Matthew Taunton

H G Wells was a committed socialist whose political writing influenced, among other things, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dr Matthew Taunton considers how Wells engaged with socialist ideas in his journalism, social commentary and fiction.

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Dracula: vampires, perversity and Victorian anxieties

Dracula: vampires, perversity and Victorian anxieties

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

The vampire is a complicated creature: caught between life and death, at once alluring and horrifying. Greg Buzwell considers the way the novel reflects the fears that haunted late 19th-century society – fears of immigration, sexual promiscuity and moral degeneration.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray: art, ethics and the artist

The Picture of Dorian Gray: art, ethics and the artist

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

Dark desires and forbidden pleasure are at the centre of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Greg Buzwell examines the interplay between art and morality in Oscar Wilde’s novel, and considers its use of traditional Gothic motifs as well as the theories of the new aesthetic movement.

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An introduction to The Island of Dr. Moreau: science, sensation and degeneration

An introduction to The Island of Dr. Moreau: science, sensation and degeneration

Article by:
Roger Luckhurst

Roger Luckhurst looks at H G Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau as a text that both provoked and explored feelings of disgust, reflecting late-Victorian questions and fears about vivisection, cannibalism and evolutionary degeneration.

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Darwin and the theory of evolution

Darwin and the theory of evolution

Article by:
Carolyn Burdett

Charles Darwin’s ideas had a profound impact on the understanding of human life. Carolyn Burdett looks at the way he developed his theory of evolution, and how it became part of the Victorian imagination.

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Representations of drugs in 19th-century literature

Representations of drugs in 19th-century literature

Article by:
Sharon Ruston

Opium was widely available in the 19th century, sold by barbers, tobacconists and stationers. Writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charles Dickens all used the drug, for pleasure or as medicine. Professor Sharon Ruston explores how drugs provided both inspiration and subject matter for the literature of the period.

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Perversion and degeneracy in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Perversion and degeneracy in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Article by:
Roger Luckhurst

Many reviewers denounced Oscar Wilde’s novel as perverse and immoral. Roger Luckhurst explores the work’s sexual and moral ambiguities.

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An introduction to Jude the Obscure

An introduction to Jude the Obscure

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

Greg Buzwell considers how Hardy's last novel exposes the hypocrisy of conventional late-Victorian society, taking on topics such as education and class, marriage and the New Woman.

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Salomé: Symbolism, decadence and censorship

Salomé: symbolism, decadence and censorship

Article by:
John Stokes

Professor John Stokes considers Salomé as a play within both the French Symbolist and the decadent traditions, exploring its influences, reception and Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations of the work.

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Daughters of Decadence: The New Woman in the Victorian fin de siècle

Daughters of decadence: the New Woman in the Victorian fin de siècle

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

Free-spirited and independent, educated and uninterested in marriage and children, the figure of the New Woman threatened conventional ideas about ideal Victorian womanhood. Greg Buzwell explores the place of the New Woman - by turns comical, dangerous and inspirational - in journalism and in fiction by writers such as Thomas Hardy, George Gissing and Sarah Grand.

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An introduction to The Importance of Being Earnest

An introduction to The Importance of Being Earnest

Article by:
John Stokes

The Importance of Being Earnest draws on elements of farce and melodrama in its depiction of a particular social world. Professor John Stokes considers how Oscar Wilde combined disparate influences into a brilliant satire which contained hidden, progressive sentiments.

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Sexuality and desire in Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Sexuality and desire in Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Article by:
Margaret R Higonnet

Margaret R Higonnet considers how Thomas Hardy uses the character of Tess to complicate conventional ideas of modesty and desire.

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An introduction to Jude the Obscure

Writing, publishing and revising Far From The Madding Crowd

Article by:
Elizabeth James

Elizabeth James traces the development of Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel, from inspiration to post-publication revisions.

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Gothic fiction in the Victorian fin de siècle: mutating bodies and disturbed minds

Gothic fiction in the Victorian fin de siècle: mutating bodies and disturbed minds

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

The Victorian period saw Gothic fiction evolving and taking on new characteristics. With a focus on the late 19th century curator Greg Buzwell traces common themes and imagery found in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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Further themes

Romanticism

What inspired the iconic poetry of the Romantic period?

The Gothic

What characterises Gothic literature and what does it reveal about the periods in which it was written?

Childhood and children's literature

Was children’s literature intended to entertain or instruct?

Crime and crime fiction

Why was crime such a popular subject in 19th-century fiction?

The novel 1780-1832

From Georgian gentry to Gothic horror, what characterised the literature of this period?

The novel 1832 - 1880

How did the iconic writers of this period experiment with fantasy, sensationalism, realism and social commentary?

Victorian poetry

How did the Victorian poets approach composition, form and language, and what inspired their subjects?

Popular culture

From music hall to pleasure gardens, explore the extraordinary range of entertainments on offer in Georgian and Victorian Britain.

Poverty and the working classes

How did Victorian writers respond to the shocking inequalities of Victorian society?

Power and politics

How did writers respond to the tumultuous political events of this period?

Reading and print culture

How did rising literacy rates, libraries and new technologies influence the literature people read?

Technology and science

How did 19th century authors respond to the new possibilities afforded by technology and science?

The middle classes

How were the tensions surrounding social mobility explored in the literature of the period?

Visions of the future

How did the 19th-century literature reflect contemporary fears of social, political and technological change?

Gender and sexuality

How were gender roles embedded in the literature of the period and were they ever subverted?