Professor John Mullan explores the key features of realism and the different ways in which Victorian writers used them.

It is often thought that realism is a particular tendency of Victorian fiction, and it is certainly significant that the earliest uses of the word realism to refer to the faithful representation of the real world in literature or art date from the 1850s. The novelist of the period who most often uses the word (commonly in opposition to ‘the ideal’) to describe her own aims is George Eliot. In a review of a book by John Ruskin she defines realism as ‘the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature, and not by substituting vague forms, bred by imagination on the mists of feeling, in place of definite, substantial reality’.[1] Eliot was influential in her insistence on the modesty of true realism – its attention to what is ‘ordinary’. In her first novel, Adam Bede (1859), she steps into her own story to liken the ‘truthfulness’, for which she aims, to the quality of ‘many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise’. She finds ‘delicious sympathy’ in ‘these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence’.

Manuscript of Adam Bede by George Eliot

In Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, titled 'In which the story pauses a little', Eliot writes that her 'strongest effort is... to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind'. 

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Cover to Middlemarch [Book I]

Middlemarch [Book I] [page: title page]

Middlemarch was published in eight instalments, between December 1871 and December 1872. This is the cover of Book I, ‘Miss Brooke’.

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By using this analogy, Eliot seems to put a special value on the accurate rendering of appearances. Yet she was clear that characterisation rather than description was the key to realism. In a now famous article in the Westminster Review in 1856 she criticised Dickens for having ‘the utmost power of rendering the external traits of our town population’ but being unable to pass ‘from the humorous and external to the emotional and tragic, without becoming as transcendent in his unreality as he was a moment before in his artistic truthfulness’. His ‘frequently false psychology’, she argued, was most evident when he led his reader into the company of the lower classes – ‘his preternaturally virtuous poor children and artisans, his melodramatic boatmen and courtesans’.[2] By her standards, Dickens was not a realist. Others would echo this. The young Henry James, reviewing Our Mutual Friend in 1865, described Dickens as ‘the greatest of superficial novelists’.[3]

James said of Dickens, ‘the fantastic has been his great resource’, meaning it as praise, but the question of Dickens’s truth to reality troubled serious critics of his own day as it has troubled readers since. Dickens himself asserted the reality of his fiction, sometimes indignantly. In his 1841 preface to the third edition of Oliver Twist (1837-8), for instance, he responded to complaints about his treatment of criminals, and his sympathetic representation of Nancy, the prostitute, with the declaration that he had presented ‘the stern and plain truth’. In Bleak House (1852-3) he turns from the body of Jo the crossing sweeper to address every more affluent member of his own society.

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. (ch. 47)

No novelist could be more convinced than Dickens that he was showing his readers the ‘real’ world.

Bleak House first edition with illustrations

Double page from Bleak House, with text and illustration of Tom All Alone's, a street of poor quality and dilapidated housing

In Bleak House, Charles Dickens confronts the depths of hardship, disease and loss suffered by the poor.

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Contemporary life

In one respect, Dickens’s fiction was closer to the world in which his readers lived than that of Eliot: many of his novels had contemporary settings. Most of Eliot’s novels were set several decades back from the times in which they were first published as were a striking number of Victorian classics: Vanity Fair (1847-8), Wuthering Heights (1847), Jane Eyre (1847), to name but a few. Some novelists, however, were explicitly concerned to address current social issues, and from the 1840s there developed a sub-genre known as ‘the condition of England novel’. (This echoes a phrase coined by Thomas Carlyle in a jeremiad about the human price paid for industrial and economic progress.) Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854–5), Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1850) and Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil (1845) all fit this category. The latter had a subtitle – ‘or The Two Nations’ – that proclaimed the novel’s analysis of the social cost of the growing affluence of one part of the nation.

Other successful novels of the period address particular social ills: Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby (1838–9) incorporated the scandal of the Yorkshire schools, where unwanted children were abandoned to cruelty and neglect; Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) dealt with the warring interests of workers and factory owners; Kingsley’s Yeast (1848) exposed rural poverty; Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) showed the damage caused by alcoholism and the limitations upon the rights of an abused wife.

North and South: first instalment in Household Words

North and South: first instalment in Household Words

In North and South, published in instalments in the periodical Household Words, Gaskell contrasts the rural south with the harsh conditions of the industrial north.

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One of the ways in which Victorian fiction displayed its interest in the real world was by making new efforts to represent the speech patterns of particular regions and social groups. In several of her novels, George Eliot tried to be accurate to the patterns of Warwickshire dialect. Chapter 6 of Silas Marner (1861), for instance, is a tour de force of dialect conversation. In novels like Mary Barton and North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell uses Lancashire dialect extensively, and in the first of these two novels she audaciously gives it to her primary characters. Emily Brontë was so conscientious in rendering Yorkshire dialect in Wuthering Heights that her sister Charlotte, overseeing publication of the novel after Emily’s death, felt it necessary to rewrite some of the passages. Heathcliff’s servant Joseph is still difficult to understand, even in the polished version.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, with Two Lectures on the Lancashire Dialect by William Gaskell

Page 10 from Two Lectures on the Lancashire Dialect by William Gaskell

Many of the characters in Mary Barton speak in Lancashire dialect. The fifth edition of the novel included two lectures on Lancashire dialect by Elizabeth Gaskell's husband.

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Anti-realist elements

Some Victorian novelists learned powerfully to combine realism with Gothic or melodramatic elements. Wilkie Collins’s so-called sensation fiction, for instance, often relied on introducing uncanny terrors into the closely observed Victorian households. His settings are ordinary places made strange. Memorably, The Woman in White (1859) opens on the road from Finchley into London, where the narrator has his attention seized on a moonlit night by an apparent apparition: a woman dressed all in white who asks for directions into the city. There will be a natural explanation for these events, but the narrator’s heightened and excitable consciousness transforms suburban normality into a haunting and disturbing vision.

Both Emily and Charlotte Brontë relish this combination of realism and supernaturalism. Wuthering Heights begins and ends with ghostly visions, even if they have supposedly natural explanations. The plot of Jane Eyre turns on an apparently supernatural event: the heroine ‘hears’ Mr Rochester’s voice calling to her from many miles away. In Charlotte Brontë’s last novel, Villette (1853), the heroine and narrator, Lucy Snowe, seems to believe that she has seen the ghostly nun who is supposed to haunt the girls’ school where she is a teacher. These plot turns are all the more unsettling for coming in novels that attend minutely to the plain details of everyday life.

Illustrations to Wuthering Heights by Barnett Freedman

Emily Brontë combines realism with the supernatural in her novel Wuthering Heights. In his 1940 illustrations to the novel, Barnett Freedman emphasises its Gothic elements. Here, Lockwood breaks a window in order to reach through and grasp the hand of Cathy's ghost.

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Held by© Estate of Barnett Freedman


Despite Charlotte Brontë’s use of supernatural motifs, it is striking that many of her Victorian readers praised her for what we might call realism. George Eliot’s partner George Henry Lewes, a prolific critic and an eloquent advocate of realism, admired Jane Eyre in just these terms. ‘Reality – deep, significant reality – is the great characteristic of the book’.[4] He shrewdly recognised that Charlotte Brontë was interested in a psychological realism that often involved the apparent or temporary distortion of external reality. Jane Eyre, he said, was an autobiography ‘not, perhaps, in the naked facts and circumstances, but in the actual suffering and experience’. This novel and Villette were first-person narratives that made audacious use of the narrator’s confiding voice. The reader was to hear of feelings too private to be spoken.

Other leading novelists used omniscient third-person narration for realist purposes. The novelist who had most success representing contemporary social mores in this mode was Anthony Trollope. It was Trollope who, for perhaps his most ambitious novel, fashioned a title still used to refer to the ambition of fiction to reflect contemporary society back to the reader: The Way We Live Now (1875). It was George Eliot, however, who took omniscient third-person narration to an unprecedented level of sophistication. Her technique makes it seem as if she is approaching her characters rather than inventing them; she will probe and puzzle over their motives rather than simply state them. One might contrast this with a brilliant earlier example of omniscient narration: Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. In Thackeray’s novel, the characters are players in a satirical morality tale, each of them unchanging in their essential elements. The ironical, jaundiced narrator keeps stepping in to ruminate or lecture on the lessons to be drawn from their misadventures. Eliot’s realism, however, depends on the changeability of her characters and their frequent inability to know their own next actions.


[1] The Westminster Review, April 1856.

[2] ‘The Natural History of German Life’, The Westminster Review, July 1856.

[3] The Nation, 21 December 1865.

[4] Fraser’s Magazine, December 1847.

  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

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