Popular culture

From circuses and ‘freak shows’ to broadsides and novels, from pleasure gardens and music halls to chapbooks and penny dreadfuls, Georgian and Victorian Britain offered the public a rich range of affordable entertainments.

Penny dreadfuls

Penny dreadfuls

Article by:
Judith Flanders

The penny dreadful was a 19th-century publishing phenomenon. Judith Flanders explains what made these cheap, sensational, highly illustrated stories so popular with the Victorian public.

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Murder as entertainment

Murder as entertainment

Article by:
Judith Flanders

Looking at broadsides, cheap pamphlets and the works of Charles Dickens, Judith Flanders explores how crime in the 19th century – particularly gruesome murder and executions – served as entertainment in both fiction and real life.

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Street Literature

Street literature

Article by:
Ruth Richardson

From public notes and broadsides to catchpennies and printed songs, Dr Ruth Richardson examines the variety of street literature which informed and entertained the public before newspapers were readily available.

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Queen Victoria's Christmas tree painting cropped

Victorian Christmas

Article by:
Judith Flanders

Judith Flanders describes how many of our own Christmas traditions – from trees and crackers to cards and carols – have their origins in 19th-century industrial and commercial interests.

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Simon Callow article banner - taken from Mrs Beeton's

Charles Dickens and the Victorian Christmas feast

Article by:
Simon Callow

Simon Callow explores Charles Dickens’s depiction of the Christmas feast and investigates the origins of England’s festive culinary traditions.

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Popular culture and the impact of industrialisation

Popular culture and the impact of industrialisation

Article by:
Paul Schlicke

Industrialisation had a dramatic effect upon all aspects of Victorian life. Paul Schlicke examines how it led to the growth of commercial entertainment and the presence of these new cultural forms in the novels of Charles Dickens.

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Theatre in the 19th century

Theatre in the 19th century

Article by:
Jacky Bratton

At the beginning of the 19th century, there were only two main theatres in London. Emeritus Professor Jacky Bratton traces the development of theatre throughout the century, exploring the proliferation of venues, forms and writers.

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Chapbooks

Chapbooks

Article by:
Ruth Richardson

Chapbooks were small, affordable forms of literature for children and adults that were sold on the streets, and covered a range of subjects from fairy tales and ghost stories to news of politics, crime or disaster. Dr Ruth Richardson explains what this literature looked like, its subject matter and the ways in which it was produced.

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Sensation novels

Sensation novels

Article by:
Matthew Sweet

Sensation novels play on the nerves and thrill the senses. Matthew Sweet considers some of the key features of the genre, as well as its three founding texts, all published in the 1860s: The Woman in White, Lady Audley's Secret and East Lynne.

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Tom and Jerry's Life in London

Tom and Jerry's Life in London

Article by:
The Gentle Author

The Gentle Author explores Pierce Egan’s 19th-century bestseller, Life in London, in which Tom and Jerry's 'rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis' offer readers a unique glimpse into both high and low urban culture.

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An introduction to Oscar Wilde’s play An Ideal Husband

Article by:
Catherine Angerson

Catherine Angerson explores the serious questions Oscar Wilde raises in An Ideal Husband under the guise of a frivolous society play.

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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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Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan

An introduction to Lady Windermere's Fan

Article by:
Andrew Dickson

Andrew Dickson explores some of complexities of Oscar Wilde’s first hit play, Lady Windermere’s Fan.

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Further themes

Romanticism

How did the Romantic poets explore landscape, class, radicalism and the sublime?

The Gothic

What are the key motifs of Gothic literature and how do these works reflect the contexts in which the genre emerged and evolved?

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?

London

How did the writers of this period portray our iconic capital city?

The novel 1780–1832

From the origins of the Gothic to depictions of the emerging middle classes, what are the key characteristics of late 18th- and early 19th-century literature?

The novel 1832–1880

How did the writers of this period incorporate fantasy, realism, sensationalism, and social commentary into their work?

Fin de siècle

How did the literature of this period reflect attitudes to gender, sexuality, immigration, class and scientific discovery?

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 writers respond to the social 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 literature and reading habits during this period?

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 19th-century depictions of the future reflect contemporary fears of social, political and technological change?

Gender and sexuality

How did the literature of this period portray and challenge traditional gender roles?