ABSTRACT

Victorian historical novelists achieved impressive feats of temporal colonialism. Their zest for the unique and distinctive, both in characters and the societies in which they lived, reacted with a growing taste for realism to inspire unprecedented combinations of creative energy with authentic detail. Six years before Victoria’s accession, ‘The Spirit of the Age’ (1831)by John Stuart Mill (1806–73) already records an increasing awareness of period: ‘The idea of comparing one’s own age with former ages, or with our notion of those which are yet to come, had occurred to philosophers; but it never before was the dominant idea of any age.’ 1 The previous century received special attention: John Ashton (1834–1911), a specialist in eighteenth-century social history, exemplifies the application of the Victorian work ethic to eighteenth-century documents. His Eighteenth Century Waifs (1887) is based on the British Museum’s Musgrave Tracts, comprising ‘more than 1760 volumes’, plus ‘over 200 other books and newspapers used for reference, &c’. 2 Abundantly equipped with background information, authors produced accessible yet challenging fiction, depicting worlds sufficiently familiar to be set initially against Victorian frames of reference, but which, on closer inspection, proved an awkward fit. A range of ambiguous attitudes appears in passing references to the period, and in the depiction of elderly eighteenth-century survivors in fiction with nineteenth-century settings, as well as in novels dealing directly with the previous century. Generation, gender and class distinctions complicate the pattern and are in turn destabilized by the ensuing temporal and moral flux. The eighteenth century emerges as an era of doubleness and self-contradiction, where vice and virtue separate out into dastardly villains and idealized heroes or mingle perplexingly in the same personality, while ‘ordinary’ characters can be the most enigmatic and complex of all.