Summative Entry

The human and artistic concerns of both the Romantic and Victorian Ages are similar to our own concerns; the response to those concerns – given by poets, novelists, dramatists and artists – can help us live fuller, more meaningful and creative lives in our own times.

This was the focus of this semester’s work in 19th Century Literature and my work and understanding of this unit has led me to believe that our modern 21st century lives parallel the lives of those who lived in the Romantic and Victorian 19th century and that they have something to teach us about living, even though a whole century has passed since their time. Beginning with the Romantics like William Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Taylor Coleridge then ending on dynamic writers like Leo Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde, who defiantly challenged the uptight Victorian society, this semester has definitely been eye-opening and many lessons can be taken away from these writers to live fuller and richer lives.

The works of Wordsworth, Coleridge and other Romantics addressed the importance of nature, how vital the natural world is to our lives and how important it is that we respect it, admire it and care for it as it does for us. Expostulation and Reply and The Tables Turned, both poems by Wordsworth, inspire us to think of how stimulating nature can be if we just simply take the time to appreciate it and take note of how it can inspire creativity as long as you let it, and not just dismiss it as a passing idle thought. The Romantics also teach us that not all knowledge can be found in books and classrooms; some things cannot be taught by other human beings and you must go out into the world and explore it on your own and make up your own ideas and learn from what nature can teach you.

Jane Austen is an author who usually writes with a didactic purpose and certainly teaches her readers a thing or two about how we should really live our lives and conduct ourselves. Through the character of Emma Woodhouse in Emma, she shows her readers that kindness, humility and consideration are the real desirable qualities in people and these qualities should be the way we govern our lives; beauty and money is not everything. In Hard Times, Charles Dickens shows us, through the character of Mr Gradgrind, that even though society has established rules and that decorum must be maintained at all times, it can also be taken too far and that is the way to isolate yourself and to lose meaning in your life.

The artworks at the Art Gallery of NSW also showed parallels between our time and times of the past. Ford Madox Brown’s “Chaucer at the Court of Edward III” (1847) showed us how people interact with each other and how interested they all seem to be in each others’ lives, albeit a bit distracted. Today in 2017, we are all still interested in what’s happening in the world and we like to be kept informed of the latest gossip and yet, we lead such busy lives that we will always be just that little bit distracted.

Later works of the 19th century, including those of George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Leo Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde, still continue to show similar concerns to ours today. In George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Marner loses his gold and believes the world has come to an end – money is still a vital part of our livelihood today and we hold it in such high esteem that if we lost our money, we’d be panicking too, and so we can relate to Marner. In Matthew Arnold’s poem, “The Scholar Gypsy”, the character of the scholar gypsy runs away from his comfortable life in the city and flees to return to simpler times, when his world was not so filled with distractions and responsibilities that he knew would eventually overwhelm him. We all feel like that, more often than not, and we wonder what it would be like if we could just pack it all in and run away, leaving work, school, university all to someone else to take care of for us. Again, we relate to the scholar gypsy.

Tolstoy writes about how people can change and evolve – that is exactly what happens to Vasily Andreevich in Master and Man: dire circumstances force him to realise his humanity and kindness so he can save both himself and Nikita from dying of hypothermia. Andreevich, formerly a cold, unfeeling and materialistic man, goes through a character development that inspires Tolstoy’s readers to believe that people are indeed capable of changing from monsters into kind and caring human beings. Oscar Wilde makes fun of and criticises late Victorian society in his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, mainly through the character of Lady Bracknell. By placing so much emphasis on Lady Bracknell’s materialism, Wilde is also drawing our attention to how wrong and foolish it is of humans to make connections, especially such meaningful ones like friendship and marriage, on such superficial things like money and position. He inspires us to make connections with people based on things that really matter, like personality and character and thus, showing us how we should really live our lives and leave materialism behind.

The human and artistic concerns of the Romantic and Victorian ages are similar to our own concerns; concerns like responsibility, money, security, character building. This can be seen in the works of Romantic poets like Wordsworth, writers like Jane Austen, Dickens, Eliot and Arnold and artists like Ford Madox Brown. They write and paint the plights of olden times that we still experience today and seeing these beacons of creativity and inspiration provides us, a 21st century audience, with some comfort that everything we feel and suffer is all part of the human condition and that even two centuries ago, people were dealing with the problems we are dealing with today. The response to these concerns, given by poets, novelists, dramatists and artists, can help us live fuller, more meaningful and creative lives in our own times. Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy and Wilde all provide us with characters that we should look to in order to inspire us to change and see how we can really get the best out of life and live it to the absolute fullest.


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