A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me how studying 19th-century literature was useful in everyday life. I’m mostly sure the question was asked in a spirit of discussion rather than combat, so I answered. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the question from a more personal point of view. There are a lot of centuries in the world. Why was I drawn to the 19th? To ask the question another way, how has reading 19th-century literature helped me?
I’ve come up with five answers. These aren’t meant to be universal claims. If grad school taught me anything, it’s that everyone likes different literature for different reasons. In fact, I think that’s part of the beauty of literature. But here are a few reasons I love 19th-century stories:
1. Gumption. 19th-century novels introduced me to a world of interesting heroines who have a strong sense of self. While Jane Austen isn’t one of the authors I study now, she was the first 19th-century author I fell in love with. Stop. Before you tell me that liking Jane Austen is cliché, I will tell you that it wasn’t cliché among Tehachapi 8th graders in the 1990s. Like many people, I entered Jane Austen’s world through the BBC mini-series. I started watching the series with my grandma and aunt, and the following Christmas or birthday, my parents bought me a collected edition of Austen’s works. At the time, I had no idea that Austen was a canonical author, and probably no idea what a canon was. But for me, Austen’s heroines seemed memorable because they resisted peer pressure, they defined themselves more by their wits and character than their looks, and they thoughtfully observed and analyzed the world around them.
It wasn’t just Austen. Protagonists like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and George Eliot’s (pen name of Mary Ann Evans) Dorothea Brooks are motivated by complex, often conflicting desires—which they’re usually aware of and can articulate—and they spend their stories wrestling with these desires. As someone who’s always felt a pretty strong sense of community responsibility, I appreciated these characters’ attempts to balance individual convictions and desires with social bonds and responsibilities. (I will admit, though, that Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss is so duty-driven that she drives even me to frustration sometimes.)
2. Women narrators (related to the first point, I suppose). While 13-year-old Christina identified with 19th-century heroines because they questioned society’s expectations and approached the world on their own terms, it was the narrators who made me want to read the stories. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but lately I’ve been reflecting on the fact that these novels taught me both that women have interesting stories to tell, and that women are compelling storytellers. As narrators, Austen, Brontë, and Eliot are so lively and ever-present, they almost become characters themselves. And they depict women who are the opposite of what I’d call “James Bond” women—thinly sketched characters we see only through men’s eyes. These women exist primarily as objects of masculine desire or as obstacles men must overcome on their quest for manliness. Much of classic literature treats women in this same way (especially mid-century U.S. literature, I think). Protagonists like Jane Eyre and Dorothea Brooks, on the other hand, are interesting, complicated individuals rather than caricatures. I’d actually want to be like them!
3. Sympathy! 19th-century writers encouraged me to cultivate a desire to imagine life from other people’s perspectives. In my opinion, George Eliot does this better than any 19th-century author. She encourages her readers to look for the best in all the characters, even the shallow, villainous, terrible ones. Eliot starts with the assumption that there are reasons or experiences behind each person’s actions or statements, even if she disagrees with them. I’d like to do the same.
4. Cultural conversations. 19th-century thinkers asked questions about gender, race, religion, and other important cultural issues that we’re still discussing today. While we no longer think riding bicycles makes women infertile (yup, some doctors really thought that) and we don’t refer to unmarried women as “redundant women” any more (thanks a lot for that one, Victorians), you can find many newspaper articles, speeches, and books about gender that sound like they were written today. Understanding the 19th-century context behind such debates is relevant to conversations we’re having now about everything from gender identity to consent.
5. Reformers. I love reformers. And you’ll find plenty of them in 19th-century literature and history. I’ve learned about people who earnestly (hold your fire, Oscar Wilde) tried to make the world a better place, often despite intense oppression. Abolitionists and women’s rights advocates such as Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Frances Harper are inspiring in any century.