Victorian novels: Still relevant 200 years later

Two hundred years after its first incarnation, Yale Dean of Academic Affairs Mark Schenker is doing his part to bring the Victorian-era novel back in style. The themes of the Victorian novel, he said on Tuesday, are increasingly relatable for a person living in contemporary times.

Some motifs he mentioned in a recent interview bear striking resemblance to the views espoused by Occupy Wall Street protesters.

“Even allowing for the differences between today and the 19th Century,” he said, “The 19th-Century novel is curious about how personal freedom is connected to social responsibility. Charles Dickens seriously suggested in A Christmas Carol that a very wealthy man has an obligation to others.”

On Saturday, Sept. 21, Professor Schenker will present the first of two lectures he will give at Wilton Library entitled The Victorian Novel: Approaching 200 Years Old but Still Relevant. The Sept. 21 lecture will cover the early Victorian period (1837-1870), and a lecture on Oct. 5 will cover the late Victorian period (1870-1901). Both lectures will take place at 4 p.m.

Two novels Mr. Schenker will explore, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, are examples of excellent early Victorian novels, he said. He added that Wuthering Heights is one of the few Victorian novels that can compete on the scale of world classics such as the works of Fyodor Dostoyevski.

In both of these pieces, Mr. Schenker said, there is a strong theme of redemption, or receiving a second chance. This, he said, was a common tone of many early Victorian period novels.

“One thing they do is talk about how people get a second chance. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge realizes he has a chance to “change his life story,” he said. “When Jane Eyre is on the brink of marrying Rochester, he’s already married to another woman locked in the attic ... but she gets a second chance to become the mistress of the manor.”

Even in Wuthering Heights, the Yale dean said, Heathcliff is able to achieve his ultimate goal, even after being  prevented from doing so in a positive manner.

“Heathcliff is not allowed to marry Catherine, and is not allowed to become a civilized man,” he said. “He wreaks his revenge by controlling the second generation. It’s not a happy ending, but even then — given enough time and hatred he is able to negatively achieve that which he was not allowed to do positively.”

Wine and cheese will be served until 5:30 following both lectures to allow audience members to pursue the conversation.

Registration is highly recommended. Information: or 203-762-3950, ext. 213.