19th century prose

Context of the 19th century novel

Context of the 19th century novel

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Context of the 19th century novel

​​In a nutshell

The 19th century, or the 1800s, was a time of great change in Britain. When analysing a text you should always take its context into consideration to be able to truly understand it. In this summary, you'll learn how the 19th century shaped literature, and, particularly, the novel.


Britain was a very wealthy country, and two types of social class started to appear: the new rich and the middle class. This growing middle class was made up of people who had enough money to spend on things like novels. 

But not everybody was well-off, poverty was very present back then, especially in cities. This is reflected by authors in their novels, like Dickens, who used his texts to talk about social issues.


Finding a non-white character in a 19th century novel is uncommon. When ethnic minorities were shown, they were often treated badly and considered "savage" or "exotic". This often shocks the modern reader. 


Women did write some of the most famous 19th century novels, like Pride and Prejudice, but this didn't mean that they were independent and free. No woman could vote, only rich men were allowed to. 

We can learn about what being a woman meant back then from the texts, like how all women were expected to find a husband (Pride and Prejudice) and how only some jobs were accepted as suitable for women (like that of governess in Jane Eyre).

Religion and morality

One of the main themes in 19th is morality. This is what is right and what is wrong. In the 19th century, morality was closely linked to religion. Particularly Christianity, as Britain was a Christian country. People used to go to church and religion was very present in their lives. 

The theme of morality can be seen in works like The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where there is talk of an "evil" and a "good" side; and in A Christmas Carol, where the author urges the reader to think about the true meaning of Christianity. Not only that, characters who were ministers of religion were common, and any action in the novel that went against the church's teachings was frowned upon even by the characters in it (like Lydia and Wickham eloping in Pride and Prejudice). 


In the same way that religion was a part of everybody's life, so was science: scientific advances were being made all the time and people were very enthusiastic about them! As such, science was often a theme in 19th century novels: 

  • Mary Shelley used electricity as a starting point for her monster in Frankenstein. She also explored the idea of "nature vs nurture", very common in Psychology.
  • Stevenson used chemistry for Dr Jekyll's formula in The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He also explored the psychological ideas of behaviour and responsibility.
  • Conan Doyle used the newly formed science of forensics in Sherlock Holmes' deductive process.


Literature can be divided in movements that usually coincide with time periods. Regarding the 19th century novel, most of them fall under the Romantic movement or Romanticism. Novelists rejected the 18th century taste for rationality and order, and instead were influenced by the Romantic ideals of personal feelings and nature.

What about genres? Well, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is considered Gothic, as is The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The Gothic genre is related to Romanticism, but mixed with horror and the supernatural. Ghost stories, like A Christmas Carol, increased their popularity. Another very popular genre was the detective story, being the most famous one that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes. 

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