A Time of Terror: England’s Social Conditions in the Late Nineteenth Century and the Rise of the Novel of Terror
By Chris Kirkland
Gateway: An Academic Journal on the Web, Issue 2 (2003)
Introduction: The last twenty years of the nineteenth century saw an unprecedented rise in both the production and consumption of novels in the genre of terror, leading to the publication of many of what have come to be known as the most famous works in the area. Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Island of Dr. Moreau were all written within this time frame, along with countless lesser works known as “shilling shockers”– cheap, mass-produced tales of terror and sensationalism designed to appeal to a wide market. Such facts lead to an obvious question: why was the late Nineteenth century such a fertile time for the production of the novel of terror? The answer can be found within the time itself-or, more specifically, within the specific set of societal conditions present in England during this time. It is my assertion that the best works of these periods hold the enviable distinction of simultaneously representing, reflecting, and helping to create the society in which they are produced. Therefore, using The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as the literary exemplar, it is possible to identify a deeply symbiotic relationship among a given society, the particular literature which it creates and to a large extent is created by, and the reader within this society, who avidly consumes such texts.
Through this, it becomes clear that the combination and culmination of a number of distressing societal concerns in London during the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century also formed a set of conditions perfect for the novel of terror, and that the contemporary impact of The Strange Case, and other novels like it, resulted largely from its interaction with and exploitation of the societal circumstances which surrounded its production. As such, I intend to highlight the relationship among the society of Late Victorian England as a whole, the literature of terror which it produced, and the contemporary reader who avidly consumed such work From this, I will illustrate not only that this mode of literature is dependent both artistically and linguistically upon a reciprocal interaction with the conditions perceived to exist in the culture from which it issues, but also that the conditions present in Late Victorian England resulted in an environment especially well-suited to the creation of such literature.