Everywhere I look, says Susie Goldsbrough in The Times, I see Charles Dickens. He appears in Zadie Smith’s first historical novel, The Fraud, out next month; earlier this year Olivia Colman camped it up in the latest adaptation of Great Expectations. Partly it’s because Dickens was so prolific – he wrote 20 novels and seven plays, as well as “roughly 70 letters a day”. But perhaps it’s also because “the novel died with Dickens”. That may be an exaggeration, but the Victorian era saw one of those freak bits of historical alchemy where “very specific economic conditions” meet the “lightning strikes of individual creative brilliance”.
Literacy rates were booming, steam had replaced hand printing and paper prices dropped, creating a surge in the production of books and magazines. When the window tax ended in 1851, homes became brighter, “always a good thing for readers”. And they were spoilt for choice – with easy access not just to Dickens, but also to George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë and all the rest. The Victorians were “as addicted to the printed page as we are to the flickering screen”. Today, just 17% of under 25s read in their day-to-day lives. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Cultural forms have always risen and fallen – today we might have a dearth of great novels, but we’re living in the “golden age of TV”. The Wire, The West Wing, Succession – these are our Middlemarches, our Bleak Houses. Even better, “we get to keep what the Victorians left us”.