Pulp Fiction: Victorian Style

John Travolta wouldn’t star, and Quentin Tarantino would be snoring in his five-dollar milkshake by page two. But Victorian popular fiction WAS hip, stylish and even daring in its own time. And what’s more, these novels tend to look like just a little bit of art in a VERY novel form.

The covers were designed to catch the eye more than to illustrate anything in the actual story. Who, for instance, is this girl on the cover of “Oliver Twist”? Because I SO don’t think Rose Maylie was supposed to be a Gibson Girl.

But, see, that wasn’t the point. The point was to sell books. And in the Victorian-Edwardian times, the art nouveau lady was a big seller on everything from advertising to decorative plates. Publishers would have been missing out on a serious marketing device if they didn’t include illustrations of the moderne ladies there, too. I guess nowadays the books would feature Britney Spears or Angelina Jolie.

Interestingly, later books of this style began integrating actual photos on the covers, and not just artworks. I often wonder who some of these models were-- screen or stage stars? Knowns or unknowns? I haven’t stumbled on any information on it. If anyone out there has some they’re willing to share, that would be great.

Once you tune into looking for this general style of book, you’ll probably find everything from classics to adventures to Victorian romance novels. Something for everyone, really.

One author in particular I’ve grown fond of was Mrs. E.D.E.N Southworth. Mrs. Southworth was an American writer, and very prolific considering we rarely hear her mentioned today. She wrote a large number of books in her day. In terms of capturing the tone of America during the 1800s, she’s been compared to Louisa May Alcott. And her heroines were known for spunk and independence often not seen in female characters during that time period.

As a read, admittedly, Victorian novels can be an acquired enjoyment. The pacing is not what we’re used to by today’s minimalist standards so it can take the right mood, some patience (and maybe a hot cup of java) to fall back into the cadence of the times; scenery is described at length, characters have much to say and with formal flourish, and what was once salacious plot points may seem quaint or overly-subtle to a modern reader.

But as a piece of history with insights into the past-- and as a decorative item that can enhance a bookshelf or vignette-- these Victorian novels are a small, fun investment. I pick them up when I spy them at thrift stores, flea markets and on dusty antique mall shelves. They usually run anywhere from $1-$4, though antique dealers may price them higher...

Let’s see Tarantino work on that sort of budget. :-)