Drama queen

The Victorian age bestowed upon us a vast, sprawling legacy — from cloyingly frilly home decor to Darwin’s theory of evolution to some of the greatest novelists of the past two centuries.

The latter, along with Queen Victoria herself, are the subjects of an upcoming talk by Elliot Engel, a former English professor who now travels the country (and the world) as an itinerant literary lecturer.

Since Queen Victoria took the throne when she was 18 (in 1837) and went on to reign for nearly 64 years, there’s a diamond-studded gold mine of information just waiting to be tapped by someone like Engel, whose upcoming appearance marks his 20th anniversary engagement at Pack Library.

“I absolutely prove that Queen Victoria’s life — the way she became queen — is more astonishing, more hilarious and more melodramatic than anything you could find in a Victorian novel,” promises Engel, who spoke to Xpress en route from his home in Raleigh to another speaking engagement in Fayetteville.

“Very few people know the odds against her ever [having become] royalty,” Engel continues. “She had the most astonishing rise to become queen of any monarch.”

Yet he’s cagey about revealing too much more of his lecture (actually billed as a “performance”). But if you must know, Victoria (the only daughter of the fourth son of George III) came to power only after her father died, and three of her uncles who were ahead of her in succession didn’t produce a legitimate heir, according the British monarchy’s official Web site (www.royal.gov.uk).

Although Queen Victoria enjoyed reading the big-name novelists of her day (Dickens and Thackeray, for example), the professor says she wasn’t particularly influential in shaping the art form. (Perhaps she was preoccupied with her nine children, or the demands of her royal schedule.)

“She was very middle-class and conventional in her taste, so she did not encourage experimentation in the novel that has her name attached to it,” Engel reveals.

It was a fertile period, to be sure. Starting with Charles Dickens (the Pickwick Papers was published in book form in 1837), the Victorian age saw the work of such literary icons as the Bronte sisters, Joseph Conrad, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde and others.

“There’ll never be a period as great for the novel as the Victorian era,” declares Engel.

In fact, 40,000 novels were published during that time, and eagerly snapped up by a voracious public. And even though literacy rates were low back then, Engel notes that the literate read to those who weren’t.

While he doesn’t plan to focus his Asheville lecture on any individual novelist, he does intend to throw in a few choice tidbits about Dickens, who’s clearly one of his favorite subjects of scholarship. (Engel, by the way, happens to be the founder/president of the Charles Dickens Fellowship of North Carolina, a 5,000-member club of literature lovers.)

So apart from the time frame, what does Engel think characterizes a Victorian novel?

“It is almost always long, and because of its length, there are multiple plots and subplots, a vast array of characters, great moral instruction, and usually unexpected and brilliant humor,” offers the professor.

Other elements include a larger-than-life feel, violence, struggles between good and evil, and surprise endings.

Victorian novels are “very melodramatic — but there’s nothing wrong about being melodramatic,” insists Engel.

Queen Victoria would probably agree. After her husband (who was also her cousin) died in 1861, she retreated from public life for a decade and wore black for the last 40 years of her reign, according to the British monarchy’s Web site.

“Her genuine but obsessive mourning, which would occupy her for the rest of her life, played an important role in the evolution of what would become the Victorian mentality,” writes David Cody, associate professor of English at Hartwick College, in an online essay.

However, Queen V. later perked up under the flattery of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. She even allowed him to crown her Empress of India in 1876, Cody writes, in an act that was heavy on both symbolism and theatrics. But that’s another story.

[Can’t wait till the lecture to find out more about Queen Victoria and her age? Check out The Victorian Web (www.victorianweb.org), which began as a Brown University project.]


Friends of Buncombe County Libraries presents Elliot Engel’s 20th-anniversary performance, “Queen Victoria and the Novelists of the Victorian Era,” at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 16 at Pack Memorial Library (67 Haywood St.; 255-5203). Free admission.

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