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After discussing the theme of poverty in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol in class the other day, I began thinking about how much of 19th century Victorian-era literature is heavily influenced on the terrible living conditions of the time. The British Victorian era gave us some of the most beloved novels and poetry of all times, including Charles Dickens, The Bronte's, William Thackeray, Robert Browining, and Alfred Tennyson, to name a few.  It was then that I came to the realization just how heavy of an influence the living conditions at the time influenced such esteemed writers. I traveled around England for three weeks two years ago, and visited countless museums and went on many tours of different places in England. I found that it wasn't only London that was a disgusting and horrible place to live, but many other towns in England, too. Along with that, Dickens was not the only writer to be influenced by the horrible living conditions of the 1800's. Take for example, The Bronte sisters. On my travels, I went to Haworth, home of the Bronte's. I learned about how the little town once stank with the stench of disease, and sewers would run out into the streets. The drinking water was so dirty that 1/3 children in Haworth under the age of ten would die. This includes the Bronte's own older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, whose death inspired Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre. It astonished me that Patrick Bronte lived to see his wife and all six of his children die before himself, due to these terrible living conditions and disease. It was hard for me to believe that the beautiful little town of Haworth (see picture below) I was standing in was once so disgusting and deadly. 

Moving on from the Bronte's, William Thackeray's Vanity Fair is a novel that satires society in 19th century Britain. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote novels that painted pictures of people living in poverty during the Victorian era. Dickens, The Bronte's, Thackeray, and Gaskell all had underlining themes about poverty, soceity, and living conditions in the 19th century.

I then found an article, http://www.arlde.com/dickenslondon.htm, which explains how London's living conditions inspired Charles Dickens' most famous works, including A Christmas Carol. It was very interesting reading more on sanitation, disease, the law and poverty in London at the time in which A Christmas Carol takes place. In conclusion, I just found it very interesting that Charles Dickens was not the only 19th century major author  to write about the many themes such as poverty, living conditions, and the law, in their classic novels that we still treasure in the literary society today.

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  1. Unknown User (cmn10)

    First, I'd like to say that I really enjoyed reading your post, Katlyn! I'm not sure my response will be quite up to the quality you started with, but I'll do my best.

    We talked a lot in the beginning of the year about how one way of studying literature critically is stepping away from the historical or cultural context and examining the work as it stands alone. I find it interesting that the further into the semester we get, the further most of us move from this standpoint. We've begun discussing what influenced Dickens to write A Christmas Carol, both politically in his era and (as you discussed above) the living conditions or general atmosphere of his city. I don't think you can examine this story in-depth without looking at the context in which it was written. As you pointed out, the deaths of some Bronte sisters inspired a novel; that's another case where context shouldn't be ignored.

    In a more direct response to your post, I think political environments and living conditions continue to inspire books today. Stephen King's book Cell is about a signal released through a cell-phone signal that makes people become insane killers (at first, anyway). You could look at it as a commentary on how technology is taking over our lives and is potentially dangerous, especially since the only people in the novel not affected by the signal are people who don't own cell phones or don't carry them everywhere. These people end up needing to fight for their lives against the zombie-esque cell users. And Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games was inspired when she was watching television, flipping back and forth between a History channel documentary on gladiators and (if I remember correctly) Teen Mom on MTV. She started wondering what would happen if kids were the ones who had to fight to the death, and when you examine the trilogy critically, there is a solid political undertone. The agricultural district in Panem, district eight, is made up mostly of African-Americans. The Seam in district twelve features characters with olive-toned skin and dark hair/eyes; you could look at that as a throwback to immigrants to America during the Industrial Revolution. The districts with the most money and highest chances of winning are those that are coziest with the tyrannical government. There are a lot of different things that can influence and inspire novels, obviously, but I think things that can directly change lives – politics, living conditions, various aspects of culture – tend to help create the most memorable books. It'll be interesting to see in fifty years which novels will then be considered "classics," as A Christmas Carol or Alice have become today.