19th century writing is usually quite formal, whereas modern writing is usually much more conversational in comparison.
c.19th language is usually much more verbose, too – meaning that the text is usually very wordy and overly-complicated. Think how elaborately they dressed back then – lots of fine lace, layers, hats, gloves etc. – so their language was just as ornate and over the top at their clothes!
The vocabulary tended to be more complex too; used more polysyllabic words in their writing (as in words with more than one syllable) and Latin Root Words, as in words based on latin.
For instance they might use “abbreviate” instead of “short” or “generate” instead of “start” or “elevate” instead of “lift”.
In general, texts with more monosyllabic words tend to be more simplistic, often so that they appeal to less educated or younger audiences.
Sometimes monosyllabic words are also used by a writer to create a staccato effect which makes the writing sound harder. Or it can be for an onomatopoeic effect as well; if the writer is writing about war, for instance, lots of monosyllabic words one after another produces a rapid gun-fire sound for the reader.
But monosyllabic writing can just be a sign of more modern, informal writing, because short, simple vocabulary tends to be a bit more conversational.
In contrast, here’s an example from a 19th century play:
“The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”
– Oscar Wilde
It’s actually the verbose, complex, polysyllabic language that gives it its comic edge here. The language is far more playful; it takes longer to get to the punchline, plus the rebellious message is much funnier when contrasted with that serious, formal writing style.
19th century writers were also huge fans of superlatives, i.e. “my dearest”, “fairest”, “It was the most divine dinner” etc. You’ll see lots of superlatives written in letters. It was often a way to flatter the reader and for the writer to appear more modest and generous – something very important by 19th century values.
Typical social customs and values of the 19th century were quite different to ours now, especially their attitudes towards women, social class, age, education and religion. Look out for these social values in the subject matter of the writing, and refer back to them when you’re discussing the language techniques we’ve covered.
For example, a magazine in 1889 asked unmarried women to write in and explain why they were still single (they were known as spinsters back then). Here are a couple of responses they got:
“Because (like a piece of rare china) I am breakable, and mendable, but difficult to match .”
That features a lot of the language characteristics, but it’s also worth noting that she uses a piece of china – as in a tea set – to represent how fragile and rare she is. It’s a great simile, and would’ve been even better at the time when it was much more usual for people to have a china tea set at home; they would’ve known exactly how delicate and fragile china it, and how highly prized it was.
“Because matrimony is like an electric battery, when you once join hands you can’t let go, however much it hurts; and, as when embarked on a toboggan slide, you must go to the bitter end, however much it bumps.”
That image of someone being electrocuted is really powerful; it compares a marriage to a painful shock that you can’t get away from. It’s a brilliant comparison, even more so when you consider the historical context; that it was almost impossible to get a divorce in the 19th century, especially for women. In fact, the only way a married couple could divorce was if the wife had an affair – you couldn’t divorce just because a man did the same thing.
Also, to make matter worse for women, until 1882, all the wife’s property and wealth passed to her husband when they got married. So if they divorced, the husband could keep everything – including the children – so she’s very unlikely to have an affair if that’s what was at stake. That’s where the simile of a bumpy toboggan ride, having to “hold on to the bitter end” – as in death – makes it even more poignant.
As the two examples above show, the Victorians had a sense of humour! Perhaps because the main records we have of 19th century people are black and white photos, serious paintings and formal writing, it’s easy to think they were boring or miserable. But they weren’t! You just need to scratch beneath the surface and get past some of the verbose, flowery language – try to enjoy it even – and you’ll find plenty of humour in the writing.
In the same way we should try to imagine the Victorians living in technicolour, we should also imagine the voice of Victorian writers as real people, with something to say – which is often quite funny. You just need to learn the right techniques to strip back the text to find out what the writer is saying about a subject, and how they feel about it.