Victorian YA: Teen Heroines Kicking Down the Pedestal

by Kristin in Editorial

Does this woman look like a barrel of fun to you?

Bless her heart, poor Queen Victoria had a reputation for being something of a wet blanket, and she’s come to represent all of the repression of her era on the throne. It was a time when anything “distasteful” was swept neatly under the rug. Relentless politeness reigned, and frankness was disdained. Women were placed on a pedestal, expected to behave like perfect little ladies at all times.

Which made it all the more fun to break the rules.

From Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy to Anna Godbersen’s The Luxe series to more recent titles like Albert Whitman’s own The Poisoned House by Michael Ford , there’s nothing like a good Victorian YA novel for a young adult book-lover.

There’s no denying that the Victorian era was superficially delectable. Gorgeous corseted dresses made of thick, expensive fabrics. Elaborate, glossy-curled hairdos. Supple leather lace-up heeled boots. Horse-drawn carriages. Communication by quill-and-ink letter writing. Fancy balls in fancy ballrooms with bizarre-but-charming old-fashioned dancing, where guys literally had to sign up just to dance with you. It all seems so pretty, so quaint, so mannered.

But the best part about my favorite young adult Victorian novels are when the heroines break the rules, cast off the mannered ways expected of them. It’s when Gemma Doyle breaks curfew to sneak into the magical, otherwordly Realms. It’s when The Luxe’s Elizabeth Holland runs away from her uptight New York society life to pursue her true love. It’s when scullery maid Abigail Tamper dares to speak out against Mrs. Cotton, the cruel housekeeper. It’s wish fulfillment reading. Even in today’s society, teenagers (and adult YA readers) know what it’s like to want to break free of the endless expectations they’re subjected to—to pursue their passions at any cost, regardless of what the world at large might think of their choices. Such a liberating idea, when expressed so beautifully, makes for an utterly satisfying read.

Add to the mix the element of the supernatural, such as The Poisoned House’s ghosts or time travel in Kerstin Gier’s Ruby Red, or social taboos of the time—Fallen Grace’s teenage pregnancy, for example, or a lesbian main character, as in Jane Eagland’s Wildthorn—and you’d better trade in your corset for a comfy pair of PJs, because you’ve got an all-night reading session on your hands.

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Victorian YA: Teen Heroines Kicking Down the Pedestal