Victorian Literature Maritime
Kelly Bushnell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0143


For an island on which no point is farther than seventy miles from the coast, it is not surprising that the sea carries such cultural weight in Britain. In the study of Victorian literature and culture, the “maritime” encompasses any aspect of Britain’s engagement with the sea, from the Royal Navy to the development of marine science to seaside leisure to the sea’s facilitation of Victoria’s global empire. Victorian Britain participated in a maritime world at the conclusion of the Age of Sail, two decades after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, during which Britain was safe because it ruled the waves. Victorian literature typically does not just suggest but rather forcefully tells its reader that the sea is a properly British realm, even as exciting recent criticism has proven the “maritime” to be a space in which formerly rigid ideas about Victorian literature and culture can be challenged. The topics in this article were chosen because they represent the main threads of disciplinary studies in the Victorian maritime and because they form a tapestry in which their individual aims and poetics are inextricable from one another. For example, a number of important developments in marine science (see the section on Marine Science) were accomplished by Royal Navy surgeons acting as amateur naturalists (see the section on the Royal Navy) while practicing medicine aboard whaling ships (see the section on Whaling). The canon of Victorian maritime literature aligns closely with that of Victorian literature in general. Underpinned by their Romantic predecessors (for whom the sea was also a central figure), nearly all of the major Victorian writers and genres engaged the maritime. Nautical melodrama on stage such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore (1878) entertained Victorian audiences. The poets approached the sea from myriad perspectives including Matthew Arnold’s “sea of faith” in “Dover Beach,” Tennyson’s slumbering monster in “The Kraken,” John Masefield’s ultra-canonical “Sea Fever,” as well as verse by Richard Swinburne, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others. Prose fiction of the sea is diverse in the period as well. Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, T. S. Eliot, Anthony Trollope, William Collins, William Clark Russell, William Thackeray, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Southey, Lewis Carroll, H. G. Wells, Stephen Crane, and others visited and revisited the sea as a setting or agent in their work. Lastly, Joseph Conrad writes in Youth (Blackwood, 1902; p. 3) that such a narrative “could have occurred nowhere but in England, where men and the sea interpenetrate, so to speak.”


Although no society or journal exists solely for the study of Victorian maritime literature (or the Victorian maritime in general), several journals of maritime studies regularly publish Victorian scholarship. The publications the Journal of the Hakluyt Society, the Mariner’s Mirror, and the Northern Mariner are associated with scholarly organizations. All references listed in this section are interdisciplinary in nature, but the Nautilus generally publishes the most literary scholarship.

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