You are on page 1of 6

The Victorian Period

For much of this century the term Victorian, which literally describes things and events (roughly) in the reign of Queen Victoria, conveyed connotations of "prudish," "repressed," and "old fashioned." Although such associations have some basis in fact, they do not adequately indicate the nature of this complex, paradoxical age that saw great expansion of wealth, power, and culture. In science and technology, the Victorians invented the modern idea of invention -- the notion that one can create solutions to problems, that man can create new means of bettering himself and his environment. In religion, the Victorians experienced a great age of doubt, the first that called into question institutional Christianity on such a large scale. In literature and the other arts, the Victorians attempted to combine Romantic emphases upon self, emotion, and imagination with Neoclassical ones upon the public role of art and a corollary responsibility of the artist. In ideology, politics, and society, the Victorians created astonishing innovation and change: democracy, feminism, unionization of workers, socialism, Marxism, and other modern movements took form. In fact, this age of Darwin, Marx, and Freud appears to be not only the first that experienced modern problems but also the first that attempted modern solutions. Victorian, in other words, can be taken to mean parent of the modern -- and like most powerful parents, it provoked a powerful reaction against itself. The Victorian age was not one, not single, simple, or unified, only in part because Victoria's reign lasted so long that it comprised several periods. Above all, it was an age of paradox and power. The Catholicism of the Oxford Movement, the Evangelical movement, the spread of the Broad Church, and the rise of Utilitarianism, socialism, Darwinism, and scientific Agnosticism, were all in their own ways characteristically Victorian; as were the prophetic writings of Carlyle and Ruskin, the criticism of Arnold, and the empirical prose of Darwin and Huxley; as were the fantasy of George MacDonald and the realism of George Eliot and George Bernard Shaw. More than anything else what makes Victorians Victorian is their sense of social responsibility. The poet Matthew Arnold refused to reprint his poem "Empedocles on Etna," in which the Greek philosopher throws himself into the volcano, because it set a bad example; and he criticized an Anglican bishop who pointed out mathematical inconsistencies in the Bible not on the grounds that he was wrong, but that for a bishop to point these things out to the general public was irresponsible. The Victorian Age was characterised by rapid change and developments in nearly every sphere - from advances in medical, scientific and technological knowledge to changes in population growth and location. Over time, this rapid transformation deeply affected the country's mood: an age that began with a confidence and optimism leading to economic boom and prosperity eventually gave way to uncertainty and doubt regarding Britain's place in the world.

QUEEN VICTORIA Born on 24 May 1819. On 10th June 1837, following the death of her uncle, William IV, she became queen at the age of eighteen. She fell instantly in love with her German cousin, Prince Albert and they were married on 10 February 1840. Between 1841 and 1857 Queen Victoria had nine children - four sons, five daughters. Prince Albert was very interested in art, science and manufacturing and took a keen interest in the building of the Crystal Palace. He died suddenly of typhoid in 1861. His widow was overcome with grief and wrote in her diary, "My life as a happy person is ended!" She wore black for the rest of her life. For a long time she refused to appear in public, which made her very unpopular. Queen Victoria died aged 80 on 22 January 1901 and a new age - the Edwardian - began. IMPERIALISM In 1876 Victoria was declared Empress of India and the English Empire was constantly being expanded. The prevailing attitude in Britain was that expansion of British control around the globe was good for everyone. One, England had an obligation to enlighten and civilize the 'less fortunate savages' of the world (often referred to as the "White Man's Burden"). Second, they (as a chosen people) had a destiny to fulfill -- they were 'destined' to rule the world. Finally, they needed money, resources, labor, and new markets for expanding industry in England. The British Empire (map) was the largest empire ever, consisting of over 25% of the world's population and area. It included India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, several islands in the West Indies and various colonies on the African coast. In 1750 the population of Britain was 4 million. By 1851 it was 21 million. By 1900, Queen Victoria reigned over 410 million people. British Victorians were excited by geographical exploration, by the opening up of Africa and Asia to the West, yet were troubled by the intractable Irish situation and humiliated by the failures of the Boer War. IRISH QUESTION This was also the age of the 'Irish Question', the question being whether or not the Irish should be allowed to rule themselves. Gladstone was a constant activist for increased Irish autonomy, but his views were not widely supported, and Irish extremists began a campaign of terrorism, the fruits of which are still with us today. RELIGION Victorian England was a deeply religious country. A great number of people were habitual church-goers, at least once and probably twice, every Sunday. The Bible was frequently and widely read by people of every class; so too were religious stories and allegories. Yet towards the end of Queen Victoria's reign, the hold of organized religion upon the English people began to slacken for several reasons.

EDUCATION Education in nineteenth-century England was not equal - not between the sexes, and not between the classes. Gentlemen would be educated at home by a governess or tutor until they were old enough to attend Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, Westminster, Charterhouse, or a small handful of lesser schools. The curriculum was heavily weighted towards the classics the languages and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome. After that, they would attend Oxford or Cambridge. Here they might also study mathematics, law, philosophy, and modern history. Oxford tended to produce more Members of Parliament and government officials, while Cambridge leaned more towards the sciences and produced more acclaimed scholars. However, it was not compulsory, either legally or socially, for a gentleman to attend school at all. He could, just as easily, be taught entirely at home. However, public school and University were the great staging grounds for public life, where you made your friends and developed the connections that would aid you later in life. Beau Brummel met the Prince of Wales at Eton and that friendship helped him conquer all of London Society despite his lack of family background. A lady's education was taken, almost entirely, at home. There were boarding schools, but no University, and the studies were very different. She learned French, drawing, dancing, music, and the use of globes. If the school, or the governess, was interested in teaching any practical skills, she learned plain sewing as well as embroidery, and accounts. SCIENCE AND PROGRESS Industrial Revolution: the developments that transformed Great Britain, between 1750 and 1830, from a largely rural population making a living almost entirely from agriculture to a town-centered society engaged increasingly in factory manufacture. As many thousands of women throughout rural Britain saw their spinning wheels become redundant and their jobs disappear into the factories, they moved to the cities. The towns offered a better chance of work and higher wages than the countryside, where many families were trapped in dire poverty and seasonal employment. On the other hand, the countryside was healthier. The Industrial Revolution gathered steam, and accelerated the migration of the population from country to city. The result of this movement was the development of horrifying slums and cramped row housing in the overcrowded cities. SOCIAL CLASS Working class - men and women who performed physical labor, paid daily or weekly wages Middle class - men performed mental or "clean" work, paid monthly or annually Upper class - did not work, income came from inherited land and investments MONEY

Pounds () Shillings (s.) Pence (d.) Typical Incomes (annual) Aristocrats 30,000 Merchants, bankers 10,000 Middle-class (doctors, lawyers, clerks) 300-800 Lower middle-class (head teachers, journalists, shopkeepers, etc.) 150-300 Skilled workers (carpenters, typesetters,etc.) 75-100 Sailors and domestic staff 40-75 Laborers, soldiers 25 DISEASES Cholera - caused by human waste in the drinking water. Symptoms: nausea, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, overwhelming thirst, cramps Death often followed within 24 hours of the first symptom Consumption - a tuberculosis of the lungs Symptoms - weakness, fatigue, wasting away, blood in the lungs (killed hundreds of thousands of English in the nineteenth century) Typhus - spread by body lice and dirty conditions Symptoms: delirium, headaches, rash, high fever WOMEN AND MEN In the late industrial era in Britain the ideology of separate spheres which assigned the private sphere to the woman and the public sphere of business, commerce and politics to the man had been widely dispersed. The home was regarded as a haven from the busy and chaotic public world of politics and business, and from the grubby world of the factory. Those who could afford to, created cosy domestic interiors with plush fabrics, heavy curtains and fussy furnishings which effectively cocooned the inhabitants from the world outside. The middleclass household contained concrete expressions of domesticity in the form of servants, dcor, furnishings, entertainment and clothing. The female body was dressed to emphasise a woman's separation from the world of work. "The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind" - Dr. William Acton Dr. Acton's books were very popular, and they suggest how much truth there was in our stereotypes of the constrained character of nineteenth-century English sexual behavior. In proper middle-class and upper-class circles, women were supposed to have no sexual conduct before marriage - a hand around the waist, a small kiss, and a fervent pressing of the hand was probably the accepted limit in most cases. Also, when a woman married, she had no independent legal status. She had no right to any money (earned, inherited, etc.), she could not make a will or buy property, she had no claim to

her children, she had to move with him wherever he went. If the husband died, he could name the mother as the guardian, but he did not have to do so. Among the working classes in London, many costermongers (street vendors) lived with their girlfriends starting in their early teens. Elsewhere in the working class, premarital sex was generally winked at, as long as the couple got married.In 1800, about a third of working-class brides were pregnant on their wedding day. For middle- and upper-class men, premarital sex would have been with servants and prostitutes, since "nice girls" didn't go beyond the small kiss or squeeze of the hand. There were about 80,000 "gay" women (prostitutes) and "fancy men" (pimps) in London in the mid-nineteenth century. They congregated around Covent Garden and in the theater district. They tucked part of their skirts up to indicate their business. They were especially alluring to soldiers, most of whom were forbidden to marry. For most of the nineteenth century, homosexuality was punishable by death. However, the last execution on the grounds of "homosexuality" took place in 1830.

The Victorian Period

The Victorian period formally begins in 1837 (the year Victoria became Queen) and 1901 (the year of her death). As a matter of expediency, these dates are sometimes modified slightly. 1830 is usually considered the end of the Romantic period in Britain, and thus makes a convenient starting date for Victorianism. Similarly, since Queen Victorias death occurred so soon in the beginning of a new century, the end of the previous century provides a useful closing date for the period. The common perception of the period is the Victorians are prudish, hypocritical, stuffy, [and] narrow-minded (Murfin 496). This perception is (as most periodic generalizations are) not universally accurate, and it is thus a grievous error to jump to the conclusion that a writer or artist fits that description merely because he or she was prominent during the mid to late 18th century. However, it is also true that this description applies to some large segments of Victorian English society, particularly amongst the middle-class, which at the time was increasing both in number and power. Many members of this middle-class aspired to join the ranks of the nobles, and felt that acting properly, according to the conventions and values of the time, was an important step in that direction. Another important aspect of this period is the large-scale expansion of British imperial power. By 1830, the British empire had, of course, existed for centuries, and had already experienced many boons and setbacks. Perhaps the most significant blow to its power occurred in the late 18th century with the successful revolt of its 13 American colonies, an event which would eventually result in the formation of the United States as we now know it. During the 19th century, the British empire extensively expanded its colonial presence in many parts of Africa, in India, in the middle-east and in other parts of Asia. This process has had many long-term effects, including the increased use of the English language outside of Europe and increased trade between Europe and distant regions. It also, of course, produced some longstanding animosity in colonized regions.

Literature of the Victorian Period:

It is important to realize from the outset that the Victorian period is quite long. Victorias reign lasted over 63 years, longer than any other British monarch. The Victorian era lasted roughly twice as long as the Romantic period. Keeping in mind that even the relatively short Romantic period saw a wide variety of distinguishing characteristics, it is logical that much longer Victorian period includes even more variety. Below are a few of the noteworthy characteristics which appear often enough to be worth mentioning, but certainly do not encompass the entirety of the period.

The drive for social advancement frequently appears in literature. This drive may take many forms. It may be primarily financial, as in Charles Dickenss Great Expectations. It may involve marrying above ones station, as in Charlotte Brontes Jane Eyre. It may also be intellectual or education-based. Typically, any such attempt to improve ones social standing must be accompanied by proper behavior (thus helping to provide the period with its stereotype). The period saw the rise of a highly idealized notion of what is English or what constitutes an Englishman. This notion is obviously tied very closely to the periods models for proper behavior, and is also tied very closely to Englands imperial enterprises. Many colonists and politicians saw it as their political (and sometimes religious) duty to help or civilize native populations in colonized regions. It was thus important to have a model which provides a set of standards and codes of conduct, and the idealized notion of what is English often provided this model. Later Victorian writing saw the seeds of rebellion against such idealized notions and stereotypical codes of conduct. These proper behaviors often served as subjects of satire; Oscar Wildes plays are an excellent example. The later years of the Victorian period also saw the rise of aestheticism, the art for arts sake movement, which directly contradicted the social and political goals of much earlier Victorian literature. One of the fascinating ways of approaching the Victorian period is to examine the influence of these later developments on the Modernist period which follows.