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The Victorian Age 1837-1901

So many worlds, so much to do, So little done, such things to be . . . --Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Queen Victoria (House of Hanover) 1837-1901 (the longest reign of a monarch in British history)

During the 64 years of Queen Victorias reign, (1837-1901), Britains booming economy and rapid expansion encouraged great optimism.

The year's at the spring, And day's at the morn; Morning's at seven; The hill-side's dew-pearled; The lark's on the wing; The snail's on the thorn; Gods in his heaven Alls right with the world!
-- Robert Browning

After the British defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, Britain was not involved in a major European war for nearly 100 yearsuntil World War I began in 1914.

Economic and military power (especially the Royal Navy) helped Britain acquire new colonies in farflung parts of the globe.

Factory towns grew into large cities as Britain became the worlds leader in manufacturing. Banks, retail shops, and other businesses expanded.

These changes spurred the growth of two important classesan industrial working class and a modern middle classwho were able to live a better life because of the low cost and large variety of mass-produced factory goods.

The Idea of Progress

An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia.

Thomas Macaulay

History meant progress, and progress meant material improvements that could be seen and touched, counted and measured.

The Idea of Progress

Middle-class Victorians prided themselves on the material advances th of the 19 century and on their ability to solve human problems.

The Hungry Forties

Serious problems surfaced during the early years of Victorias reign: economic depression, widespread unemployment, famine in Ireland, and deplorable living and working conditions brought on by rapid urbanization.

The Hungry Forties

Depression put a million and a half unemployed workers and their families on some form of poor relief.

Workhouse Dining Hall

The Hungry Forties

Government commissions investigating working conditions learned of children mangled when they fell asleep at machines at the end of a 12-hour working day.

The Hungry Forties

Young girls and boys hauled sledges of coal through narrow mine tunnels, working shifts so long they only saw sun on Sundays.

The Hungry Forties

In Ireland, the potato blight (1845-1849) caused a famine that killed 1,000,000 people and forced 2,000,000 others to emigrate.

The Irish Potato Famine

The Hungry Forties The rapid growth of cities made them filthy and disorderly. The Thames River in London was polluted by sewage, industrial waste, and the drainage from graveyards where bodies were buried in layers six or eight deep.

From the butchers and greengrocers shops the gaslights flared and flickered, wild and ghastly, over haggard groups of slipshod dirty women, bargaining for scraps of stale meat and frostbitten vegetables, wrangling about short weight and bad quality. Fish stalls and fruit stalls lined the edge of the greasy pavement, sending up odors as foul as the language of sellers and buyers. Blood and sewer water crawled from under doors and out of spouts, and reeked down the gutters among offal, animal and vegetable, in every stage of putrefaction. --Rev. Charles Kingsley

The Movement for Reform: Food, Factories, and Optimism

Violence broke out at massive political rallies in the 1840s to protest government policies that kept the price of bread high and deprived most working men (and all women) of the vote and representation in Parliament.

Chartist (Peoples Charter) Rebellion

The Movement for Reform: Food, Factories, and Optimism

The price of food dropped after mid-century, largely because of trade with other countries and the growing empire. Diet improved as meat, fruit, and margarine (a Victorian invention) began to appear in working-class households.

The Movement for Reform: Food, Factories, and Optimism

Factories and railroads made postage, newspapers, clothing, furniture, travel, and other goods and services cheap. A series of political reforms gave the vote to almost all adult males by the last decades of the century.

The Movement for Reform: Food, Factories, and Optimism A series of Factory Acts limited child labor and reduced the usual working day to 10 hours, with a half-holiday on Saturday. State-supported schools were established in 1870, made compulsory in 1880, and made free in 1891. By 1900, literacy was widespread.

Decorum and Authority

The middle-class obsession with gentility or decorum has made prudery almost synonymous for Victorianism. Prudery and social order were intended to control the licentiousness that Victorians associated with the political revolutions of the 18th century and the social corruption of King George IV (1811-1820).

Decorum and Authority

Censorship was rampant: Books and magazines deleted or altered words and episodes that might bring a blush to the cheek of a young person. People were arrested for distributing information about sexually transmitted diseases.

Members of polite society blushed at the mention of anything physical. Instead of becoming pregnant, women were in a family way, in a delicate condition, or expectant.

Women did not give birth; rather, they experienced a

blessed event.
Children were not born; rather, they were brought by the stork, or

came into the world.

Decorum and Authority

Then theres the widely read Lady Goughs Book of Etiquette, which pronounced, among other social rules, that under no circumstance could books written by male authors be placed on shelves next to books written by authoresses.

Decorum and Authority

Victorian society regarded seduced or adulterous women (but not their male partners) as fallen and shunned them. Women were subjected to male authority. Middle-class women were expected to marry and make their homes a comfortable refuge for their husbands.

Decorum and Authority Unmarried middle-class ladies could become governesses or teachers; working-class women could be servants in affluent households. Unmarried middle-class women were made fun of in literature written by men.

Intellectual Progress: The March of Mind

Advances in science and technology convinced 19th-century intellectuals and reformers that human efforts could overcome all material problems. Geologists worked out the history written in rocks and fossils. Charles Darwin and other biologists theorized about the evolution of species (1859).

Intellectual Progress: The March of Mind When the views advanced by me in this volume . . . are generally admitted, we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history.
--Charles Darwin, from On the Origin of Species

Questions and Doubts

Victorian literature was filled with voices asking questions and raising doubts:

Can material comfort fully satisfy human needs and wishes? What is the cost of exploiting the earth and human beings to achieve comfort?

Questions and Doubts

The materialism, secularism, vulgarity, and sheer waste that accompanied Victorian progress led some writers to wonder if their culture was really advancing by any measure.

Questions and Doubts

When Victorian writers confronted rapid technological and social changes, a literary movement known as Realism was born. It focused on ordinary people facing the day-to-day problems of life, an emphasis that reflected the trend toward the growing middle-class audience for literature.

Questions and Doubts Robert Browning sought to portray individuals with un-Romantic authenticity through his use of the dramatic


Questions and Doubts

Charles Dickens, the most popular and important figure in Victorian literature, used conventional happy endings to satisfy his readers convictions that things usually work out well for decent people.

Questions and Doubts

But, many of Dickenss most memorable scenes showed decent people neglected, abused, and exploited.

The Homeless by Luke Fildes

From Trust to Skepticism and Denial

The trust in a transcendental power inherited from the Romantics eroded, giving way to uncertainty and spiritual doubt. Late-Victorian writers turned to a pessimistic exploration of the human struggle against indifferent natural forces.

From Trust to Skepticism and Denial

By mid-century, writers were saddened by what seemed to them to be the withdrawal of the divine from the world.

From Trust to Skepticism and Denial Naturalism sought to put scientific observation to literary use. Naturalists crammed their novels with gritty details, often with the aim of promoting social reform. Opposite to the Romantics, they portrayed nature as harsh and indifferent to the human suffering it caused.

From Trust to Skepticism and Denial

Yes! In the sea of life enisled,* With echoing straits between us thrown, Dotting the shoreless watery wild, We mortal millions live alone.

-- Matthew Arnold, To MargueriteContinued * Made into an island; set apart from others

From Trust to Skepticism and Denial

The dominant note of much midVictorian writing was struck by Matthew Arnold in his poem Dover Beach: The Sea of Faith had ebbed. There was no certainty; or, if there was, what was certain was that existence was not governed by a benevolent intelligence that cared for its creatures.

The White Cliffs of Dover

Dover Beach, circa 1900

Victorian Fiction
If one form of literature can be seen as quintessentially Victorian, it is the novel. Members of the new middle class were avid readers, and they loved novels. Responding to the demand, weekly and monthly magazines published novels chapter by chapter in serial form. Curious readers had to continue to buy the magazine to learn what happened next.