Victorian Age

An Age of Expansion:
In the eighteenth century the pivotal city of Western civilization had been Paris, by the second half of the nineteenth century this center of influence had shifted to London, a city which expanded from about two million inhabitants when Victoria came to the throne to six and one half million at the time of her death. The rapid growth of London is one of the many indications of the most important development of the age: the shift from a way of life based on the ownership of land to a modern urban economy based on trade and manufacturing.

Because England was the first country to become industrialized, her transformation was an especially painful one, but being first had a compensation: it was profitable. An early start enabled to capture markets all over the globe. Her cotton and other manufactured products were exported in English ships, a merchant fleet whose size was without parallel in other countries. The profits gained from her trade led also to extensive capital investments in all continents so that after England had become the world's workshop, London became, from 1870 on, the world's banker.

The reactions of Victorian writers to the fast-paced expansion of England were various. Thomas Babington Macauly relished the spectacle as wholly delightful. And later in the century there were lesser jingoists whose writings confidently pointed out the reasons for further national self-congratulation. More representative, perhaps, was Tennyson, whose capacity to relish industrial change was only sporadic. Much of the time he felt instead that the leadership in commerce and industry was being paid for at a terrible price in human happiness. In their experience a so called progress had been gained only by abandoning the traditional rhythms of life and traditional patterns of human relationships which had sustained mankind for centuries. In the melancholy poetry of Matthew Arnold this note is often struck:

For what wears out the life of mortal men?
"Tis that from change to change their being rolls;
" Tis that repeated shocks, again, again,
Exhaust the energy of strongest souls.

Accounts of the Victorian state of mind can be wildly contradictory when interpretations focus on one side of this set of attitudes and exclude the other. Thus The Lyttletons: A Family Chronicles (1975) asserts that during the period from 1830 to 1880 "the educated classes of England believed that they had the answer to everything ... It was an age of certainty and faith only paralleled by the great cathedral-building epoch of the Middle Ages." But according to The Finer Optic (also 1975), this same period was one of "agony and confusion. The Victorians felt ... a desperate pessimism based on the fear of ... experience with no meaning beyond itself." To restore focus, it can be said that although most perceptive Victorians did share a sense of satisfaction in the industrial and political preeminence of England during the period, they also suffered from an anxious sense of something lost, a sense too being displaced persons in a world made alien by technological changes which had been exploited too quickly for the adaptive powers of the human psyche. In this respect, as in many others, the Victorians may remind us of their English-speaking counterparts in America during the second half of the twentieth century who have taken over a leading position in the Western world with similar mixed feelings of satisfaction and anxiety.

Different Critical Reactions to the Victorian Age:
To suggest a similarity between the Victorians and ourselves (a similarity, not an identity) seems a necessary preliminary for a reading of their writings. In the earlier decades of the twentieth century such an understanding perspective was conspicuously absent. It was then the fashion for most literary critics to treat their Victorian predecessors as somewhat absurd creatures with whose way of life they had little in common.

The Georgian reaction against the Victorians is now only a matter of the history of taste, but its aftereffects still sometimes crop up when the term "Victorian" is employed in an exclusively pejorative sense. Most of us would rather be called a thief than a prude, and if the connotation of "Victorian" is narrowed down to suggest "prude" and nothing else, we remain seriously hampered in enjoying to the full what the Victorian writers accomplished. Sympathy may not be essential, but condescension is fatal to understanding. Happily, the note of condescension has all but disappeared from critical studies of more recent date.

For a period almost seventy years in length we can hardly expect our generalizations to be uniformly applicable. As a preliminary corrective it is helpful to subdivide the age into three phases: Early Victorian (1832-48); Mid-Victorian (1848-70); Late Victorian (1870-1901). It may also be convenient to subdivide the Late phase by considering the final decade, the nineties, as a bridge between two centuries.

The Early Period (1832-1848): A Time of Troubles
The early phase has been sometimes characterized as the Time of Troubles. In 1832 the passing of a Reform Bill had seemed to satisfy many of the demands of the middle classes, who were gradually taking over control of England’s economy. The bill extended the right to vote to all males owning property worth ten pounds or more in annual rent. In effect the voting public here after included the lower middle classes but not the working classes. Even more important than the extension of the franchise was the virtual abolition in 1832 of an archaic electoral system whereby some of the new industrial cities were unrepresented inParliament while “rotten boroughs” (communities that had become depopulated) elected the nominees of the local squire. Because it broke up the monopoly of power that the conservative landowners had so long enjoyed, the Reform Bill represents the beginning of a new age. Yet this celebrated piece of legislation could hardly be expected to solve all the economic, social, and political problems that had been building up while England was developing into a modern democratic and industrialized state. In the early 1840s a severe depression, with widespread unemployment, led to rioting. Even without the provocation of unemployment, conditions in the new industrial and coal-mining areas were sufficiently inflammatory to create fears of revolution. Workers and their families in the slums of such cities as Manchester lived like packs of rats in a sewer, and the conditions under which women and children toiled in mines and factories were unimaginably brutal. Elizabeth Barrett’s poem The Cry of the Children (1843) may strike us as exaggerated, but it was based upon reliable evidence concerning children of five years of age who dragged heavy tubs of coal through low-ceilinged mine passages for sixteen hours a day. Life in early Victorian mines and factories was much like Thomas Hobbes’ “state of nature”-“poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” 

The owners of mines and factories regarded themselves as innocent of blame for such conditions, for they were wedded to an economic theory of laissez-faire, which assumed that unregulated working conditions would ultimately benefit everyone. A sense of the seemingly hopeless complexity of the situation during the Hungry 1840s is provided by an entry for 1842 in the diary of the statesman Charles Greville, an entry written at the same time that Carlyle was making his contribution to the “Condition of England Question,” Past and Present. Conditions in the north of England, Greville reports, were “appalling.” 

This Time of Troubles left its mark on some early Victorian literature. “Insurrection is a most sad necessity,” Carlyle writes in his Past and Present, “and governors who wait for that to instruct them are surely getting into the fatalist courses.” A similar refrain runs through Carlyle’s history The French Revolution (1837). Memories of the French Reign of Terror lasted longer than memories of Trafalgar and Waterloo, memories freshened by later outbreaks of civil strife, “ the red fool-fury of the Seine” as Tennyson described one of the violent overturning of Troubles  of government in France. 

The Mid-Victorian Period (1848-1870): Economic Prosperity and Religious Controversy: 
In the decades following the Time of Troubles some Victorian writers, such as Dickens, continued to make critical and indignant than Dickens was John Ruskin, who abandoned the criticism of art during this period in order to expose the faults of Victorian industry and commerce, as in his The Stones of Venice (1853), which combines a history of architecture with stern prophecies about the doom of technological culture, or in his attacks upon laissez-faire economics in Unto This Last (1862). Overall, this second phase of the Victorian period had many harassing problems, but it was a time of prosperity. On the whole its institutions worked well. The monarchy was proving its worth in a modern setting. The queen and her husband, Prince Albert, were themselves models of middle class domesticity and devotion to duty. The aristocracy was discovering that Free Trade was enriching rather than impoverishing their estates; agriculture flourished together with trade and industry. And through a sucession of Factory Acts in Parliament, which restricted child labor and limited hours of employment, the condition of the working classes was also being gradually improved. When we speak of Victorian complacency or stability or optimism, we are usually referring to this mid-Victorian phase- “The Age of Improvement,” as the historian Asa Briggs has called it. “Of all the decades in our history,” writes G.M. Young, “a wise man would choose the eighteen-fifties to be young.”  

In 1851 Prince Albert opened the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park where a gigantic glass greenhouse, the Crystal Palace, had been erected to display the exhibits of modern industry and science. The Crystal Palace was one of the first buildings constructed according to modern architectural principles in which materials such as glass and iron are employed for employed for purely functional ends. In the strenuous assertiveness of some of Robert Browning’s poetry one might detect parallels to the confident mood inspired by the Great Exhibition. Generally, however, most mid-Victorian poetry and critical prose was less preoccupied with technology, economics, and economics, and politics than with the conflict between religion and science. This conflict was not, of course, altogether a new one. Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), like much mid-Victorian literature, carries on the religious debates of earlier decades. These debates, in their earlier form, had been generally between the Utilitarians, the followers of of Jeremy Bentham (1772-1832) and the philosophical conservatives, the followers of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As John Stuart Mill demonstrates in his excellent essays on Bentham and the Coleridge, these two writers divided between them the allegiance of all thoughtful people in England. 

Disputes about evolutionary science, like the disputes about the Oxford Movement, are a reminder that beneath the placidly prosperous surface of the mid-Victorian age there were serious conflicts and anxieties. In the same year as the Great Exhibition, with its celebration of the triumphs of trade and industry, Charles Kingsley wrote, “The young men and women of our day are fast parting from their parents and each other; the more thoughtful are wandering either towards Rome, towards sheer materialism, or towards an unchristian and un philosophic spiritualism.

The Late Period (1870-1901): Decay of Victorian Values:
The third phase of the Victorian age is more difficult to categorize. At first glance its point of view seems merely an extension of mid-Victorianism whose golden glow lingered on through the Jubilee years of 1887 and 1897 down to 1914. For many victorians, this final phase of the century was a time of serenity and security, the age of house parties and long weekends in the country. Yet, as the leading social critic of the 1860s, Mathew Arnold, had tried to show there were anomalies in the seemingly smooth working institutions of mid-Victorians England, and after 1870 flaws became evident. Some of the flaws developed out of issues of long standing such as relations with the Irish, and, a related issue, the status of Roman Catholics in England. And outside of England where other developments that challenged Victorian stability and security. The sudden emergence of his Bismarck's Germany after the defeat of France in 1871 was progressively to confront England with powerful threats to their naval and military position. The recovery of the united states after the civil war likewise provided new and serious competition. Another threat to the domestic balance of power was the growth of labor as a political and economic force. 

In much of the literature of this final phase of Victorianism we can sense an overall change of attitudes. Some of the late Victorian writers expressed the change openly by simply attacking the major mid-Victorian idols. Samuel Butler (1835-1902), for example, in his novel, The Way of All Flesh, Butler satirized family life, in particular the tyrannical self-righteousness of a Victorian father, his own father (a clergyman) serving as his mother. 

The Nineties:
The changes in attitude that had begun cropping up in the 1870s became much more conspicuous in the final decade of the century and give the 90s a special aura of notoriety. Of course the changes were not in evidence everywhere. Much of the writing of the decade illustrates a breakdown of a different sort. Melancholy, not gaiety, is characteristic of its spirit. The final decade can be viewed, that is, as either the beginning of a great future movement in literature or as the ending and death of another great movement in literature. According to Gerber, it seems to be "that at the ends of centuries... human beings, but artists in particular, are infected by a sense of death, decay, agony, old gods falling, cultural decline, on the one hand, or by a sense of regeneration... on the other." Indecencies David Copperfield (1850), the hero affirms:"I have always been thoroughly in earnest." As Richard Le Galliene (a novelist of the 90s) remarked in The Romantic 90s:"Wild made dying Victorianism laugh at itself, and it may be said to have died of the laughter." 

Earnestness, Respectability, and the Evangelicals:
Why has the term (earnest) been so often applied to the typical Victorian writers? It should be noted that the quality of earnestness was not strained. It did not exclude high spirits and humor. An age which relished the comic genius of Dickens and Thackeray, the grotesque humor or Browning and Carlyle, was not exclusively dedicated to mere solemnity. Nevertheless, the general Victorian preference for earnestness of spirit was firmly routed and can be best accounted for by distinguishing it not from what came after but from what went before it. 

The connections between literature in the romantic and victorian ages are close. Victorian poets as different as Browning and Swinburne both derive from Shelley. Tennyson is a follower of Keats, Arnold is a follower of Wordsworth. Most Victorian writers, both in poems and in essays, grappled with the same religious issues that had been a central concern for Wordsworth, Blake, and Shelley. As M.H. Abrams demonstrates a natural supernaturalism (1971), the post-romantics from Tennyson through Yeats continued the Romantic endeavor to salvage "the cardinal values of their religious heritage by reconstituting them in a way that would make them intellectually acceptable, as well as emotionally pertinent, for the time being." 

A dividing point, however, may be observed in Carlyle's well-known advice to his contemporaries in 1834:"Close thy Byron; open thy goethe." Carlyle's advice could be interpreted in two ways. The first is with reference to literary forms. A Victorian writer might afford the wild excesses, the lack of controlled form of much Romantic writing; Byron himself foresaw that such a reformation was necessary. "We are all on a wrong tack," he wrote. "Our successors will have to go back to the riding school... and learn to ride the great horse." Yet, several Victorian poets, Tennyson in particular, do fulfill Byron's prediction. The energy of Romantic literature persists, but it is channeled into a stricter concern for disciplined forms. It is significant that the Romantic poet most influential in the Victorian age was Keats, the most form-concsious of the Romantics, rather than Byron. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in his England and the English,"When Byron passed away," he reported,"... we turned to the actual and practical career of life: we awoke from the morbid, 'the moonlight and dimness of the mind' and by a natural reaction addressed ourselves to the active and daily objects which lay before us."

And to address themselves to the "actual and practical" meant for the Victorians that their "natural reaction" was directed not only against the excesses of Romanticism but also against the lifestyle of many of Byron's aristocratic contemporaries who had flourished in the previous decades and who had embodied the worldly-minded code of the regency, with its preference for a happy-go-lucky enjoyment of the physical pleasures of life, for fox hunting and hard drinking and lounging. In its strictness sense "Evangelical" refers to part of a branch of the Church of England called the Low Church. Zealously dedicated to good causes, advocates of a strict puritan code of morality, the Evangelicals became a powerful and active minority in the early part of the nineteenth century. Much of their power depended on the fact that their view of life and religion was virtually identical with that of a much larger group, the nonconformists (the Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists and the other Protestant sects). When united for action with this large group of sects, the Evangelicals were a formidable force.Finally, the term "Evangelical" has been loosely applied to cover any kind of enthusiastic concern for reform. It is thus used to describe anyone infected with the spirit of the Evangelical movement even though he or she does not subscribe to its ethical code or its beliefs. Victorian earnestness may therefore be explained partly as a response to challenging situation and partly as routed in an active religious movement  that left its stamp on agnostics as well as on believers.
The role of women in Victorian life and literature:
The explosive growth of the textile industries brought hundreds of thousands of lower class women into factory jobs with grueling working conditions. The strains of modernization motivated a renewed emphasis on home and family that enforced the separation between men's work and women's work. All of these changes brought to the fore what Victorians called The Women Question, which concerned issues of sexual inequality in politics, economic life, education, and social intercourse. In the political area, it was abundantly evident that women continued to rank as second class citizens. Like millions of working class men, they could not vote or hold office except the highest office of queen Victoria. (and Victoria was in general an antifeminist) Petitions to Parliament advocating women's suffrage were introduced as early as 1840s, but they did not become low until 1918. Less prolonged was the agitation to allow married women to own and handle their own property. 

In addition to pressuring Parliament for legal reform, feminists worked to enlarge educational opportunities for women. In 1837, none of England's three universities was open to women. Tennyson's long poem, the princess (1847), was inspired by contemporary discussions of the need for women to obtain an education more advanced than that provided by the popular finishing schools. The poem reflects a climate of opinion that lead in 1848 to an establishment of the first women's college in London. By the end of the Victoria's reign, women could take degrees at twelve universities or university colleges and could study, although not earn a degree at Oxford and Cambridge. 

The diversity of Victorian Literature:
The weight of the puritan code on the literature of early and mid-Victorian England was considerable. It was most evident in the novels, for novels were commonly read aloud in family gatherings, and the need to avoid topics which might cause embarrassment to young girls established taboos that novelists could not dare ignore. It was not until near the end of the century or later that the novelists broke clear of those restrictions. The poets and essayists faired better. Too much can be made of the importance of these taboos as literary conventions in the Victorian age. A much more significant kind of pressure from the Victorian audience on its writers, was the desire on the part of readers to be guided and edified. Most of Tennyson's poems are concerned with the dilemma of writers' divided duty toward their public ad their art-a dilemma that has become even more acute in the twentieth century as the reading public has further expanded. The existence of this dilemma may help to explain another characteristic of Victorian literature: its variety both in style and in subject matter. It is among the poets that the search for appropriate modes is most evident. All of them seem driven to experiment in a variety of ways. In versification, although making considerable use of traditional forms such as the sonnet, most of them referred experimenting with new or unusual metrical patterns, as did Gerard Manly Hopkins and later Thomas Hardy. In line with their metrical experiments are their experiments in the art of narrative poetry. The poets sought new ways of telling stories in verse, poems that are long, casual in tone and usually prosaic in style. To illustrate the diversity of styles in Victorian writing, two poems, published within the space of three years, may be compared. Tennyson's The Lotus-Eater (1842), and Browning's The Bishop Orders His Tomb (1845). We also encounter some frequently recurring subjects in Victorian literature, including a preoccupation with humanity's relationship to God, and also acute awareness of time, past, present, and future. Among the poets, one topic that links their writings together is love, for love, despite the reputed strain of puritanism in the age, is as prominent in Victorian poetry as it had been in the time of John Donne and his followers. Although the Victorian poets, unlike their 17th-century predecessors, rarely made witty proposals for gathering rosebuds, they explored other aspects of love relationships, such as the timeless equilibrium of lovers pictured by Rossetti, or the poignant experience of isolation by Arnold and Christina Rossetti, or the hostility of partners of a shattered marriage in Meredith's Modern Love. All these aspects, and more are present in the poetry of Robert Browning, and his comprehensive exploration of such relationships links him to his contemporaries.