Period Introduction Overview

The Victorian Age, 1830-1901

  • During the Victorian Age, England changed as much and as dramatically as it had in all of its previous history.  It was in the nineteenth century that  England reached its height as a world imperial power.
  • Between 1837 (when Victoria ascended the throne) and 1901 (when she died) the population of London grew from about 2 million to well over 6 million―an unparalleled population boom.
  • Changes in industrial production techniques had a profound impact an almost all aspects of life for every class of citizen.
  • Unregulated industrialization created great prosperity for a lucky few but great misery for the masses.
  • Victorian era writers were mixed in their reactions to industrialization.  Some celebrated the new age of promise, progress, and triumph, while others challenged the so-called benefits of industrial growth when so many were being affected so negatively.

Queen Victoria and the Victorian Temper

  • In many ways the Victorian age reflected values that Queen Victoria herself espoused: moral responsibility and domestic propriety.
  • For as "proper" an age as the Victorian period seemed, however, there was as much evidence of social dissolution and moral impropriety.
  • Queen Victoria, perhaps more so than any previous monarch, became visually synonymous with the country she ruled, in part because she was the first monarch who lived in the age of photography: her image could be relatively easily produced, reproduced, and distributed.
  • Writers of the Victorian period tended to note more explicitly than had writers of previous ages the degree to which theirs was, for good or ill, an era of rapid transition and change.
  • Because the Victorian period lasted so long and because it was a time of such great change, it is hard to characterize in any singular, overarching way. Thus, scholars often refer to three distinct phases within the Victorian period: early (1830-1848); mid (1848-1870); and late (1870-1901). We often also recognize the final decade of the nineteenth century (the 1890s) as an important transitional period between the Victorian era and Modernism.

The Early Period (1830-1848): A Time of Troubles

  • The early Victorian period is marked by two major non-literary events: first, public railways expanded on an unprecedented scale; and second, the British parliament passed a reform bill in 1832 that (at least to some degree) redistributed voting rights to reflect growing population in newly industrializing centers like Manchester and Liverpool.
  • The 1832 Reform Bill marked, for many Victorians, the beginning of a new age of political power unlike they had ever experienced.
  • The 1830s and 1840s became known as the "Time of Troubles" largely because industrialization was producing such rapid change on such a profound scale; industrialization had a cascading effect in as much as it caused many other social "troubles." 
  • Working conditions were deplorable for the majority of people, including women and children, who worked in mines and factories.
  • A group called the Chartists organized themselves to fight for workers' rights. The organization fell apart by 1848 but their efforts set the stage for real and meaningful reform.
  • One of the most important reforms of the early Victorian period came with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. These laws imposed high tariffs on imported wheat and grains. And while the tariffs meant  good profits for England's own agricultural producers, it also meant prohibitively high prices, especially on basic food items like bread, for the vast majority of the population.
  • The literature of this time period often focused on the plight of the poor and the new urban reality of industrial England. Many writers commented on what had emerged as the two Englands: that of the wealthy (by far the minority) and that of the poor (by far the majority).

The Mid-Victorian Period (1848-1870): Economic Prosperity, the Growth of Empire, and Religious Controversy

  • The mid-Victorian era was somewhat less tumultuous than was the earlier Victorian period as the relationship between industry and government began to work itself out. However, the time was still one of great poverty and difficulty for many, even as England as a whole began to enjoy greater prosperity.
  • A number of acts of Parliament curbed the worst abuses of laissez-faire industry, like child labor and dangerous working conditions.
  • The 1850s were to many a time of optimism, with the promise of prosperity from industry seemingly so close. So too was England proud of its science and technology, as is evidenced by the Crystal Palace, centerpiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851.
  • The Crystal Palace was designed using modern architectural principles and materials, and its role in the Great Exhibition was to showcase English "progress" made possible by science and industry.
  • The mid-Victorian period was also a time when the British empire truly expanded around the globe (Australia, Canada, and India, for example)―all part and parcel of the prosperity made possible by the industrial revolution.
  • In England itself, debates about religion grew in intensity. By the mid-Victorian period the Church of England had evolved into three factions: a Low (or Evangelical) Church, a Broad Church, and a High Church. Each had their share of proponents and detractors.
  • As a primary driver behind the industrial revolution, rationalist thought destabilized religious beliefs. Groups like the utilitarian "Benthamites" came to see traditional religion as little more than outmoded superstition.
  • New discoveries in the sciences also led to a new mode of reading the Bible: Higher Criticism approached the Bible not as a divine and infallible text but rather as an historically produced set of documents that reflected the prejudices and limitations of their human writers.
  • Among other scientific works of the time Charles Darwin'sThe Origin of Species(1859) andThe Descent of Man(1871) seemed to challenge all previous thinking about creation and man's special role in the world. As popular readers understood Darwin, man was just one among many creatures who existed as a product of a long evolutionary history.
  • The mid-Victorian period would ultimately see often contrary forces―like the promise of progress yet the emptiness of long-held beliefs―that would come to a head during the final decades of the Victorian era and that would eventually be its undoing.

The Late Period (1870-1901): Decay of Victorian Values

  • For many, the late-Victorian period was merely an extension, at least on the surface, of the affluence of the preceding years.
  • For many others, though, the late-Victorian period became a time to fundamentally question―and challenge―the assumptions and practices that had made such affluence possible.  It became a time to hold England to account for the way in which it had generated wealth for so few on the backs of so many, both at home and throughout the empire.
  • Home-rule for Ireland became an increasingly controversial topic of debate.
  • In 1867 a second Reform Bill passed, extending voting rights even further to some working-class citizens.
  • The political writings of authors like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels empowered the working class to imagine itself in control of the industry that it made possible.

The Nineties

  • The final decade of the Victorian period marked a high point, both of English industry and imperial control, and of challenges to that industry and imperialism.
  • Even while British empire-building continued with great energy in Africa and India, in England many were starting to see the beginning of the end of the era.
  • Gone was trust in Victorian propriety and morality. Instead, many writers struck a "fin de siècle" (or end-of-century) pose: a weary sophistication with the optimism of forward progress when the limits of that progress seemed all too near in sight.
  • With the benefit of hindsight we can see the 1890s as a transitional phase between the optimism and promise of the Victorian period and the Modernist movement, during which artists began to challenge just how genuine that optimism and promise had been in the first place.

The Role of Women

  •  Despite the fact that the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867 changed voting rights by granting a political voice to many among the working class who had not enjoyed any such voice before, women were not included in these reforms.
  • In fact, despite its having been an era of great social change, the Victorian period (particularly its early and middle periods) saw little progress for women's rights. Women had limited access to education, could not vote or hold public office, and could not (until 1870) own property.
  • Debates about women's rights were referred to generally as "The Woman Question" (one of many issues in an age of issues).
  • In 1848, the first women's college was established; women were otherwise excluded from England's three universities.
  • It should be remembered that while the "Woman Question" often sought, at least in principle, rights for all women, it was primarily addressed to women of the middle class. In other words, while women argued for access to employment and bemoaned the stereotypical fate of the middle-class wife, who had to while away her time at home with insignificant trivial pursuits, hundreds of thousands of lower-class women worked in grueling industrial conditions in mines and mills.
  • Related to the larger "Woman Question," the problem of prostitution gained increasing visibility. Prostitution itself grew, in part to fill demand, of course, but also because it was actually a better choice for many women relative to the working conditions they would face in the factories.
  • Importantly, debates about gender did not necessarily fall down gendered lines: many men argued adamantly for women's rights, and many women (like Queen Victoria herself) were not convinced that women should enjoy equality with men.

Literacy, Publication, and Reading

  • As of 1837 roughly half of England's population was literate; that figure continued to grow throughout the Victorian period (due especially to reforms that mandated at least minimal education for everybody).
  • Because of  advances in printing technology, publishers could provide more texts (of various kinds) to more people.
  • The Victorian period saw enormous growth in periodicals of all kinds. Many famous novelists, like Charles Dickens, for example, published their work not in book form at first but in serial installments in magazines.
  • The practical reality of publishing in serial form had a direct impact on style, including how plots were paced, organized, and developed.  (The experience of reading serialized novels is similar to that of the modern television viewer watching a program that unfolds in a series of hour or half-hour segments.)
  • As literacy proliferated, the reading public became more and more fragmented. Writers thus had to consider how (or if) their writing might appeal to niche audiences rather than to a unified "reading public."

Short Fiction and the Novel

  • Short fiction thrived during the Victorian period, thanks in part to the robust periodical culture of the time.
  • The novel was perhaps the most prevalent genre of the time period; it was especially well suited to authors who wanted to capture the wide diversity of industrial life and the class conflict and divisions that industrialism created.
  • A common theme among Victorian novelists involves a protagonist who is trying to define him- or herself relative to class and social systems.

Poetry

  • While prose fiction was the most widely circulated kind of writing in the Victorian period, poetry retained its iconic status as "high literature."  Most readers continued to expect poetry to teach a moral lesson, even though many writers were uncomfortable with that aim.
  • As some Victorians would argue, it was through the writing and study of poetry in particular that individuals could cultivate their greatest human potential.
  • Poets of the period ranged widely in their subject matter: some sought to revive mythic themes (Arthurian legend, for example) while others turned a critical eye on the industrial abuses of the present (such as the problem of child labor).

Prose

  • Nonfiction prose writing gained wide readership during the Victorian period (due again to the vibrant periodical culture).  No less, authors were attracted to nonfiction prose as the best vehicle for addressing―in a direct and specific way―the problems of industrial England and, in some cases, for proposing solutions to these problems.
  • Nonfiction prose authors (who were often writers of fiction and poetry as well) tackled subjects that were as diverse as the age itself, including politics, religion, art, economics, and education.
  • Much Victorian nonfiction prose is marked by a sense of urgency, which reflects the pace of change of the age: many authors felt that society would, at some point, be overwhelmed by change and descend into some form of what Matthew Arnold called simply "anarchy."

Drama and Theater

  • The Victorian theater was a popular institution, especially for those with the means to enjoy it as one of life's many pleasures.
  • In addition to traditional plays, the theater also included all manner of spectacle, from burlesque to musicals to pantomime.
  • Especially towards the end of the Victorian period, playwrights like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde began to reflect, in an increasingly satirical way, the pretentious values and behavior that they believed characterized Victorian life.