The Victorian Era

April 11, 2010 at 11:37 am Leave a comment

The Victorian Era, which dominates most of the nineteenth century (1830 – 1901) is named after Queen Victoria, who (until now) was England’s longest reigning monarch. Although it is fallacious to characterize this nearly century long period in British history monolithic-ally, for our purposes I will focus on some Victorian issues that impact the development of literature. There were, actually, three distinct stages in Victorianism:

Stage One.

The first from 1830 -50, which was marked by radical social uphevals in both Europe and England in which a working class began to revolt, and  socialism began to accelerate as either a danger or a salvation (depending upon your politics, I suppose). The result in England were a series of Reform Bills in the 1830s – 40s that revolutionized the principles behind a working nation. For instance, it gave more political power to workers, unions, voting, etc. It established the first child labor laws and health and safety mandates. Also, England began to change tax codes to help the middle and working class. It was far from modern and the “welfare” state England would develop even further in the early 20th century, but it showed England becoming much more socially conscious.

Stage Two:

The Second Period, 1850 – 1870 marked the period of incredible growth of “Empire” and economic prosperity, the things we tend to characterize Britain with of this time. The explosion of industry, the expansion of trade and colonization around the world, and the beginnings of modern science and technology made England into THE superpower on the globe. England was by this time, consummately, Great Britain, and the sun never set on the Yukon Jack.

Stage Three:

Third Period: 1870 – 1901. During this time there came a growing suspicion and criticism within England of its role as superpower, or Empire. There was also a growing skepticism and even loathing of Victorianism and its sense of pride, moralisms and enervating sense of culture (as you see in Matthew Arnold’s prose, and Oscar Wilde’s wit and satire aimed at Victorian prudery and moralistic attitude). During this period, some of the greatest and, for many, most shocking discoveries and advances in natural science were being made, particularly Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and the confirmation by geologists that the earth was far far far far far far far more older than 5,000 years.

The Earthquake of Natural Science.

The effects of advances in natural science on culture, religion and society cannot be overstated. Darwin’s books on evolution and natural selection proved uncomfortable aspects of our world at the same time that they were an assault on Christian religious truths (and often not so subtle in its attack). By theorizing (and proving some of it pretty well for a nineteenth century scientist) that we evolved from lower species, Darwin outright rejected the notion that humans are singularly created. In rejecting Creationism, Darwin also proceeds to reject all notions that humans function by the guidance of transcendent moral codes. Instead, Darwin argues that our sense of morality has been socially constructed, engendered over centuries of the human as a social and instinctual animal.

If Darwin had been an isolated phenomenon, an individual speaking alone, he may have been simply considered a crackpot. However, Darwin was researching and writing during this time in which natural scientists in England were canvasing the globe in an attempt to empirically understand the world with the same energy and ambition as explorers and colonizers took over the world. At the same time that Darwin posited Evolution and Natural Selection, geologists were successfully proving that the earth was no 5,000 years old, but millions, perhaps billions of years old, another assault upon Biblical truth and mythology that had established religious ideology in England for nearly 1,800 years.

Explosion of Existential Thought.

Contiguous to the advances in natural science, philosophers began to radically question established truths, assumptions and ideologies by which the British lived by and in which they had believed for centuries. Philosophers such as Nietzsche posed often frightening challenges to comfortable metaphysical philosophy by engaging in what you might call a “demythologizing” philosophy, an inquiry suspicious of anything by which we hang on to as truth, questioning everything. For the first time, God’s existence came into question in an organized and systematic way. And, for one of the first times, atheists, spiritualists, occultists, anarchists, etc., gathered and publicallyspoke and wrote, whereas many with such beliefs only a century earlier would have been persecuted.

A De-mythologizing Era.

Paul Ricoeur(one of the greatest late twentieth century philosophers) famously labelled the discourse of the late 1800s, “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” It is a period in which many sacred, assumed, and sometmies naive truths become “demythologized.” For one of the first time, there is a dominantly growing philosophical and theological discourse rejecting Creation, and a more minority voice that begins rejecting God.

In short, the late 1800s undergoes seachangesin British thought. Although such thinking does not radically change the British and Victorian social fabric and Europe’s belief in their dominant and God-given role to lead the world, it establishes the darker, more suspicious and existential tone that would be instrumental in the radical breaks with tradition in the fervent period of Modernism during and after World War I.

Literary Movements in Victorianism.

The literature of the period we are looking at for April 20th is from roughly 1850 until 1900, falling during the greatest expansions of British Empire and the consequent skepticism and disillusion with Empire as the 1900s approach.

The Novel.

The dominant genre during the Victorian era was prose, particularly the novel. The novel came into its own in the mid 1800s with such greats as Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and many others. We would not have time in the intensity of a mod combined witha survey course to do justice to the novel of the 1800s (which is why I run a course on this every other year). The Victorian novel was very much a product of an explosion of middle class literacy and a growing publishing industry. Novels were, for the most part, a form of high entertainment. Most novels were published in serial format in newspapers in England, where people could follow on a weekly basis a novel by, say, Dickens. They were, in a sense, the “soap operas” of the 1800s. In fact, most novels serialized in newspapers were extravagantly illustrated withincredible prints and drawings, an element that is lost from our experience with the reprinted book format.


Poetry underwent changes (many would argue, including me, not for the better). A dominant group of poets, like Robert Browning, reacted against what they felt was the soppy, rose-colored, sweet and flighty poetry of late Romanticism (think Shelley), and developed a more prosey poetry that focuses more on narrative, concrete issues in a “real” world. But, as the 1800s moved on, there was also a growing group of poets who react against the increasingly prosaic “realism” of the 1800s, and write a very romantic poetry that grows at times as ridiculously sweet and vacuous at the same time that it can be beautiful. In the early 1900s, T.S. Eliot would famously argue that since the 1700s, poetry has undergone a radical and unfortunate shift: poetry is either intellectual / cerebral, or it is emotional / romantic. Never again, he argued, since the Metaphysical poets of the late 1600s has poetry fused both intellect and emotion. It would be the really soppy, moody poetry of the late 1800s that Eliot reacts against with his groundbreaking modernist poems in the 1910s and 1920s.

Prose–The Essay.

Prose, particularly the essay, becomes just as central as the novel during this period. I’ve already talked about the earth-shaking effects of people like Darwin’s published books. The dominance of the essay mirrors the growing concern with the world around us, the real social issues of people, during Victorianism. The terms “Realism” has often been used to describe this period. Most Victorian novelists and essayists were interested in realism, in depicting the world as accurately as possible. A result of looking at the world head on is a growing criticism and suspicion of what authors see. Hence, Dickens many novels that expose social ills.

Matthew Arnold: Critic and, Possibly, Cultural Prophet.

Matthew Arnold is one of the great social voices of the Victorian era. He is the era’s greatest critic, while at the same time he is also the epitome of Victorianism in his belief that we all can change and reform everything (the idea of Utopianism has its explosion during this era).

Particularly in Culture and Anrachy, Arnold criticizes the narrow-minded, mechanical, industrial and material mindset of Victorian England, particularly amonst its middle class. He believed that industry and the machine had developed a “Puritanical” British middle class, one more intereted in moralisms and rules designed to benefit social/financial advancement. Arnold hankers for a return to “Hellenistic” thought. By this, he means a mind (like the ancient Greeks) that breaks from its narrow, material concerns, and roams over all possibilities, all interests, particularly cultural interests.

Arnold (rightfully, I believe) feared that the material culture of England was developing minds growing narrower, more concerned with self-interest, expediancy, and industry. He feared this would lead to ignorance and bigotry. He famously called the puritanical middle class in England, “Philistines,” which has come to mean shallow, narrow minded and uncultured. What Arnold envisioned was an England that would shift more emphasis to the study of literature, art and music (now that England was Empire and had excelled in industry) in order to cultivate minds for a more literate future. His notion of studying the “touchstones of history” had a huge effect on our present day notion of a literary “canon,” the implicitly accepted list of works that appear on a syllabus and that a student reads and studies in secondary school and college.

Entry filed under: WEEK FOUR.

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