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THE VICTORIAN AGE 1837 1901

The early part of the 19th century had seen Britain consolidate its position as a
world power following the defeat of Napoleon. The rest of the 19 th century was to see
Britain reach heights of wealth, power and prestige that were unmatched at any other time
in its history. This golden age is often referred to as the Victorian era because it
corresponded with the reign of one of the countrys best-loved queens, Victoria.
GOVERNMENT
Victoria became a symbol of all that was good and glorious in 19 th century Britain.
One of the great achievements of the century was the gradual construction of a system of
parliamentary democracy that was backed up by a permanent civil service which took care
of the day-to-day running of the state. This system was much admired abroad because it
provided stability and social cohesion at a time of rapid economic expansion.
The process of social development and political reform which had begun earlier in
the century continued throughout the Victorian period:
By 1870 the working day was limited to 10 hours a day and sixty hours a week
Education up to the age of 13 became compulsory, but not free
The Second Reform Bill of 1867 doubled the number of people who could vote;
women still couldnt vote
The health service was improved
At the end of the Victorian era, British people could boast of being better housed,
better clothed, better informed and more healthy than any other population in Europe.
Britain had established a model for stable constitutional government in an industrial state
which was the envy of the rest of the world. However, as the 19 th century drew to a close,
it was becoming apparent that the prosperity and harmony that characterized Victorias
reign would not last forever. A period of splendid isolation was to give way to one of open
rivalry and turmoil.
VICTORIAN LITERATURE
The Victorian period was an age of stark (powerful) contrasts and paradoxes. While
Britain was at the height of its wealth, power and influence, large sections of its population
lived and worked in appalling (terrible) conditions. Abroad, the British empire continued to
claim new territories while, at home, age-old rural communities were disappearing.
Scientific and technological advances paved the way for a better future as traditional
religious beliefs began to crumble under the weight of new scientific discovery. The
growing pains, confidence and loss of consensus in Victorian society are all reflected in its
literature.
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THE VICTORIAN NOVEL


As the Renaissance is identified with drama and Romanticism with poetry, the
Victorian age is identified with the novel. There are several reasons for the triumph of
fiction, but perhaps the most significant is the rapid growth in the middle classes who,
since the 18th century, had been avid consumers of this form of literature. Other factors
are:

An improved education system


A fall in book prices
Circulating libraries became very popular
Women had more time to dedicate to reading and became avid consumers of fiction
(they were not just readers, but also influential writers)

SERIALISATION
The Victorian age also abounded in journals, periodicals and pamphlets. Many early
Victorian novels first appeared in serialized form in periodicals. Publication in serial form
influenced the writing process: writers had to keep the readers interest high in order to
encourage them to continue buying their work.
REALISM
The closeness between the novelist and his readers was a distinguishing feature,
particularly of the early Victorian period. Writing had become an important commercial
activity and novels were written primarily to please the public and sell. The middle class
readership wanted realistic novels, where the contemporary world they knew was faithfully
described and not idealized as the Romantics has done. Victorian realism observed and
documented everyday life, drew its characters from all social classes and explored areas of
life usually ignored by the arts.
The writer who is most representative of the Victorian period is Charles Dickens. He
is considered the greatest novelist because his work best reflects the complexity,
excitement and disharmonies of the age. His ability to create a character in a phrase, his
ear for speech and his eye for detail have rarely been equaled.
Although they were contemporaries of Dickens, the Bronte sisters belong to an
earlier literary tradition. Their works, which contain Gothic elements and explores the
extremes of passion and violence, are distinctly Romantic in temperament.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, displays a level of emotional force and
sophisticated narrative structure (involving 2 major and 5 minor narrators) not previously
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seen in the English novel. It is a work of unique imaginative power which describes the wild,
instinctive passions of its two main characters against the backdrop of the rugged
Yorkshire moorland.
George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, was another outstanding woman novelist of
the Victorian period.
LATER VICTORIANS
This term is used to refer to writers in the last two decades of Victorias reign.
Although English society was still governed by conventional Victorian codes, new scientific
and philosophical theories led people to question the basic assumptions of the age. A spirit
of rebellion developed against Victorian materialism, optimism and self-confidence. Unlike
Dickens and other early Victorian writers who criticized society, but believed in the
possibility of finding solutions, an air of gloomy pessimism pervaded the work of later
Victorian writers. Perhaps the writer who best represents the period is Thomas Hardy.
Thomas Hardys novels are set in the countryside of Wessex, the fictional name he
gave to the southern part of England where he was born. His thorough knowledge and
affection for this part of the country is clearly seen in his detailed descriptions of the
rural landscape and the natural environment which not only provide a background and a
setting but become an active force in his stories. His stories are so closely linked to this
rural setting that they are referred to as regional novels.
Hardys characters are outsiders in their own society who fall victim to forces of
economic and social change over which they have no control. His two major novels, Tess of
the dUrbervilles and Jude the Obscure are deeply pessimistic. Tess, an intelligent and
loving girl, is driven to her death by a rigid, inflexible, social system.
AESTHETICISM
The crises of faith and morality which characterized the latter half of the
Victorian period gave rise in the 1880s and 1890s to an artistic movement known as
AESTHETICISM a term which comes from the Greek word meaning to perceive or to
feel. Aesthetes believed that sensation should be the source of art, and that the role of
the artist was to make the public share his feelings. They totally rejected the Victorian
notion that art should have a moral, social or political purpose, believing that the artist
should care about form and technique and express himself freely: he should not become
the slave of fixed moral and ethical conventions. This approach to art gave rise to a type of
literature which cultivated sensations and described them with great frankness. The motto
art for arts sake was adopted and followers were encouraged to live their life as a work
of art, which meant experiencing all possible kinds of sensations. Perhaps the most

outstanding figure in the movement was Oscar Wilde. A successful poet, novelist and
playwright, he applied aesthetic principles to all his work.

VICTORIAN POETRY
Like the novelists, Victorian poets could not escape the pressure of the forces of
change which were sweeping (a se intinde) across English life and thought. Although their
poetry maintained the rich sensuousness and imagination of the Romantic school, it tended
to be more popular and didactic and addressed the great social and intellectual problems of
the day. Two great poetic figures emerged: Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning.
VICTORIAN DRAMA
English drama was stagnant throughout much of the Victorian period and no new
plays of any literary quality were produced. Several factors contributed to this crisis in
theatre:
The rise of the novel
The theatre had become a business
Drama was not considered an art form by the rich, influential middle classes, many
of whom still considered acting to be immoral.
Victorian theatre-goers, who were principally working or lower middle-class, wished
to be amused. The types of performances that were popular were:

Music-hall
Pantomime
Farce
Melodramas