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Victorian Notes



The Victorian Age (1832-1901)

I.            Background

            A.      Although she did not take the throne until the death of her Uncle William IV in 1837, almost the whole nineteenth century is named after Victoria, the longest reigning queen in English history.  Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901.  This era, immediately preceding the twentieth century, is important because the social and moral codes of the Victorian age greatly influenced our world.

            B.   The mood of the period was one of exuberant optimism.

            C.  The vision of the world was “a busy, bright place, teeming with possibilities.

            D.      This age was characterized by peace and prosperity. 

II.         Social issues—This period experienced several socio-economic problems during the 1840s—economic depression, widespread unemployment, famine in Ireland, and deplorable living and working conditions which were caused by rapid urbanization and a lack of measures safeguarding young workers.

            A.      Reform bills—Parliament passed the First Reform Bill 1832.  This extended the rights of the middle class by giving enfranchisement (the right to vote) to all men owning property worth 10 pounds or more in annual rent.  It also abolished the “rotten borough” system (some areas with little population had seats in Parliament while other areas with large populations had no seats in Parliament).  Other reform movements helped the lower classes by bringing food prices down (which had been priced-fixed earlier).  Later acts were passed limiting the hours workers could work in factories and restricting child labor.  The Second Reform Bill in 1867 gave all men except farm help the right to vote. 

            B.      Other Reform Bills

                  1.      1870—State supported schools established

                  2.      1880—School attendance made compulsory

                  3.      1891—School made free (free public education)

            C.      Female Reformers—Octavia Hill (1838-1912) worked for Housing Reform; Josephine Butler (1828-1906) exposed exploitation of women and girls and worked to get them their constitutional rights; and Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was a nurse during the Crimean War.  A camera and a war correspondent made her career possible.  Nightingale reformed the methods of treating wounded soldiers.

            D.      Free Trade—England became a center for exporting goods, banking, insurance, and shipping.  Railways covered the country and progress was important.  The Great Exhibition of 1851, sponsored by Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was the first World’s Fair of science and industry.  England’s empire was worldwide, and she traded with everyone.

            E.      Imperialism—Under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the British Empire expanded rapidly.  They saw themselves as bringing “superior civilization” to the earth first, and profiting economically second.  The idea that “the sun never sets on the empire” was true, since the British ruled Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa, among others.

III.       Social attitudes

            A.      Religion—Many Victorians were influenced by, even if they did not join, evangelical Christian groups.  Among the most important were the Methodists, Baptists, and Congregationalists.  They gained political power and advocated reform:  They helped pass the First Reform Bill; they freed all slaves in the Empire; they passed strict laws relating to Sunday activity; they practiced a strict, puritanical morality; and they believed in hard work.  The Evangelicals were genuinely concerned with the problems of the poor, working class, but their feelings toward these poor were often mixed (if they’d try, they’d do better)

            B.      Utilitarianism—Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy greatly interested the Victorians.  How to do the greatest good to the greatest number of people was an idea that appealed to the Victorians.  The Utilitarian’s basic standard was whether a law, practice, or institution helped most.  Though most Victorians advocated progress, by the end of the age progress had helped create a world that was constantly changing; the Victorians did not like this uncertainty.

            C.      Darwinism—In 1830, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology judged the development and age of the earth as much greater than the accepted religious view.  In 1859, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species put forth the theory of natural selection, and this shook the religious world.  The religious world countered with an intellectual movement called the Oxford Movement or Tractarianism.  This religious controversy affected many Victorian writers.

            D.      Age of Progress—2nd half of the 19th century and early 20th century brought about 4 major concepts of modern science

                  1.      idea of evolution

                  2.      idea of conservation of energy

                  3.      idea of space as a continuum that is pervaded by fields of physical activity

                  4.      idea that all action is dependents upon certain basic units:

                        a.      atom in chemistry

                        b.      cell in biology

                        c.      quantum in physics

            E.      Many Victorians believed that human efforts could overcome all material problems

 IV.      Victorian Literature

            A.      Nonfiction prose—The writers of nonfiction attacked the social problems of the time.  Important figures were Thomas Carlyle, who spoke against materialism and spiritual apathy; John Ruskin, who tackled economic and social reform, trying to make society “less ugly”; John Stuart Mill, who spoke for individual liberty; and Matthew Arnold, who was both literary and social critic as well as being a writer.

            B.      Poetry—Some of the more famous Victorian poets wrote in a semi-Romantic style, but because their world was changing so rapidly, the poets often wrote about doubt, alienation, and the search for one’s place in the world.  The Victorians wrote about many subjects in many styles, so there is no one dominating “school” as in other ages.  Famous poets are Robert Browning; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Matthew Arnold; and the {re-Raphaelite Brotherhood, headed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

            C.      Novel—The novel had its rise during the Victorian period, it is the literary form most suited to the world and personalities of the Victorians.  Most novels create a realistic picture of nineteenth-century life and most are very long, for they were often serialized in magazines.  Charles Dickens, generally called the greatest Victorian novelist, was a master of the serial.  Other famous novelists of the date were William Makepeace Thackery, author of Vanity Fair, and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), author of Silas Marner.