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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.


V.    Victorian Authors

        A.    Alfred, Lord Tennyson


“The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Literary Term:  Word Music

¨         The mirror shows the Lady of Shalott her tapestry and images of the world outside.

¨         In the poem, Camelot represents the real, outside world.

¨         The Lady of Shalott leaves the island because of the sight of Sir Lancelot.

¨         The Lady of Shalott dies while floating down the river in a boat.

¨         When the mirror cracks “from side to side,” the readers get a foreshadowing of what will come at the end of the poem.

¨         The reapers are aware of the Lady of Shalott’s presence on the island because they hear her singing.

¨         The crisis of the poem is the Lady of Shalott’s realization that she no longer wishes to live with the shadows.

¨         The Lady of Shalott believes a curse will fall on her if she looks toward Camelot.

¨         The Lady of Shalott lives in and enchanted world of magic and isolation in castle under a spell of death if she experiences life directly.

¨         As an artist, Tennyson’s message is that artists, like the Lady of Shalott, should not isolate themselves from the world.

¨         The curse of the Lady of Shalott keeps her from visiting Camelot.

¨         In “The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson suggests that artists recreate life through special visions.  This is seen in the Lady creating beautiful tapestries just by looking at a mirror image of the world beyond her windows.

¨         To create “word music,” Tennyson uses such literary devices as assonance as seen in the line “And there the surly village churls,” a regular rhyme scheme, and alliteration as in “Willows whiten, aspens quiver.”

¨         Tennyson uses opposition in this poem to contrast the “real, outside world” to the world of forced solitude that the Lady of Shalott lives in.  Examples:  the flowers of the world in opposition to the gray walls and tower of the Lady’s home and her “snowy white” clothes and “Dead-pale” demeanor in contrast with Lancelot’s brilliant appearance and happy songs as he travels to Camelot.

    B.    A. E. Housman


 “Is My Team Ploughing?” By A. E. Housman

Literary term for this poem:  Literary Ballad

¨         The format that best describes this poems structure is questions and answers

¨         The rhyme scheme of this poem is abcb

¨         This poem has a grimly ironic tone

¨         This poem is a form of a literary ballad

¨         This poem uses several characteristics of a traditional ballad including a strong, simple beat; questions and answers; and a tragic subject matter

¨         The two speakers of the poem are a young man who has died and his friend

¨         The speaker of this poem addresses a friend of his

¨         The answering voice tells the dead man in the last line “never ask me whose” because he is sure that the dead man can guess correctly without being told.

¨         Readers know that the responder is indifferent to the dead man’s desires because he emphasizes the happiness of those still living.

¨         The young man asks about several things including his plough team, his sweetheart, and his friend

¨         The last two stanzas of the poem let the readers know that the young man’s friend has fallen in love with the dead man’s sweetheart


        C.    Robert Browning


“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning

Literary Term:  Dramatic Monologue

¨             A dramatic monologue is a poem in which a speaker other than the poet addresses a listener who does not speak.

¨         “My Last Duchess” is based on the formal occasion of a nobleman’s employee making dowry arrangements with a widower.

¨         The Duke reveals that his anger with his last Duchess was her smiling too freely at others.

¨         When the Duke requests that the count’s representative take a seat.

¨         The Duke is the only person who speaks in this poem; however, he responds to the undisclosed comments of the Count’s representative.

¨         The Duke reveals that he is an extremely jealous man.

¨         The Duke refers several times to Fra Pandolf who is the painter who completed the portrait of the last Duchess.

¨         The Duke believes that his wife lacked discrimination in that she was polite to all people no matter their station in life.

¨         By the end of the poem, readers have been led to the conclusion that the last Duchess was killed by the Duke.

¨         From all indications, the Duke had the Duchess killed because she was too kind.

¨         The Duke refers to the portrait “There she stands/As if alive.”  This reference leads readers to the conclusion that he is happier with the portrait than the real woman.  Readers are lead to believe he is happier with the picture because he can control who sees the picture where he could not control the woman.

 “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning

Literary Term:  Personification

¨         After Porphyria’s arrival, the setting becomes cheerful and warm

¨         When she arrives, the first thing she does is shut out the cold and light a fire.

¨         When Porphyria calls to him, the speaker does not respond.

¨         Line 2 of the poem provides an example of personification.  What is personified?

¨         According to the speaker, Porphyria is unable to fully surrender to her love for him

¨         The poem’s speaker is a ruthless and remorseless man.  He seems to be amoral as opposed to immoral. 

¨         The speaker looks into Porphyria’s eyes and is surprised to find that she adores him completely

¨         The speaker’s act is motivated by a moment in which he feels that Porphyria is devoted to him

¨         The speaker kills Porphyria because he wants to possess her forever.

¨         The speaker kills Porphyria by strangling her with her hair.

¨         At the end of the poem, Porphyria’s body lies against her lover’s chest.

¨         At the end of the poem, the speaker is surprised that God has not reacted to his murderous act indicating his unstable psychological state


    D.    Elizabeth Barrett Browning


“Sonnet 43” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Literary term: Petrarchan sonnet

¨         Barrett Browning’s sonnets were titled Sonnets from the Portuguese because she was reluctant to admit that they were autobiographical.

¨         The speaker claims that she will lover her beloved better after she dies.

¨         The love expressed in this poem is a lasting and profound love.

¨         The speaker’s statement that she loves with “childhood faith” means that her love is unconditional.

¨         As the poem progresses, both the sentiments and the expressions become more emotional.

¨         This poem has a joyous poem since the speaker refers to how much she loves her beloved.

¨         The speaker has transformed grief into love.

¨         In the last lines of the poem, the speaker indicates that her love is eternal since she will love him better after she dies.

¨         The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet because it has an octave and a sestet and is written in iambic pentameter.

¨         The speaker of this poem is quite passionate about her beloved.

¨         This sonnet is unlike most other Petrarchan sonnets in that it does not contain a turn.  The speaker’s ideas are continuous.


    E.    Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)


Born in Bombay, India, but his father sent him back to England to get his education.


He was Anglo-Indian—that is an Englishman born and living in India.


At seventeen he returned to India as a reporter in Lahore


Became popular for his short stories, sketches, and poems while a reporter.


1889—returned to England.


1892—Barrack-Room Ballads published.  It was so popular that it went into 3 editions in the first year.  It would later go on to 50 editions over the next 30 years.


By 1901—most popular poet since Tennyson and most popular prose writer since Charles Dickens


Popularity and public influence can be attributed to his strong support of the British Empire


His ideas about “empire” were not simple


Fascinated by the contrast and conflict of European culture with the ancient cultures of the places into which it intruded


Believed the purpose of the empire was to extend British efficiency, decency, and comfort throughout the world, not necessarily make the imperial nation rich


Did not always see British culture as superior although he almost always presents it as such.


1907—First British author to win the Nobel Prize in literature

“The Mark of the Beast”


Literary Terms


Allusion—a reference to anything biblical, historical, political, social, or literary that the audience can be expected to know.


The allusion in this story is to Revelations 13: 16-17:  “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”


Epigraph—a brief quotation used to introduce a piece of writing bullet

The epigraph, “Your Gods and my Gods—do you know which are stronger?”, indicates that the events in the story are going to involve religions and/or cultures.  It also indicates that the characters are going to be powerless to prevent some of the actions. bullet

Strickland also suggests that the people in India are “handed over to the power of the Gods and Devils of Asia, and the Church of England Providence only [exercises] an occasional and modified supervision in the case of Englishmen.”  Here we as readers see that the conflict in the story will occur, the divinities will determine the outcomes. bullet

The monkey god Hanuman is, in Hindu tradition, chief of the monkeys and is described as perfect in learning.  He is a hero god in the Ramayana, one of India’s sacred epic poems, for in it he helps to reunite Rama (one human incarnation of the god Vishnu) with Sita, his kidnapped wife.  Hanuman sometimes is called Mahavira—“The Great Hero.”  He is also seen as a fertility god and as a sympathetic helper of humans. bullet

Fleete leaves the “mark of the beast” on the statue of Hanuman when he grinds his cigar butt into the forehead of the statue. bullet

The Silver Man leaves a mark on Fleete that curses him to become more and more animalistic (beast-like). bullet

The next day a black mark appears on Fleete’s chest, and he begins craving barely cooked meat, frightening the horses, and howling and snarling.  He degenerates quickly into a wild beast (actually becoming more and more wolf-like), forcing his friends to tie him up. bullet

Dumoise can do nothing for Fleete and believes him to have rabies (hydrophobia).  bullet

Strickland and the narrator agree that the Silver Man must be responsible.  They capture the leper and force him to remove the curse. bullet

The next morning Fleete acts normally, with no memory of his transformation.  The narrator wonders if anyone will believe the story. bullet

Even though Fleete learns nothing from his experience, the narrator (and the reader) can.  The lesson reflects how the empire defiled other cultures’ religions and practices and how these defilements insulted the people of those cultures and resulted in “bad blood” between the British and the natives.