2.1 THE VICTORIAN MOVEMENT IN LITERATURE
Image 2.1 | Portrait of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children Artist | Franz Xaver Winterhalter Source | Wikimedia Commons License | Public Domain
Victorian writers reacted against the Romantics by moving away from Romantic what may be considered individual subjectivity toward a more objective stance. While the Romantics alluded to Greek and Roman mythology and art, the Victorians added Greek and Roman classics, especially in terms of structure, subject, and character expression. Rather than the Romantic emphasis on the individual, the Victorians embraced social responsibility, engaging with the people, problems, and ideas of their time.
Image 2.2 | Victorian London Slum
Artist | Gustave Dore Source | The Guardian License | Public Domain
The objective poet became the standard, as they reproduced the external world in action, struggle, battle, and engagement in manifesting any feelings and ideas. Indeed, Victorian poetry, like Romantic, is weighted with ideas and issues of the age. But the Victorians thought that Romantic poetry put too much emphasis on expression, metaphors, and the means of poetry at the expense of the subject of poetry. Victorian objectivity shaped their emphasis on action over introspection and overelaboration of feeling. Their critical theory produced dramatic poems rather than the Romantic lyric. From these views and approaches, the dramatic monologue developed as a characteristic form in poetry, a form in which the poem’s speaker is not the poet. And realism became the hallmark of prose, particularly in the novel. The extremely popular novels of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), with their wealth of concrete detail and reflection of specific social conditions, exemplify such realism. Overall, Victorian authors strove for realism in style and subject, strove to reproduce nature as it was, not as it was imagined or idealized.
Literary movements in the Victorian age paralleled societal changes that occurred. John Ruskin (1819-1900) wrote highly influential essays attacking current views supporting laissez-faire, classic economics, and utilitarianism. He believed that labor should be pleasant, that the product of labor should be artistic, and that the whole person should be involved in their work. He expressed the influential view that a society could be judged by the quality of its art and architecture, a view best expressed in his The Stones of Venice (1851-1853). Matthew Arnold’s (1822-1888) essays similarly looked to art as a measure of morality. Ruskin had a great effect on economics; for example, he influenced John A. Hobson (1858-1940), who criticized balancing production with demand, or Say’s Law. Ruskin’s ideas led to welfare economics, to the realization that society needed to be concerned with the welfare of workers.
Ruskin’s admiration for medieval unity contributed to the medieval ideal of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelite Movement, represented by such writers as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and William Morris (1834-1896), sought to recover an organic construct in society such as they thought existed when medieval lords were directly responsible for their serfs. They sought a comparable unity within themselves and their art, an art that synthesized word and image, expression and product. William Morris actualized these views not only in his writings, such as Defense of Guenivere (1858), but also in his co-founding a manufacturing company that produced textiles, pottery, and glass intended to be both beautiful and useful.
Advances in science had an immense impact on society, not only economically but also culturally. It contributed to a new view of nature as indifferent to all species, including humans. In the latter half of the Victorian era, a Crisis in Faith caused society to turn away from faith and duty toward mercantilism and social Darwinism, an idea tying natural selection to living people. The growing sense that God had no plan for this callous world led many to scramble for security and meaning. Some turned to philosophies like Positivism, a theory privileged fact and natural phenomenon over religious faith, and that influenced secular religion, or a religion of humanity. Some returned to Roman Catholicism, taking comfort in its dogma and ritual. And some turned to art, expressing a belief in art. Aesthetes lived for beauty; aesthetic artists became priests in service to the religion of art as art gave meaning to the fleeting moment that is human life. The Aesthetic Movement, which advocated art for art’s sake, suggested that great art could replace life. Walter Pater (1839-1894) in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), most famously in its Mona Lisa passage, makes no distinction between life and art. And aesthetic writers, like Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in his The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), explored the effects of these views on the individual.
2.2 HISTORICAL CONTEXT
As both a historical and literary age, the Victorian era dates chronologically with the reign of Queen Victoria. Some critics, though, see it as beginning with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s (1809-1892) publication of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical and the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railroad, both of which occurred in 1830.
The Victorian Age can be divided into two sections, with the fulcrum occurring around 1870. The first part was characterized by optimism in material, cultural, and social progress. The optimistic saw great progress occurring in this era. The Crimean War (1854-56), though filled with military miscalculations and deaths and achieved no victory, did not diminish this optimism. The second part, however, was affected by the Depression of 1873, which continued until the end of the century. England in the 1860s was at its zenith as a world power, followed by a slow decline over the next 100 years.
Image 2.3 | The Railway
Artist | George S. Measom Source | Wikimedia Commons License | Public Domain
Image 2.4 | The Crystal Palace
Artist | W. Lacey
Source | Wikimedia Commons License | Public Domain
The paramount characteristic of the Victorian Age was rapid change and concomitant conflict. It was a complex age, an age of great wealth and extreme poverty, of the family as sacred center and a burgeoning of prostitution, of morality and fraud, of belief in the Bible and in scientific determinism. In the 1830s, railroad expansion transformed England as it spurred immense material progress and economic growth. The Victorians came to think of progress as natural and tied progress to wealth and prosperity.
Britain exceeded the exports of competing nations like the United States by three to four times in number. The British Empire grew in pursuit of resources and markets for its exports. At its height of Empire, Britain ruled about a quarter of the world, including Ceylon, India, Australia, New Zealand, the Sudan, and South Africa. The British saw themselves as the leaders of the world, assuming the “white man’s burden” and spreading civilization and religion to the so-called dark places on earth. They overlooked the commercial exploitation, racism, and moral degradation that they also spread. A measure of Britain’s place in the world was The Crystal Palace (1851) which collected in one massive glass and iron structure inventions and artifacts taken from all over the British Empire.
Image 2.5 | The British Empire in 1900 Artist | User:Roke~commonswiki Source | Wikimedia Commons License | CC BY-SA 3.0
During this economic and social transformation, England’s aristocracy and the rising middle class, comprising industrialists, businessmen, trade leaders, and workers, vied for political power, with the middle class incrementally overtaking the aristocracy. The Reform Bill of 1832 began the process of extending the franchise, ultimately reaching the worker. During this struggle, England shifted from an agrarian to an industrial society. Industrialization wrought a grim physical change on the landscape and in the growth of urban slums around factories. Farmers migrated from the country to the city. The population in London doubled in a matter of a few years. A dramatic increase in the population overall led to an urban concentration, in London and in northern industrial cities like Liverpool, Leeds, and Manchester.
The laboring masses of the poor, though, had little power. Men, women, and children lived in abysmal conditions, working six days a week for up to sixteen hours a day in factories and mines at a time when there were no minimum wage or age limits. These conditions were partially improved through various acts, including the Factory Act of 1833 that improved conditions in textile factories; the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 that created the Workhouse, a place intended for the desperate destitute as it separated families and forced able-bodied people to work alongside the lunatic and the ill; and the Mine Act of 1842 that excluded women and children from working underground. Nevertheless, women in particular remained considerably disadvantaged.
A large number of women worked as domestic servants and governesses. Prostitution was an option for the desperate, and the number of prostitutes increased tremendously. The Victorian connection of virtue with prosperity allowed what now seems a remarkable hypocrisy in this growth, as Victorians thought that the poor and the prostitute were “no better than they should be” and suffered poverty because of their moral laxity. The other side of this view was the Victorian feminine ideal that viewed women as the standard bearers of morality, as the protectors of virtue in the home, their natural sphere. A woman’s duty first was to her husband; a woman’s privilege was her freedom from the stress of the public sphere. A married woman’s property was in her husband’s hands up until the 1870s and 1880s. Despite their apparent spiritual and moral elevation, women were considered inferior to men intellectually, physically, and temperamentally, and the position of women became a concern for social change. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) spoke for women’s individuality, and John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869) advocated for women’s education and options for occupations outside the domestic sphere.
Change and reform also occurred in religious life. Since the 1560s, England was a Protestant nation, with the Church of England supported by the government. Protestant evangelicals and dissenters of the church pushed strongly against this unquestioned authority, demanding strong Christian ethics and increased social welfare. Known for their religious fervor, evangelicals stressed the authority of the Bible, considering it to be the direct authority of God. Besides the Evangelical Movement there occurred in the 1870s the Oxford Movement that increased the size and power of the Roman Catholic Church. This movement was led by John Henry Newman (1801-1890) who published his spiritual biography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864).
These challenges to the established church reflected a shift in religion and philosophy caused by scientific and higher critical studies, including Sir Charles Lyell’s (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830-33) that used geology to measure the Earth’s age; Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) On the Origins of Species (1859) that saw life as biologically determined; and August Renan’s (1823-1894) Life of Jesus (1863), a biography of Jesus as human rather than divine. Additionally, the Empire exposed the British to unexpected diversity of cultures and religion. Missionaries intent on spreading the word of God to the so-called heathen were taken by surprise at the rational skepticism of some of their intended converts. John William Colenso (1814-1883), the Bishop of Natal, described the impact of such skepticism in his controversial work of biblical criticism, The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined (1862).
2.3 RECOMMENDED READING
Daniel Albright, Tennyson: The Muses’ Tug-of-War, 1986.
Jerome Buckley, The Victorian Temper, 1951.
Linda C. Dowling, Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siecle, 1986.
Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 1988.
Elizabeth Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder, The Woman Question, 3 vols., 1980.
Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870, 1957.
Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience, 1957.
Sally Mitchell, ed., Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, 1988.
Herbert Tucker, Browning’s Beginnings, 1980.