Victorian Age


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Introduction to Victorian era in English literature.

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  • The Victorian Age. What do you think of when I describe something as Victorian?

    This grand lady is Queen Victoria, for whom the period of her reign, 1837-1901, is named.
  • Queen Victoria became queen at the tender age of 18 when her uncle William IV died. She reigned for 63 years, longer than any other British monarch. Queen Elizabeth II, the current monarch, will need to last 6 years and 292 days to beat her. Mark your calendar for September 10, 2015 to see if she can do it.

    When Victoria became queen, Ireland was part of the British Empire. Scotland and Wales were not considered separate countries (they still aren’t)—they were considered part of Great Britain, as was England.

    Great Britain ruled India from 1858-1947, a period known as the British Raj. In Victoria’s time, the British Empire stretched across the globe, and it was commonly said that the sun never set on the British Empire.

    Victoria’s reign is marked by the establishment of a strong constitutional monarchy. The House of Commons gained more power (at the expense of the House of Lords and the Crown), and the Prime Minister had a much stronger role in governance. The monarchy gradually became more of a figurehead rather than a seat of power, and that is the role it has today.

    Victoria is often called the Grandmother of Europe because just about every royal family in Europe descends from her. The Romanovs in Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany, for instance, both descended from her. Some folks have argued that World War I was a giant family feud. Victoria famously was the carrier for the hemophilia gene. Alexei Romanov, who would have been Czar of Russia had his family not been executed, was a hemophiliac. Both Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip descend from Queen Victoria.
  • This time period is characterized mainly by the Industrial Revolution and growth of cities. Factories were built, and the middle class and lower classes emerged. The plight of child laborers was explored by writers like Charles Dickens. It was a time of major reform, too, as your book points out. Free trade was established. Strides were made toward universal male suffrage, or the right to vote, and women were beginning to protest for their rights to vote, too. Women were allowed to attend university for the first time. Free schools, what we would call over here in America public schools, were attended so everyone could be educated. Trade unions were legalized.

    British naturalist Charles Darwin wrote his Origin of the Species in 1859. Later in the Victorian period, Sigmund Freud would develop psycholanalysis. The influence of Darwin and Freud on society was profound.

    Britain fought only one major war during this time period: the Crimean War against Russia. It lasted 3 years from 1853-1856, so it was a time of peace and prosperity for Britain. Britain emerged as the world power. It not only had colonies and territories in India, but also Africa, Australia, and Canada. Britain controlled the Suez Canal in Egypt.
  • We have studied Romanticism, and we know it was characterized by imagination, individuality, intuition, idealism, and inspiration. It’s influence was still felt into the Victorian age, especially in Victorian poetry and art.

    However, the growing middle class and some of the democratic reforms taking place influenced the development of Realism, a grittier, more accurate portrayal of England. Charles Dickens, for instance, wrote about the plight of impoverished factory workers.

    Naturalism is even more gritty. Its goal was social reform. It exposed society’s worst ills. Stephen Crane once summed up Naturalism better than I can. He said it’s like this: “A man said to the universe, ‘Sir, I exist!’ ‘However,’ replied the universe, ‘the fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.”

    Pre-Raphaelites, on the other hand, wanted to get away from all that ugliness. They were inspired by medieval Italian art. The “Raphel” part of Pre-Raphaelite refers to the Italian painter Raphael. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as they were known, wanted to return to a artistic techniques before Raphael, whom they felt had a corrupting influence on art. This painting is known as Boreas, and it was created by John William Waterhouse, one of the Pre-Raphaelite artists in England.
  • While poetry was as popular as it was during the Romantic period, drama emerged when government theater restrictions were removed. Fiction, particularly the novel, became the dominant form of literature. This picture is of Charles Dickens, arguably the most influential novelist of the Victorian age, and one of the most influential writers of any age. Victorian thinkers also produced influential nonfiction works.
  • Major poets of the era included Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who is pictured here. Tennyson became Poet Laureate upon the death of William Wordsworth. Who remembers what the job of Poet Laureate is? The most famous poem Tennyson wrote as part of his duties as Poet Laureate was “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which chronicled an unsuccessful battle in the Crimean War. Here’s how it goes:


    Half a league, half a league,
    Half a league onward,
    All in the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.
    “Forward, the Light Brigade!
    “Charge for the guns!” he said:
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.


    “Forward, the Light Brigade!”
    Was there a man dismay'd?
    Not tho’ the soldier knew
    Someone had blunder’d:
    Theirs not to make reply,
    Theirs not to reason why,
    Theirs but to do and die:
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.


    Cannon to right of them,
    Cannon to left of them,
    Cannon in front of them
    Volley’d and thunder’d;
    Storm’d at with shot and shell,
    Boldly they rode and well,
    Into the jaws of Death,
    Into the mouth of Hell
    Rode the six hundred.


    Flash’d all their sabres bare,
    Flash’d as they turn’d in air,
    Sabring the gunners there,
    Charging an army, while
    All the world wonder’d:
    Plunged in the battery-smoke
    Right thro’ the line they broke;
    Cossack and Russian
    Reel’d from the sabre stroke
    Shatter’d and sunder’d.
    Then they rode back, but not
    Not the six hundred.


    Cannon to right of them,
    Cannon to left of them,
    Cannon behind them
    Volley’d and thunder’d;
    Storm’d at with shot and shell,
    While horse and hero fell,
    They that had fought so well
    Came thro’ the jaws of Death
    Back from the mouth of Hell,
    All that was left of them,
    Left of six hundred.


    When can their glory fade?
    O the wild charge they made!
    All the world wondered.
    Honor the charge they made,
    Honor the Light Brigade,
    Noble six hundred.

    Another famous poet of the time was Robert Browning. He wrote “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Do you know the story?

    His wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning was more famous than he was in their lifetime, but nowadays he is considered the superior poet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was famous for her sonnets. One of them begins, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

    Matthew Arnold was both a poet and a writer of nonfiction. His poetry explored themes of isolation and social consciousness.

    A. E. Housman was a teacher. Among the themes he examined in his poetry are the fleeting glories of youth and the disillusionment that comes with age and experience.
  • The major dramatists of the era, and there are few because after the Puritans closed down the the theaters in the 1600’s, drama in England went into a decline. If you can believe it, Shakespeare was even nearly forgotten. We can really thank the nineteenth century Britons, particularly the Victorians, with bringing Shakespeare back into vogue. You are, of course, familiar with Oscar Wilde through having read The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is his only novel. He wrote several plays, the most famous of which is The Importance of Being Earnest.

    George Bernard Shaw is kind of on the cusp of the Victorian age and Modernism. He wrote The Pygmalion, a play that became the musical My Fair Lady.
  • As I said, novels really emerged as the major form of writing in Britain at this time. Charles Dickens was probably the most prominent Victorian novelist in England or America for that matter. Some novels you may have heard of are Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and A Christmas Carol. Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre and Villette, her sister Emily wrote Wuthering Heights. William Makepeace Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair. Mary Anne Evans wrote under the pen name George Eliot. Her more famous works are Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss. Thomas Hardy was a poet and novelist. He wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Return of the Native, which was one of Holden Caulfield’s favorite books. Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book. Arthur Conan Doyle perfected the literary detective story with his stories about Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island.
  • Here is Matthew Arnold again. I mentioned he was not just a poet but also a writer of nonfiction. He was a famous literary critic. His book Culture and Anarchy was a scathing attack on what he saw as a lack of culture in the Victorian age.

    John Ruskin was a famous art critic and social thinker. Your book mentions his work entitled Modern Painters.

    John Stuart Mill you’ve studied in history. He wrote On Liberty. He was, as you have learned, a very influential thinker.

    Finally, Thomas Carlyle was a Victorian historian. He wrote about the French Revolution. He also wrote a biography of Frederick II of Prussia and collected Oliver Cromwell’s letters and speeches.
  • Victorian Age

    1. 1. The Victorian Age 1837-1901
    2. 2. Victoria • Queen of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837-1901 (succeeded her uncle, William IV) • Empress of India from 1876-1901 • Reign marked by establishment of strong constitutional monarchy • “Grandmother of Europe”
    3. 3. History • Industrial Revolution and urbanization • Darwin and Freud • Peace and prosperity • British imperialism
    4. 4. Literary Movements • Romanticism • Realism • Naturalism • Pre-Raphaelites
    5. 5. Victorian Literature • Poetry • Drama • Fiction • Nonfiction
    6. 6. Victorian Poetry • Alfred, Lord Tennyson • Robert Browning • Elizabeth Barrett Browning • Matthew Arnold • A. E. Housman
    7. 7. Victorian Drama • Oscar Wilde • George Bernard Shaw
    8. 8. Victorian Fiction • Charles Dickens • Thomas Hardy • Charlotte Brontë • Rudyard Kipling • Emily Brontë • Arthur Conan Doyle • William Makepeace • Robert Louis Stevenson Thackeray • George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)
    9. 9. Victorian Nonfiction • Matthew Arnold • John Ruskin • John Stuart Mill • Thomas Carlyle