THE VICTORIAN AGE (1837-1901)Queen Victoria and the EmpireQueen Victoria was only eighteen when she ascended the throne, and she ruled not only the worldsmost powerful nation but also an empire extending to Canada, Australia, India, and parts of Africa.After the death of her uncle, William IV, the young Princess Victoria was awakened from a soundsleep and brought downstairs in her dressing gown. Her diary for that day records that on the staircasethat morning she had felt quite prepared to be queen. She remained queen until her death sixty-fouryears later at the age of eighty-two Her long reign was a period of progress and prosperity for thenation. Victorias personal life was rich also She married her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (aname that their successors would eventually change to the more British-sounding Windsor). Victoriaand Albert had a happy family life with four sons and five daughters, and they traveled often to visitroyal relatives on the Continent, especially in Germany. The queens exemplary personal life, alongwith her famous honesty, sense of morality, and propriety, won a new respect for the monarchyThe Victorian Age did contain conflict, inevitable in an empire that canned the globe, an empire uponwhich the sun literally never set. A dispute between Upper and Lower Canada led to union between thetwo and the beginning of self-government. In the Crimean War (1853-1856) Britain joined France inan effort to prevent Russia from gaining a Mediterranean port. Mutiny in India in 1857 caused theBritish government to take control of the entire Indian subcontinent from the East India Company,which besides handling trade had always shared the responsibility of governing the colony. Britain wasalso economically involved in the American Civil War because factories in northern Englanddepended upon raw cotton from the Confederate states. British interests in China were threatened in 1900 by the Boxer Rebellion against foreign influence.In addition, British troops were fighting in Africa to defend British possessions there. The Boer War, adestructive war against Dutch settlers in South Africa, had begun in 1899. Its end, in 1902, marked theend of British empire building, but by that time the Empress of India (as Parliament had dubbed Vic-toria in 1877) had died. Although she was a successful and well-loved monarch, Victorias powers were only advisory, andshe was fortunate to have an array of distinguished ministers. Wellington, the hero who had defeatedNapoleon at Waterloo, was a statesman as well as a military leader. SirRobert Peel served the queen well in domestic affairs; he initiated the practice of unarmed policeofficers, nicknamed bobbies after him. The British political scene was dominated, however, by thedramatic rivalry between Liberal Party (Whig) leader W. E. Gladstone, a "Little Englander" opposed tothe expansion of the empire, and Conservative (Tory) Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli was the queensfavorite and prevailed. Later, however, the "Little England" philosophy would become an inevitablereality because of world events in the years after Victorias death.
Life in Victorian TimesVictorias reign saw important developments in transportation, manufacturing, and commerce. Thequeen herself became a patron of the growing railways when she took her first train trip in 1842 fromWindsor Castle, west of London, into the city. According to reports, thequeens coachman insisted that duty called for him to drive the engine. Steamship lines also grewduring this period, facilitating trade with colonies and the United States. British commerce flourishedas raw materials were imported and manufactured goods were exported. Newly powerful industrialists and merchants rapidly expanded the British middle class, a groupwhose attitudes increasingly came to represent the age. Their values included hard work, strictmorality, social reform, and pragmatism. Progress inspired self-assurance and optimism. At the sametime, however, new ideas in government, science, and economics fostered curiosity, doubt, andcontroversy. One innovative and positive aspect of the Victorian Age was that many people, including the lowerclasses, could share in the great events of the time. News, sent by train, steamship, and telegraph,traveled faster than ever before, and there was good news to be shared. In spite or their lack of politicalinfluence. their long working hours and inadequate wages, in spite of the danger of poor sanitaryconditions and disease (even the plague returned in 1849 and 1853), the working class enthusiasticallycheered reports of overseas victories and domestic advances. They flocked to London for the GreatExhibition of 1851. This display of British industrial success was held in the Crystal Palace, aconstruction of glass that continued to symbolize Britains triumphs until destroyed by fire in 1936. Although the lives of British workers remained difficult, major steps were taken to correct abusesagainst the working class. Women and children no longer worked in coal mines and could not beexpected to work more than ten hours a day in factories. Workers in the textile industry were granted ahalf-day holiday on Saturday. Although diseases like the plague could still remind people of the limits of science, progress wasmade in sanitation and medicine. Adequate sewers were becoming a reality, and people were using theclean water now being piped into cities instead of contaminated wells and springs. The use ofanesthetics in hospital operating rooms became widespread; Victoria herself aided their acceptanceby agreeing to an anesthetic during the birth of her seventh child. During the plague in London, by-standers were surprised to see an elegant, wealthy woman working as a nurse in the makeshift hospitalrooms that were set up on the citys streets. Horace Nightingale would later win fame in the same rolein hospital tents on the Crimean front.Life in England, especially in London, changed in other ways. Parliament prohibited the use of“climbing boys” to clean chimneys in 1840, more than ten years after William Blake’s death.
Debtors prisons were abolished in 1869. The first underground railroad in London was completedin 1884, and in the first year of the twentieth century, horses in the streets began to grow accustomedto the few steam-driven cars that sped about the city at more than four miles an hour.Poetry in the Victorian AgeThe Romantic poets - Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats - were revolutionary poets.They wrote when they were young and, except for Wordsworth, died young. William Wordsworth(1770-1850) survived into the Victorian Age, turned away from rebellion, and became QueenVictorias poet laureate, the official poet writing verse custom-made for state occasions. When he died,Wordsworth was succeeded as poet laureate by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, then in the midst of a long andillustrious poetic career. Unlike the poetry of the Romantic Age, Tennysons poems demonstrate theconservatism, optimism, and self-assurance that marked the Victorian Age. The Brownings - RobertBrowning and his wife, Elizabeth Barren Browning - were not rebels either; they too were positivepoets for a positive time. Other original poetic geniuses of the period include Matthew Arnold, who was also an educator andessayist, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was also a scholar and priest. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, apoet and painter, was at the center of a group that called themselves the Pre-Raphaelites because theysought to bring to their poetry the simplicity and directness notable in medieval Italian art before theRenaissance painter Raphael came on the scene. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Victorianoptimism began to wane. Even Tennyson and Browning had acknowledged the darker side of life insome of their best verses, but now A. E. Housman and Thomas Hardy added distinguished andpessimistic poetry to the Victorian Age. Both at its patriotic height and during the end-of-centuryreaction to mainstream optimism, the Victorian Age gave us memorable poetry by Rudyard Kipling(1865-1936), Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909), and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), writers who—likeThomas Hardy—achieved fame for work in other genres as well.Drama in the Victorian AgeDrama did not thrive during the Victorian Age. Although Tennyson and Browning tried to createpoetic dramas, the real theater celebrities of the age were actors—William Macready, Henry Irving,and Ellen Terry— rather than playwrights. When the Victorians finally produced great drama, the agewas approaching its close. An accomplished critic, novelist, and poet, Oscar Wilde also wrote severalcomic plays that satirize upper-class manners and morals. Lady Windermeres Fan (1892) and TheImportance of Being Earnest (189 5 )—considered by many to be a perfect comedy— still delightaudiences today. Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) represents a movement toward the well-made play,a play with carefully Grafted plot, characters, and setting; The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893) is anexample. For audiences of Victorias day, the high point of theatrical enjoyment was a series of light
comic operas by William Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), including The Piratesof Penzance (1880) and The Mikado (1885).Prose in the Victorian AgeA highly imaginative and satirical masterpiece of the Victorian Age was written as a childrens story.Charles Dodgson, using the pen name Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), wrote Alices Adventures inWonderland (1865) and its companion piece, Through the Looking Glass (1871), for theentertainment of a friends daughter. John Ruskin (1819-1900) achieved fame with books about artsuch as Stones of Venice (1851-1853). The era also produced great historical works. ThomasBabington Macaulay (1800-1859) was the most popular historian of his day; publication of his five-volume History of England was completed after his death. The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle(1795-1881) wrote a major history of the French Revolution. In his philosophical work Carlyle decriedthe materialism and lack of purpose of his day. Another philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873),championed individual liberty and the power of reason. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) wrote aseries of essays intended to inspire religious reform, and Walter Pater (1839-1894) wroteimpressionistic essays on Romantic poets.The Novel in the Victorian AgeDuring the reign of Queen Victoria, the English novel came of age suddenly, swiftly, and dramatically.One innovation of Victorian novelists was Realism which presented a detailed portrait of life innineteenth-century England. The novel dominates the literary scene of the period; even Prime MinisterBenjamin Disraeli was a novelist. Many of the great novels of the day were also rousing popularsuccesses, making authors like Charles Dickens celebrated public figures. Some of these novels werepublished in installments in weekly magazines. This style of presentation often affected the content ofthe work, as popular novels were stretched out to prolong their success and unpopular works werealtered in attempts to win the publics affection. Among the most popular and productive Victorian novelists is Charles Dickens, whose workcombined social criticism with comedy and sentiment to create a tone that the world identifies asVictorian. Like Chaucer and Shakespeare before him, Dickens enjoyed inventing a vast array omemorable characters in novels such as Oliver Twist (1837 - 1839), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), andGreat Expectations (1860-1861). His heartfelt criticism helped to change British institutions that badlyneeded reform, especially prisons and schools. William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), like Dickens a journalist of humblebackground, was a satirist of the morality, the hypocricies, and the manners of the English middleclass. Thackeray is best remembered today as the creator of Becky Sharp, heroine of Vanity Fair(1847-1848). Becky is a schemer who prettily but cold-heartedly plots her way from poverty to socialsuccess. Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), the third major midcentury novelist, set much of his fiction—for example, Barchester Towers (1857)—against a background of Anglican Church life. By focusing
on British institutions, these three novelists dissected an age as well as entertained their readers andcommented on life itself.George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880). Her novels include The Mill on theFloss (1860), Silas Mamer (1861), and Middlemarch (1871-1872) Charlotte (1816-1855) and Emily(1818-1848) Brontë made literary history while living in almost complete seclusion in a Yorkshirevillage. From their pens came two particularly remarkable and well-loved novels, Charlottes JaneEyre and Emilys Wuthering Heights, both published in 1847. A fascination with history is revealed in novels like Benjamin Disraelis Sybil (1845), EdwardGeorge Bulwer-Lyttons Last Days of Pompeii (1834), Charles Reades Cloister and the Hearth(1861), and Charles Kingsleys Westward Ho! (1855). The Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson(1850-1894) created a remarkable series of adventure novels with exotic, historical settings. Bestknown are Treasure Island (1882), The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1886), andKidnapped (1886). Another famous storyteller was Rudyard Kipling, whose novels include CaptainsCourageous (1897) and Kirn (1901). Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) wrote what may be the first widelyadmired mystery novel, The Moonstone (1858). Toward the end of the era, two of the best-knowncharacters in literature came into being when Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) created his masterdetective, Sherlock Holmes, and Bram Stoker (1847-1912) created Count Dracula. The novels of Thomas Hardy are set in the lonely farm country of Wessex, and they slicepessimistically through manners and social customs to touch on the nature of life itself. They includeFar from the Madding Crowd (1874), Return of the Native (1878), Tess of the DUrbervilles (1891),and Jude the Obscure (1896). Samuel Butler (1835-1902) also satirized his own time; his novel TheWay of All Flesh (1903) was such a strong attack on Butlers own Victorian family that it was notpublished until after his death. In an age when literature was a major form of popular entertainment, British novelists provided aremarkably diverse body of work that appealed to a mass audience. Today many of these novels arestill read and enjoyed, and they also provide us with much of our knowledge of life and thought duringthe age of Queen Victoria.