The Victorian Period
Upon the completion of this unit, the learner will be able to:
|Surely, you are familiar with the phrase: the empire on which the sun never sets. These words are often used to refer to the British empire during the rule of Queen Victoria. The Victorian Age (1837-1901) is named after her.
These years were a time of great prosperity and reform in Britain, which emerged as a colonial power with territories all over the world, including India. Even if the sun would set on one part of the empire, it was sure to be rising in another part elsewhere. To create a picture of the time-period, we have to look at the various changes that de-fined Victorian life. The industrial revolution of the previous years had transformed the economy of the country. British goods and commerce became dominant everywhere. This increased the country’s global influence and colonial superiority.The richness of the age encouraged scientific and medical advancements. Technological innovations such as the steam engine and electricity entirely transformed the life of the masses. Democratic reforms such as universal voting rights and protection for workers’ rights were also established.
Age of Compromise, Crisis of faith, Moral purpose, Realism, Society
The spirit of the age is one where both progress and traditions were upheld. In fact, the vari-ous artists and writers of the age have varying attitudes to the issue. While the earlier set of writers (late 1830s to 1870s) retained faith in the scientific and social progress of the period, later Victorian authors (1870s to 1900s) had an attitude of doubt and questioning. This may be seen in the different approaches taken up by the representative writers of the age.
At the same time, the radical changes of the period were beginning to affect the literature of the period. This was largely due to three factors:
- Advancements in printing technology in-creased access to books and magazines.
- The newly emerged middle-class had higher rates of literacy and more leisure time to pursue reading as a hobby.
- The new middle-class readership looked for entertainment in literary works, and not education alone.
All these factors in combination affected the themes and styles of Victorian writing, especially prose and novels.
As you can imagine, Victorian writers had to meet the demands of the new market. This caused shifts in style from the earlier Romantic Age. There was a rejection of emotion, imagination and self-expression which were considered to be the romantic ideals.
Instead, the Victorians emphasised a scientific or empirical worldview. There was a view that prose-writing was more suitable for this purpose. Thus, the period became known as the “age of prose”, with immense developments in the genre.
Overall, the literature of the Victorian era shows certain common characteristics. They are as follows:
- Moral Purpose
Victorian literature aimed to provide a moral education to the readers. This was because of the social and religious controversies of the time. Further, the Victorian writers also wanted to move away from the romantic way of ‘entertaining’ with literature.
- Focus on practical aspects of life
In Oliver Twist, written by Charles Dickens, the nine-year old Oliver is forced into labour at a workhouse. The residents of the workhouse are given very little food in return for their labour. One day, an extremely hungry Oliver goes up to the master who is serving food, and says: “Please sir, I want some more.” For this ‘crime’, he is beaten and scolded soundly. This is an example of the Victorian focus on the practical problems and interests of life. The various literary works of the time prominently represented experiences of industrialisation, poverty, class division, women’s rights and other social issues. This also represents a shift away from the philosophical focus of Romanticism.
The Victorian novel, to a great extent, can be considered ‘social fiction’. They focused on issues related to industrialisation and on the condition of the nation. Often, social problems were highlighted in their plots. The writers of ‘social fiction’ include Mrs. Trollope (Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy, 1839-40) and Benjamin Disraeli (Coningsby, Sybil). The novels of Charles Dickens, too, fall under this category.
The Victorian novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) suggested that truth and beauty can be found only through the humble and truthful observation of the world around. In her works of fiction, she presents the imperfections and moral failures of her characters. In doing so, she tries not to exaggerate or idealise reality. This is a feature of the Victorian era, where there was an attempt to mirror reality in literature. They rejected the idealisation or over-dramatisation of people, events or philosophies. Instead, the emphasis was on reflecting the world as it is.
- Crisis of Faith
In the poem “Dover Beach”, written by Matthew Arnold, “The Sea of Faith” was initially full and had covered the earth. The poet goes on to say that now he can only hear “Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar…”This theme of the decreasing influence of faith and religion is repeated in many significant Victorian works. It can be viewed as a reaction to the rising importance of science in society. There was a sense of doubt and pessimism about the progress of science and technology which is reflected in several writings of the period.
- Victorian Compromise
The Victorian period was an age of ‘com-promise’ between different or conflicting aspects. On the one hand, there was a struggle to maintain religion in the face of scientific advancements. On the other hand, there was a tendency to strictly follow social and cultural conventions even as new reforms were being introduced. Similarly, industrialisation seemed to be increasing social ills just as much as it brought prosperity. The literature of the period reflects these contradictions in society. While certain authors attempted to strike a balance between these forces, others criticised those aspects which they found to be condemnable.
An important aspect of Victorian society is their view of gender, i.e, the social roles of men and women. Women were not considered to be socially equal to men. They were often reduced to domestic roles, and celebrated as mothers and wives. Good marriages, house-keeping and bringing up children were considered to be their primary functions.
The literature of the age reflects these values in certain ways. For example, Coventry Patmore’s long narrative poem, “The Angel in the House”, describes the qualities of an ideal wife. She is presented as self-sacrificing, gentle and submissive. Her attention is entirely on her home, husband, and children, excluding the larger world outside.
|‘Conduct Books’ that taught young women how to be ideal wives and mothers were very popular during the time. A popular Victorian conduct book for women was Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Around the same time, thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill (On the Subjugation of Women,1869) wrote about the injustice of treating women as second-class citizens. Thus, the issue of women’s rights was one that was strongly debated during the period.|
Men were allowed to enter into professions and public life. They could take up intellectual and adventurous pursuits. Many of the writers of the age brought up this double standard, with some supporting the social norms and others fighting against it. Interestingly, Victorian literature witnessed many women writers gaining popularity, a fact that you will see as you read on.
Poetry continued to be a significant genre in Victorian literature. The language of the genre became more purposeful and narrational. It became a way of discussing socio-cultural issues and practical problems. The preference was for intellectual subject-matter. There were three major poets in the Victorian era whose works highlighted the spirit of the age.
The works of Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) are often considered to be representative of the Victorian age. His poetry shows a combination of reason and spirituality, two elements that were in conflict during the time. On one hand, his poems portray his struggle with the break in religious faith. On the other hand, his works display a belief in the theory of evolution and scientific progress. His most important poems include “Lockslay Hall”, “The Princess”, “Maud”, “Idylls of Kings” and “In Memoriam”.
Tennyson’s style of writing has been noted for its perfection and diction. He often presents the virtues of perseverance and optimism in his poetry. Many of his works discuss the temptation to give up in the face of great struggles. However, they suggest the idea of struggling onwards in life with optimism. His poetry also expresses his love for the nation of England. His innovations of metre and lyrical forms are among his chief contributions to English poetry.
During this period, Robert Browning (1812-1889) emerged as another prominent poet. While Tennyson’s poetry paid attention to style, Browning considered the message of the poem to be most important. His poetry dealt with subjects that are rough and common-place. One of his chief aims was to show the interplay between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in life. Among his significant poetic works are Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Men and Women, Dramatis Personae, Dramatic Idylls and The Ring and the Book.
An important characteristic of Browning’s poetry is its dramatic quality. He used a poetic technique known as ‘dramatic monologue’. In it, the speaker of the poem takes on the persona or personality of a real or imagined individual. The poem is written in the form of a conversation with an invisible listener.
Much of Browning’s poetry takes this style, with the most famous ones being “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”, “Two in a Gondola”, “Porphyria’s Lover”, “Fra Lippo Lippi”, “The last Ride Together”, “Childe Roland to a Dark Tower Came”, “A Grammarian’s Funeral”, “Rabbi Ben Ezra” and “My Last Duchess”. His poetry included a psychological element in the depiction of the personas.
“My Last Duchess” is one of Browning’s most well-known dramatic monologues. In it, the speaker is a Duke who is showing the portrait of his late wife to a visitor. He describes the portrait sessions and the Duchess in some detail. However, as the poem continues, we realise that it was the Duke himself who caused her death.
“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Another great Victorian poet is Matthew Arnold (1822-88). He reacted against the lyricism and ornamental language of the romantic poets. Instead, he believed firmly in the ideals of the neoclassical era. His works emphasised correctness and classical models rather than originality and imagination. Some of his most significant works include “Strayed Reveller”, “Empedocles on Etna”, “Sohrab and Rus-tum”, “The Scholar Gipsy”, “Thyrsis”, “Dover Beach” and “Memorial Verses”.
Arnold considered poetry to be a criticism of life mixed with art. As a result, his writings express ‘high seriousness’ along with artistic pleasure. Throughout his poetic output, he struggled with the questions of faith, discipline and religion. These subjects were treated in a realistic way in his poetry. Besides being a poet himself, Arnold was a great critic of poetry. His poetry and theories about writing have greatly influenced the poetic tradition of English.
Even as these three major poets of the Victorian era flourished, there were several other poets in the period. These included writers such as Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, who wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh. Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861), another minor poet, wrote “Dipsychus’’ and “The Bothie of Toberna Vuolich”. These were writers whose works were significant in the time, but not representative of the age as a whole.
During the same time-period, a movement called the Pre-Raphaelite school of poetry also emerged. This referred to a group of artists and writers who revolted against the principles of the Victorian era. They believed in simplicity and accuracy of detail, modelling their works after mediaeval literature and art. Their focus on realistic, sensual depictions gave them the nickname ‘fleshly’ school of poetry.
The most prominent Pre-Raphaelite poets include Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), William Morris (1834-96) and Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909). Rossetti’s contributions include poems, such as “The Blessed Damozel”, “Rose Mary” and “Troy Town”, and collections such as Poems and Ballads and Sonnets. His sister, Christina Georgina Rossetti published works, such as Goblin Market and Other Poems, The Prince’s Progress and Verses.
William Morris produced poetry that displays a love for the mediaeval era. His works include The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems and The Earthly Paradise. Swinburne is famous for composing Atlanta in Calydon, an English version of an ancient Greek tragedy. He has also produced studies of Elizabethan and Jacobean poets and dramatists.
The novel emerged as a literary form for discussing the issues of the time. Novel-reading became accepted as a tasteful hobby for the upper and middle-classes alike. Just as with poetry, there was an emphasis on morals and correctness. Often, novels dealt with the question of ‘respectability’, marriage, class, social status and decorum. We could say that the novel became a form of national literature during this period.
Another important aspect of the Victorian novel is that many of them were published in serial form in magazines and pamphlets. So, there would be a brief lapse between chapters. Since there was a need to keep readers attracted to the novel, writers would end chapters in a mystery. This would ensure that the readers would buy the next issue of the magazine or pamphlet to complete the story.
|Sometimes, certain storylines end in a shocking or suspenseful way. Such endings are known as ‘cliffhangers’. They are meant to keep the readers engaged in the story. Sometimes, at the end of a chapter, the protagonist or the main character may land in a life-or-death situation.
At other times, someone might reveal truth or secret that changes everything. By ending the chapter or section in a ‘cliffhanger’, the writer ensures that the reader will be interested and curious enough to continue reading the story.
This age saw the emergence of three brilliant novelists. The first and most popular of these is Charles Dickens (1812-1870). His novels revolved around urban life in Britain, often highlighting the dangers of industrialisation, poverty and child labour. The main characters of his works were often individuals who faced hardships because of the social and political evils of the age. They represented the weak, the outcast and the oppressed of Victorian society.
They were portrayed as being trapped in exploitative systems including boarding schools, workhouses, factories and others. Some of his most important novels were Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and the unfinished Edwin Drood.
Using humour and gentle criticism, Dickens’ novels aimed to teach society about the evils of class division and uncontrolled industrialisation. His works always concluded in a sense of optimism with a happy ending for the main characters. His writing style is journalistic with descriptions of incidents and people. As a novelist, Dickens is famed for the humanitarianism displayed in his works.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), as a novelist, was more interested in the manners and morals of the elite class. His works centred around his observations and reflections on the rich and influential sections of society. He attempts to give accurate representations through satire and humour of the falsehoods of the Victorian upper class. The most important of his works include Vanity Fair, Pendennis, Henry Esmond, Newcomes and The Virginians.
Thackeray’s creation of lively characters in his novels has been praised. It is through the actions and words of these fictional characters that he exposes the hypocrisy of the Victorian public. His narratives provide insights into the psychological aspects of the characters. The cynicism of his novels in their criticism of Victorian life often presents a realistic picture of British life.
After this timeframe, Victorian fiction took a different direction. Later novelists emphasised different themes, styles and issues. Rather than looking at the novel as a way of social criticism, they began to explore deep, philosophical ideas through it. George Eliot (1819-1880), whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, wrote novels such as Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Romola and Middlemarch.
Being highly observant, she was able to recreate details of rural life and speech. The set-tings of her novels were always in the English countryside. Eliot’s writings contain a moral purpose, and establishes duty as the purpose of life. She also established psychological realism in the inner struggles and emotions of her characters. Her novels mark a significant milestone in English fiction.
Another prominent writer of fiction in the Victorian age was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). His novels depict a pessimistic attitude to life and are often tragedies. In his works, fate or destiny is presented as a hostile power that is out to defeat humans. His characters are destroyed by chance and coincidence and not by any deliberate actions.
Generally, Hardy resists progress, modernisation and urbanisation. The settings for his works are Dorchester which he presents under the fictional name ‘Wessex’. The most well-known of his works are The Woodlanders, The Return of the Native, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Hardy’s main contribution to English literature is that he made novels a serious form that could deal with the fundamental questions of life.
There were many minor novelists in the Victorian period. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) wrote works, such as Vivian Grey, Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred. He was among the first to discuss issues of the working class.
The Bronte Sisters, Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-48), and Anne (1820–1849), produced masterful works of fiction. Using male pennames, the sisters published works that are considered modern masterpieces. Charlotte Bronte made her mark with novels, such as Jane Eyre, The Professor, Villette and Shirley. Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights, an original work with powerful themes of rebellion and love.
|During the Victorian Era, women were not encouraged to do much besides domestic and homely activities. So, the Bronte sisters did not reveal their real names or gender in their novels. Instead, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte published their novels under the male names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell respectively. Are you aware of any other authors who similarly used pennames or pseudonyms to publish their works?|
The genre of the mystery novel was pioneered by Wilkie Collins (1824-89) who wrote The Woman in White, The Dead Secret and The Moonstone. His novels contained clever plottwists, with revelations made by letters and first person narratives. Often, supernatural elements were added to his stories.
Anthony Trollope (1815-88) wrote novels in which he presented real life without distorting or idealising it. His important novels are The Warden, Barchester Towers and The Last Chronicle of Barset. Mrs. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-65) produced novels, such as Cranford, Mary Barton, A Tale of Manchester Life, North and South, Ruth and Sylvia’s Lovers. Her fiction explored issues, such as industrialisation and poverty. She also wrote a biography of her friend, Charlotte Bronte.
The novels of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) were unique in the Victorian Era. Considering the demand for shorter, entertaining novels, he wrote tales of great adventure and mystery. The most popular of his works are Treasure Island, New Arabian Nights, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Thus, the genre of novels in the Victorian era displayed immense range and scope.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), an author and poet, was very popular among the Victorian public. A skilled storyteller, he is most known for his fictional works such as Jungle Book, Kim and The Man Who Would Be King. His works have been particularly well-received as children’s literature. A supporter of British imperialism, he has prominently featured Indian imagery and settings in many of his works.
Victorian prose carried the main features of the age, such as moralism, realism and a shift towards empiricism. However, the prose-writers of the age showed great originality in dealing with characteristic themes, such as development of science, geographical exploration and economic change. Their works show a great variety of styles, displaying seriousness of tone and particularity. All the great prose writers of the period appear to have these qualities in common.
The dominant prose writer of the period was Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). He has recorded his personal struggle between doubt and belief, a feature of the Victorian age, in the work Sartor Resartus. His other important contributions include French Revolution, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, Past and Present, Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, Latter-day Pamphlets, The Life of John Sterling and The History of Frederick the Great.
To him, the purpose of prose was to root out moral weakness and social ills. Elements of modern life, such as materialism, empiricism, and utilitarianism were rejected by him in favour of spirituality. His works make use of certain techniques, such as the dropping of certain parts of speech, converting nouns to verbs, use of foreign words and literal English translation of foreign words. His style is unique in English literature.
Another important name in prose literature is John Ruskin (1819-1900). He gained fame as an artcritic and social thinker during the age. As a writer, he employed various literary forms including poetry, treatises, a travelling guide and letters. But it is the subject of his essays that are significant to us. They were diverse and ranged from literature, education, myth, architecture and botany to political economy. One of his chief areas of interest was the connection between art, nature and society.
His most important works are Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice, Unto this Last, Sesame and Lilies, The Crown of Wild Olive and Praeterita, an autobiographical piece. It has been said that Ruskin’s prose has a rhythmic quality which helps the reader appreciate the beauty of his writings. His vivid descriptions are also a feature unique to his writing. His essays brought out the evils of the materialistic and competitive society around him. They at-tempted to present a solution to the most demanding problems confronting his age.
Two other writers of prose that deserve mention are Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59) and Matthew Arnold (1822-88). Lord Macaulay composed biographical, critical and historical essays which won him great popularity. It could be said that he represented much of the popular sentiments of the common British public. One of the most significant of his works is The History of England from the Accession of James the Second. It documents the history of the nation from the seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century. As such, Lord Macaulay’s writings are essential in understanding the history of England.
|Lord Macaulay is familiar to us in a different context. He was the author of “Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education” (1835) which went on to establish English education in British India. Macaulay considered the introduction of English literature and language to be a method of incorporating western values to Indian society.|
Matthew Arnold, well-known as a poet, has made serious contributions to prose as well. His writings contained social criticism of the highest order. As we discussed earlier, Arnold wished to bring in classicism to the age. The purpose of his prose was to raise the intellectual and cultural level of his readers.
This included works such as On Translating Homer, The Study of Celtic Literature, Essays in Criticism and Culture and Anarchy. He of-ten attacked the middle-classes whom he saw as disinterested in intellectual pursuits. In the tradition of English prose, his works hold a special place for their wit and elegance.
Other writers of prose in the Victorian era include J.A. Symmonds, Walter Pater, Oliver Wendell Holmes and T.H Huxley. Victorian prose marks a new era in English literature with its renewed social focus and stylistic developments.
Another aspect of Victorian literature is the great shift in the field of drama. From the sentimental and romantic styles of the previous era, drama became a realistic art. Further, the Victorian middle-classes took to the theatre as a form of entertainment.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) wrote distinctive comedies which exposed the hypocrisies of Victorian society. In particular, he emphasised the rigid morality of the period. His dramas include The Duchess of Padua, The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan and Salome
His use of wit, puns, comic dialogue, and funny characters made his plays extremely popular among theatre-goers. Wilde’s style of writing showcases the beauty of language and provokes the audience to reflect upon the issues presented. The prevalence of dialogues, as opposed to action, was the hallmark of Wilde’s plays. His philosophy of writing was greatly influenced by the Art for Arts’ Sake movement. Yet, social critique was incorporated within his dramatic works.
|Art for Arts’ Sake is a nineteenth century movement that argued for art to be judged on its own terms; it put forward the idea that art and literature should be understood according to its aesthetic merits and the effects that it produces on its viewers and readers.|
The same era saw playwrights such as Henry Arthur Jones and Arthur Wing Pinero, both of whom produced successful dramas. Jones achieved prominence in the English stage as a writer of comedies and melodramas. He also contributed to the development of the wellmade play, often giving it a serious central theme.
Some of his most important dramas include A Clerical Error, The Silver King, Saints and Sinners and The Liars. Most of these drew upon the follies and hypocrisies of the wealthy, elite classes for their humour.
Arthur Wing Pinero is credited with founding the ‘social drama’ that would later become a popular mode in the early twentieth century. He initiated his literary career writing comedies and farces, later shifting to serious drama. Much of his plays discussed the hypocrisies of Victorian high society. His works span different genres such as comedy and tragedy as seen in The Magistrate, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, The Schoolmistress, Dandy Dick and Iris.
As in the Romantic age, several of the poets composed dramatic works as well. A.C. Swineburne wrote many verse dramas including The Queen Mother, Mary Stuart and The Sisters. Robert Browning produced dramas, such as Colombe’s Birthday, Pippa Passes, King Victor and King Charles and In a Bal-cony.
The plays of Jones and Pinero, along with those of Wilde and some of the early plays of G.B. Shaw, contributed to the development of the Victorian stage as a crucial era in English drama.
At this point, when we consider the Victorian age in English Literature, we are looking at a society that is struggling to understand itself. Its poetry, prose, fiction and drama reflect the conflict between different forces. The legacy of the Victorian age lies in its ability to cover such completely different aspects within its literature. No wonder, then, that we call this period the “Age of Compromise”.