The Victorian Period in English literature is <<an era in English literary history extending from 1837, the year in which Queen Victoria was crowned, to 1901, the year of her death. This period is often divided into two parts, the early Victorian Period (ending around 1870) and the late Victorian Period (commencing thereafter). Major literary movements during the Victorian Period include Realism, Pre-Raphaelitism, and Aestheticism.
The Victorian Period witnessed rapid technological, political, and socio-economic change due to the industrial revolution; it was also an epoch in which science advanced and longstanding religious ideas and institutions were challenged and even attacked […]
The common conception we now have of the Victorians as prudish, hypocritical, stuffy, narrow-minded, and complacent is not entirely accurate, although it is true that: (1) segments of English society, particularly the growing middle class, did espouse many of the priggish attitudes and values that led to this conception; and (2) a number of Victorian writers euphemistically dance around certain subjects (notably sex) that are dealt with more directly in the literatures of previous as well as subsequent periods. Still, the stereotype of Victorianism – bound up as it is with the identity of a pious, proper, and beloved Queen who reputedly advised her daughter to “Lie back and think of England” on her wedding night – fails to take into account the richness of the period, which produced a number of outlandishly comic writers […]
Thus the Victorians were much more diverse and lively than we typically acknowledge, just as many of us are less shallow and materialistic than the stereotype that has been created about our age would suggest. The unattractive characteristics of Victorian thinking, behaviour, and character were recognised and condemned by Victorians themselves, many of whom rebelled against the “spirit” of the era and others of whom were prone to critical self-examination. The literature of the period comes in virtually all forms and genres and was written in styles and combinations of styles that included the romantic, the realistic, the satirical, and the decadent>> (A dictionary definition, Murfin, 1997: 416-417)
1.1. ELEMENTS OF THE SOCIAL and the Intellectual
The Victorians seem to be much our contemporaries in many ways and the problems that confronted them, whether political, educational, religious or cultural bear a strong resemblance to the problems of our time. The introductory quotation in this book, belonging to Thomas Carlyle, stands for this idea.
As Anthony Burgess stated in English Literature (1971: 180 – 181), the Victorians “seem to be obsessed with questions peculiarly their own.
First, there were such social and political problems as could not be resolved on a purely party basis. Men like William Cobbett […] had already been agitating for parliamentary reform – more genuine representation for the people, less of the corruption and cynicism that animated politics – and in the Reform Bill of 1832, a progressive move was made in the direction of ‘democratising’ parliamentary representation.” Slavery was denounced and the British colonies got rid of it in 1833.
“Philosophers were concerned with important political questions; Jeremy Bentham […] taught the doctrine of ‘Utilitarianism’ – ‘it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong’; Thomas Robert Malthus […] saw that the problem of poverty could only be solved by artificially limiting the birth rate […]
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution hit at the Book of Genesis – man had evolved from lower forms of life; he had not been created complete by God. (The Origin of Species, presenting his revolutionary theory, appeared in 1859). Materialism, which denied the existence of everything except matter – man has no soul, and even thought is secreted by the brain as bile secreted by the liver – was another challenge to orthodox belief. Marx’s epoch-making Das Kapital, written in London and published in 1867, preached a new conception of society and of the distribution of wealth, and it was based on a ‘materialistic interpretation of history’ […]
The Victorian age thus had a large number of problems to face. In many ways, it was an age of progress – of railway-building, steam-ships, reforms of all kinds – but it was also an age of doubt. There was too much poverty, too much injustice, too much ugliness, and too little certainty about faith or morals – thus it became also an age of crusaders and reformers and theorists. It was also, with all its ideals, a curiously puritanical age: it was easily shocked, and subjects like sex were taboo […] It was an age of conventional morality, of large families with the father as a godlike head, and the mother as a submissive creature […] The strict morality, the holiness of family-life, owed a good deal to the example of Queen Victoria herself, and her indirect influence over literature, as well as social life, was considerable.”
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was concerned with German philosophy and literature. He used the German notion of ‘transcendentalism’ – the doctrine of Kant according to which beyond outward appearances exist essences that cause the appearances but are outside the limits of knowledge. He wrote an amazing book, Sartor Resartus in which he presented a philosopher obsessed with the experience that appears to him like a suit of clothes through which one could find the nakedness of reality. He disliked materialism and material progress, i.e. behind the clothes was the naked truth of poverty. Life was real and had to be spent in trying to reform the world. According to Carlyle, the world could not be made a better place through democracy. He anticipated the German fascism in his doctrine and his style was permeated with the German spirit. In his lifetime and until the end of the 19th century, Carlyle enjoyed a reputation in contrast to his present status. To contemporaries, he was the leading thinker, a challenging, commanding figure. There are few Victorians whose work does not reflect his ideas or echo his phrase, and the writings of Ruskin and Dickens are examples of his influence. He expressed affirmation of moral certainties in an age of profound change. The England of his time saw the social upheavals of industrialism, the political turbulence of the demand for democracy and the challenge to established religion from the natural sciences. He responded not with a philosophical system or a political programme, but with a list of values achievable by people: work, duty, and self-abnegation. From his early lectures on heroism, to his last work, he searched for a model of hero to put before the eyes of contemporaries (Ousby: 1992: 155).
John Ruskin was concerned with the concept of beauty. “To Ruskin, there was a close connection between art and faith – the pursuit of the beautiful becomes almost a religious duty – and it is with religious fervour that he attacks the Utilitarian doctrine […] which seems to Ruskin to be evil. Utilitarianism meant too much freedom in trade and industry […] Utilitarianism allowed squalid homes, towns disfigured by factories, denying the importance of the beautiful or the ethical, it was only concerned with profits” (Burgess, 1971: 182). Ruskin was an art critic and his work Modern Painters contributed to the development of the aesthetics of Romanticism. By re-discovering the medieval churches, cathedrals and the Gothic style, he re-invested the moral and social values while pleading for the superiority of hand over machine.
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) praised Greece and Rome and he wished to find or induce something of the ‘classical harmony’ in English art and life. He disliked the Anglo-Saxon element in English literature and the ‘insularity’ in the English way of life (Burgess, 1971: 182). His Essays in Criticism presents the moral purpose in poetry and he attacks the ‘philistinism’ of the English, the fact that they lacked the concern for culture. Culture and Anarchy was published in 1869. Its sub-title is An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, which warned about the political, social and religious ferment of his England and insisted that the remedy was in culture. For him, culture was a ‘study of perfection’ and what was also important was to invest in reason and the will of God. Just like Ruskin, Arnold feared the drift towards anarchy through an excess of liberty, of freedom unrestrained by any authority. None of the various classes – barbarians (aristocracy), philistines (middle class) and populance (lower class) would provide and adequate centre of authority. Similarly, the great traditions of Hebraism (strictness of conscience) and Hellenism (spontaneity of consciousness) were never to become mutually complementary. Culture would be the single saving remedy through its development of the individual self in the interests of the many.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) argued that every man was the best judge of his own advantage and that he should seek it without impediment. As a moral theory, Utilitarianism was defined in Principles of Morals and Legislation. The basic utilitarian principle states that an action is right if it achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) would add that virtue and knowledge could produce happiness of a superior kind. From Auguste Compe, he took over the law of the three stages in the social evolution. Having passed through the theological and metaphysical stages, Westerners were in the positive stage that produced intellectual anarchy. In The System of Logic (1843), Mill stated that knowledge was based on experience. Actions and volitions were determined by certain causes; Mill expressed his confidence in the progress of human society considering that the determining causes of social changes were Opinions, Belief and Knowledge. On Liberty (1859) is one of his most famous essays. It is regarded as the classic statement of the rights of the individual in relation to society, tradition and the constituted government. The Principles of Political Economy (1848-1849) expressed his belief that the rapid increase of population exerted a pressure upon the means of subsistence and that it would eventually lead to misery, starvation and disease. He supported the enlightenment ideal that the life of humankind could be improved by education, and financed by the State. Utilitarianism (1861-1863) followed Bentham’s principle and enforced the idea that happiness could be expended through reduction of poverty by means of human care and effort. The Subjection of Women (1869) contained his credo as an advocate of female emancipation.
The field of religious controversy was represented by John Henry Newman (1801-1890). The Church split into a church influenced by rational ideas, deistical, rejecting the old ritual of traditional Christianity, and a church inclined towards Catholicism, towards the Catholic doctrine. The Oxford Movement or the Tractarian Movement pleaded for the later doctrine. Cardinal Newman rejected Protestantism and joined the Catholic Church.
Nineteenth century writing was concerned with the notions of man and society, democracy and individualism, nationalism and liberalism, the growth of population and the need for controls of emigration. Education became a general concern and religious teaching in a national system of education became debatable. The dominant temper of the early and middle Victorian periods was moralistic, and full of responsibility and anxiety. The century produced a large number of theories of society, party, government; these as well as the un-ideological rising middle class contributed to social change and evolution (Ford, 1970: 15).