The Victorian Age, so-called after Queen Victoria, usually covers in literature a period of time longer than the actual reign of Queen Victoria(1837-1901), stretching from 1832, the year of the first Reform Bill, to the death of Edward VII in 1910. Some critics maintained that it ended in the 1890s, when the Anti-Victorian reaction reached its climax and the writers began to search for new forms of style and for innovations.

In both cases, it is a long period of time and so it is difficult to consider it as a single unit. The 60 years are usually divided into three periods: a first period from 1837 to 1848, a second period from 1848 to 1870 and the last one from 1870 to 1901.

The years up to 1848 were characterised by   civil unrest and popular protests, industrial recession and hunger. They were also called The Hungry Forties because there was a period of bad crops and consequently of famine. The cutting of wages to cut production costs and the effect of the Corn Law, which taxed imported corn and maintained the cost of corn high, contributed to a widespread starvation among the agricultural workers. In Ireland the failure of the potato crop, known as the Potato Famine ,caused the death of a million people and forced another one and half million to emigrate to Britain and America.

The second was instead a period of prosperity, Reforms and great profits. Thanks to the exploitation of the great technological innovation and of the imperial foreign trade Britain had a dominant position in the industry.

The beginning of the last period was characterized by Britain’s imperial power and then by the starting of Victorian Decline. In the last three decades of the 19th century, especially after the dramatic war of 1870/71 between Prussia andFrance, there was dissatisfaction with Victorian materialism and a wave of pessimism spread over Europe and reachedEngland, too. This reaction took many aspects: Carlyle denounced the corruption and materialism of men who were accumulating gold at the expense of other people; Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites denounced the development of industrialism as a brutal force which prevented a moral and artistic conception of art.

On the whole The Victorian Age was an Age of prosperity and progress, of reforms and expansion. The Great Exhibition of 1851 showed the triumph of Victorian technology and drew attention on the new social classes. The colonial Empire took enormous proportions, stretching from Australia to Canada, from Pakistan to Hong Kong, for Malta to Rhodesia:’ The sun never sets on the British Empire, they said. Britain had become the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. We have to point out that its wealth was reached through the exploitation of its colonies and thanks to the lowly paid workers who worked in the factories. The urban poor were perceived as a potential danger and gradually steps were taken to better both democracy and working class conditions.

Parliament passed many laws: the Second Reform Bill (1867) and the Third Reform Bill (1884) extended the right to vote to all male workers and the electorate of Britain was doubled; many representatives of the working class entered The Commons while the importance and the legality of the Trade Unions was recognized by the Trade Union’s Act (1865). Labours condition was bettered by the Ten Hours Act (1847) which limited the working hours to ten a day both for men and women, and by the Mines Act (1862) which prohibited the working of women and children in mines. The Public Health Act (1875) improved health conditions and the Educational Acts (1870/1876) reorganized elementary education. The Compensation Act ensured some compensation for workers in case of accidents and bettered the living condition of the working class.

In the field of politics there were lots of changes. Parliament grew stronger and stronger and the King’s powers weaker and weaker. Great Britain gradually turned into an actual Constitutional monarchy. In 1882 The Independent Labour Party was founded and the first Labour M.Ps. entered Parliament. The Labour Party became the third Party in England, after the Tories (now called Conservatives) and the Whigs (the modern Liberals).

Strictly connected to politics and to the dissatisfaction of the poor classes, the Victorian Age saw the rise of some social movements with the aim of bettering the quality of life of the poor: The National Association for the Protection of Labour, Chartism, The Cooperative Movement, Utilitarianism and Fabianism.

Chartism developed during the Hungry Forties. The Chartist asked for a social reform and presented Parliament with a document, the People’s Chart, asking for full democratic participation of the working classes in politics. It contained six points: votes for all males, annually elected Parliament, payment of Members of Parliament, secret voting, abolition of property ownership for candidates, establishment of electoral districts equal in population. These demands were ignored by the ruling class and they were rejected three times in ten years. The Chartists were politically immature, poorly organised and split by internal differences. After the third rejection in 1848 they disappeared even though their ideas continued to circulate. However it was not a failure because it inspired Trade Unions, cooperatives and leagues. In 1868  the skilled workers joined together to start the Trade Union Congress(TUC).Further all their demands, except the one of annually elected parliament, became laws between 1860 and 1918.

The Cooperative Movement was founded by Robert Owen and a group of Chartists in 1844. It consisted in shops where goods were sold at market prices and the profits were divided among the members.

Utilitarianism come from the principle of utility that only what was useful was good. It was above all followed by the industrial Middle Classes. It developed from a theory based on the ideas of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and developed by Stuart Mill in his writings. Bentham believed that laws should be socially useful and not just reflect the majority’s view. He also stated that the actions were right when they were directed towards achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

A more important movement was FABIANISM.

The Fabian Society was a socialist and radical movement founded in 1884. The name derived from Quintus Fabius Maximus, called The Cunctator, that is The Delayer, who had won a campaign against Hannibal by avoiding direct engagement. The Fabians contrasted the Communists who believed in revolution and thought that society had to be changed through gradual reforms. The Fabian society eventually led to the foundation of the Labour Party.

As we have seen, Victorian Age is considered an Age of success, but not all the Victorians accepted this interpretation. Many of them attacked its contradictions because they realised that though the new industrial civilization had brought about economic well-being, it had left the problem of the distribution of wealth unsolved. The poor went on living and working on bad conditions, education had its problems and the success was achieved through the exploitation of workers and at the expense of the poor. Then Victorian Age was for some social classes a period of poverty and injustice, of social unrest and bad living, of overcrowding of towns and migration from the country, of dissatisfaction and popular discontent. The Victorians have been progressive in theory but the opposite in practice. The Victorian  ideals and values, such as church, family, the home and the sanctity of childhood, were only applied to the affluent people and the children of the poor were forced into labour at an early age and even separated from their families and often sent to   parish-run workhouses in return of which they received scanty food just to survive. Poverty was seen as a moral problem, like a ‘crime’ to be repressed by strong measures rather than solved through an adequate redistribution of the resources. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that poverty was recognized as a social problem. This situation is referred to as The Victorian Compromise, that is the utilitarian compromise of a large section of English society which saw industrial development only as a source of prosperity and progress, while it tended to ignore the many social conflicts and problems raised by it.

VICTORIAN RESPECTABILITY: The extremely religious bigotry of the Queen Victoria tended to shift the attention on respectability: everyday language had to be adapted to a respectable way of life and some words, which were not considered proper, were replaced by others, for example chicken breast became white meat. All that could seem sinful had to be avoided, even the legs of some tables, very similar to a woman’s leg, were considered provocative and were covered by leg covers. Middle-class women had to conform to the domestic role of the “Angel in the house”. Their rights were restricted: they couldn’t go to university, they couldn’t inherit property if there was a male child in the family, they were mostly taught to be good wives.  Their novels couldn’t be published unless they had male pseudonyms. The so-called “fallen women”, that is adulteresses, unmarried mothers, prostitutes were condemned by a hypocritically establishment that instead accepted the middle- and upper- class men who privately had mistresses. The most important institution was the Family. It was dominated by the ‘Master’, that is the father. According to a famous saying, “the husband and wife are one and the husband is that one”.The most powerful class was The Middle Class. It was divided into the upper middle class, which included industrialists, bankers, businessmen, lawyers and members of the professions, and the lower middle class, which included shopkeepers, commercial travellers, post office servants, civil servants and clerks. The upper middle class had the economy in their hands and controlled the policy of the Government.

                                   LITERARY BACKGROUND

The Age is today looked upon as one the most significant point of reference of British history and culture. The term Victorian is associated with cultural activities: art, furniture, architecture and so on.

The Victorian Age can be compared to the Elizabethan Age: both periods saw women at the head of monarchy and they both were rich in literature.

If the Elizabethan Age was the Age of Drama and the Romantic Age was the Age of poetry, the Victorian Age was The Age of the Novel. A lot of Novels were produced and the whole period was characterized by the constant growth of the number of readers.

VICTORIAN NOVEL: being the period too much long, we have to divide it for convenience into Early Victorian Novel, including the novelists who wrote between the 1850s and the 1870s, and Late Victorian Novel including the novelists who wrote from the 1880s to the turn of the century. To the first group belong Collins, Dickens, the three Brontë sisters, Mrs Gaskell, Thackeray and Trollope while the most prominent novelists of the second group were George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

As  said  before, the greatest success of  the Early  Victorians  was  the increase  of  the 
reading public
. It was achieved thanks to the publication of novels through the installments and the diffusion of lending libraries. Before 1820, following a tradition started by Walter Scott, novels were published in Three Volumes and were sold at a high cost, a crown and half, and only the wealthy people could buy them. The methods of the monthly installments, that is the publication of single chapters sold together with a magazine at the very low price of a shilling, proved very successful and made it economically convenient for writers to write novels.

The installment modified the structure of the novel because it gave an episodic structure to the plot, obliging the writers to find devices and stratagems to catch and hold the reader’s attention. One of these devices was summoned up in Wilkie Collins formula: Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait. As we can see, it is the same technique used nowadays by modern soap operas on television: at the end of each instalment, when the situation was near a climax, they suspended the narration to increase the readers’ curiosity and make them wait for the following instalment. The magazines, too, increased their readers among the lower classes and that created the popular appeal which will bring to the literary production later defined as Mass Literature.

Early Victorians understood the importance of setting their novels in their contemporary England because they knew that the average Victorian reader expected to read a realistic book with characters he could recognize in and with a story that could provide him an escape from his everyday routine life.

Another limit of the Victorian novel was the moral religious roots of Victorianism which imposed severe limitations to what the early Victorians could write. They had to follow the rules established by Methodism, set by The Wesley Family, which forbade a novelist to deal with many subjects such as sexual immorality, sexual deviance, prostitution and so on. They could not run the risk of loosing their family audience because there was the habit for families to gather together, children included, to read the novel aloud.

Several types of novels were produced: Sensation Novel, dramatic, full of melodrama, mystery, crime and innocent victims (Collins and Dickens); Imaginative Romantic novel, a mixture of romanticism and realism with a touch of sensational and Gothicism exploring extremes of passion and violence(the Brontë sisters Charlotte and Emily); Fantastic novel (Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland); Humanitarian or Social committed Novel  denouncing the abuses and evils brought about by industrialism  (Mrs Gaskell and George Eliot –   Mrs Gaskell, portrayed the “falling women” in sympathetic light expressing the possibility of their moral rehabilitation while George Eliot condemned the superficial idea of “silly novels by lady novelists” and explored the many contemporary social topics:   unmarried mothers, marital problems and social marginalisation); Domestic Novel or Novel of Manners that dealt with everyday routine life. They had conventional plot and characters and were richer in psychological analyses than the other novels (Trollope and Thackeray).

LATE VICTORIANS: The period during which Late Victorian Novelists wrote their novel was marked by a gradual anti-Victorian reaction. The early Victorians felt a social and moral responsibility to portray society in a realistic way  denouncing its injustices but they also expressed faith in progress. In Late Victorians, instead, faith in progress and society begin to recede and the novels deal with the growing crisis in the moral and religious values. They did not identify themselves with their age as the early Victorians had done, and attacked the optimism of their previous predecessors. In literature all this resulted in a sort of realism which led the writers to reject any sentimental or romantic attitude and to focus above all in the clash between man and his environment, illusion and reality, dreams and their fulfilment. Individuals were alienated from the world and felt powerless to alter their destiny. In their new attitude, some of them were affected by Naturalism which had developed in France following the theories worked out by Charles Darwin which saw man only like a creature conditioned by heredity and environment.

On his On the Origin of Species by Natural selection, studying similarities among different animals in different geographic areas,Darwin maintained that species are not immutable but they undergo a process of modification from ancestral species through evolution: the strongest individuals adapt to nature and survive determining a natural selection. This led him to think that man might descend from the animal world through different stages of evolution.

After Darwin’s book, the traditional Christian belief found itself in open conflict with modern science. The truth of parts of the Bible had already been challenged by German scholars who had analyzed the Bible as a text of history rather than a sacred text. D.E.Strauss had claimed that the portrait of Christ in the gospels was based on a myth rather than on historical facts and Feuerbach had argued that Christianity was a myth created by man in order to satisfy a deep need to imagine human perfection. In the same period new discoveries in geology and astronomy cast doubts on the accuracy of the book of Genesis: the world, it seemed, had not been created a few thousand years before but millions of years before and not in six days. However it was Darwin’s book that was the real cause of anxiety. The ideas about Natural Selection and the struggle to survive seemed to confirm man’s worst fears that Nature was really a soulless and pitiless mechanism.   Worse still was for some Christians the interpretation of Darwin in his work The Descendant of Man of the Monkey Theory: if God had created man to his own likeness, what was God’s real image?

 The most important late Victorian novelist was Thomas Hardy, whose novels show a pessimistic tragic view of the world. Many of his novels caused a scandal and one, Jude the Obscure, was even burned and banned.

In the Victorian Novel we have also to mention the Colonial Novels which are set in Britain’s colonies and consist mainly of popular adventure novel for boys. They showed the colonizers as heroes who helped the natives. The most important representative was Rudyard Kipling.

THE PRE RAPHAELITE BROTHERHOOD: it was an association of painters and writers, founded in 1848, which advocated a return of art to the simplicity of medieval Italian painters before Raffaello. The birth of the movement was seen as an answer to the materialism of the Victorians and its conventions. It was an answer to the importance for the Victorians of success and wealth with very little concern in the arts which appeal to the heart and soul: poetry, painting, good writing and so on. Similar movements had already been founded in the first part of the century in Germany, France and Belgium. In 1850 the Pre-Raphaelites published a literary magazine, The Germ: thoughts towards nature in Poetry and Art. They believed that Art must be faithful to nature and have a moral purpose. Stressing the supremacy of Art over all other intellectual activities, the Pre-Raphaelites paved the way to the Aesthetic Movement.

AESTHETIC MOVEMENT: It was a literary movement developed throughEurope. The leader of the English Aesthetic Movement was Walter Pater, but the most prominent figure was Oscar Wilde. In England it was the most typical aspect of the reaction against Victorian materialism and utilitarianism which thought that happiness could be secured by legislation, mass-production of goods and changes in the machinery and accessories of life.

The Aesthetes broke with the convention of the time. They were connected with a similar French movement, The Parnassians, and adopted Theophile Gautier’s slogan Art foe Art’s sake, that is to say Art had no reference to life and couldn’t have a moral purpose, a commercial value or be useful; it only needed to be beautiful to justify itself. The outstanding example of the aesthetes’ withdrawal from life was Huysman’s A Rebours in which the hero, Des Essaints, tried to create an entirely artificial life revealing the beauty of evil and decay.

The Aesthetes gave free verse to imagination and fantasy, imitating the Romantics. They reversed the idea that Art had to imitate life and stated that it was life that had to imitate Art. They took their theories and attitudes to the extremes and applied them to their lives, living an extravagant exciting disorderly and unconventional bohemian life.

Eventually Aestheticism was tinged with Hedonism, behaviour based on the belief that pleasure was the main aim in life, and degenerated into what was better known as Decadentism.

Decadentism was marked by a sort of extremism. Disregarding the simple genuine values of life and disdaining mediocrity, the Decadents cut themselves off from the masses. They avoided contact with reality and looked for an escape not in nature, but within themselves and with the help of artificial paradises created by drug, where illusions replaced reality. They studied the poems of Charles Baudelaire, above all Les Fleures du Mal, and Huysman’s novel A Rebours which was considered as their Manifesto.

 VICTORIAN POETRY: Even if Victorian Age is identified with the Novel, it also produced poets of some standing. The most part of them still had, however, an essentially Romantic character as for tastes, tendencies towards fantasy, sensibility and style. As Victorian poets, they express their doubts and conflicts on Victorian society and criticize its emphasis on science, progress and materialism at the expense of spiritual sentiment. Among the Victorian poets the most important were Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Mathew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Tennyson is considered a great poet of his time. In his poems he expressed the pessimistic mood of the time. He considered doubt as the root of his inspiration and was greatly concerned with the moral and social values of Victorian society.

Browning is remembered for having adapted the dramatic technique of the drama to his poems in the form of the dramatic monologue. Through it Browning succeeded in penetrating the depths of man’s unconscious and the working of the mind.

Arnold’s poems express a very deep melancholy and sadness. He did not like the social reality of his time and attacked the middle class materialism and narrow-mindedness. He called the period he lived in “an age wanting in moral grandeur”.

Hopkins was a man of his time and his poetry expresses the anxiety of the Victorian soul and the devotion to the beauties of the natural world. He is nowadays remembered because he was an avant-garde who broke away from the conventional use of the poetic language and was considered an innovator.



Interested in man in nature and in the feelings of man in solitude –  did not act to better man’s life.

Interested in man in society and in his troubles –  very concerned with moral problems and questions of life because they were aware of living in an uncertain age which was preparing a new society-They tried to do something useful for man.

Escaped the great social problems of their time and looked at the private world of the imagination finding personal solutions.

Faced the world around them and  took care of the weakest individuals trying to help them in their daily worries.

 Rejected the neo-classical tradition and opposed and questioned everything of the previous age

Tried to unite both the neo-classical tradition and the romantic one.The former had, through the power of reason, freed man from ignorance; the latter, discovering the spiritual side of man, had given new importance to his feelings and aspirations

Liked country life and hated industrial towns- mostly   lived in villages and worked on the land

There was a gradual migration towards towns because  people wanted to find a work in the factories.When Queen Victoria died the 75% of the population lived in towns

Chose poetry as the main literary form because it was much linked to spirit and feelings

Chose the novel because,more than poetry,it could give voice to the claim of social justice and could analyze in details the inhuman standards of industrial society

About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to THE VICTORIAN AGE

  1. Charutha says:

    Love your posts. Very easy to understand🙂

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