The Victorian Age Introduction

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The Victorian Age


In 1897 Mark Twain was visiting London during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations honoring the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria's coming to the throne. "British history is two thousand years old," Twain observed, "and yet in a good many ways the world has moved farther ahead since the Queen was born than it moved in all the rest of the two thousand put together." Twain's comment captures the sense of dizzying change that characterized the Victorian period. Perhaps most important was the shift from a way of life based on ownership of land to a modern urban economy based on trade and manufacturing. By the beginning of the Victorian period, the Industrial Revolution, as this shift was called, had created profound economic and social changes, including a mass migration of workers to industrial towns, where they lived in new urban slums. But the changes arising out of the Industrial Revolution were just one subset of the radical changes taking place in mid- and late-nineteenth-century Britain — among others were the democratization resulting from extension of the franchise; challenges to religious faith, in part based on the advances of scientific knowledge, particularly of evolution; and changes in the role of women.

All of these issues, and the controversies attending them, informed Victorian literature. In part because of the expansion of newspapers and the periodical press, debate about political and social issues played an important role in the experience of the reading public. The Victorian novel, with its emphasis on the realistic portrayal of social life, represented many Victorian issues in the stories of its characters. Moreover, debates about political representation involved in expansion both of the franchise and of the rights of women affected literary representation, as writers gave voice to those who had been voiceless.[click on image to enlarge]

The section in The Norton Anthology of English Literature entitled "Victorian Issues" (NAEL 8, 2.1538–1606) contains texts dealing with four controversies that concerned the Victorians: evolution, industrialism, what the Victorians called "The Woman Question", and Great Britain's identity as an imperial power. Norton Topics Online provides further texts on three of these topics: the debate about the benefits and evils of the Industrial Revolution, the debate about the nature and role of women, and the myriad issues that arose as British forces worked to expand their global influence. The debates on both industrialization and women's roles in society reflected profound social change: the formation of a new class of workers — men, women, and children — who had migrated to cities, particularly in the industrial North, in huge numbers, to take jobs in factories, and the growing demand for expanded liberties for women. The changes were related; the hardships that the Industrial Revolution and all its attendant social developments created put women into roles that challenged traditional ideas about women's nature. Moreover, the rate of change the Victorians experienced, caused to a large degree by advances in manufacturing, created new opportunities and challenges for women. They became writers, teachers, and social reformers, and they claimed an expanded set of rights.[click on image to enlarge]

In the debates about industrialism and about the Woman Question, voices came into print that had not been heard before. Not only did women writers play a major role in shaping the terms of the debate about the Woman Question, but also women from the working classes found opportunities to describe the conditions of their lives. Similarly, factory workers described their working and living conditions, in reports to parliamentary commissions, in the encyclopedic set of interviews journalist Henry Mayhew later collected as London Labor and the London Poor, and in letters to the editor that workers themselves wrote. The world of print became more inclusive and democratic. At the same time, novelists and even poets sought ways of representing these new voices. The novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her first novel, Mary Barton, in order to give voice to Manchester's poor, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning tried to find ways in poetry of giving voice to the poor and oppressed.[click on image to enlarge]

The third section of this Web site, "The Painterly Image in Victorian Poetry," investigates the rich connection in the Victorian period between visual art and literature. Much Victorian aesthetic theory makes the eye the most authoritative sense and the clearest indicator of truth. Victorian poetry and the Victorian novel both value visual description as a way of portraying their subjects. This emphasis on the visual creates a particularly close connection between poetry and painting. Books of fiction and poetry were illustrated, and the illustrations amplified and intensified the effects of the text. The texts, engravings, and paintings collected here provide insight into the connection between the verbal and the visual so central to Victorian aesthetics.

Britain’s identity as an imperial power with considerable global influence is explored more comprehensively in the fourth topic section. For Britain, the Victorian period witnessed a renewed interest in the empire’s overseas holdings. British opinions on the methods and justification of imperialist missions overseas varied, with some like author Joseph Conrad throwing into sharp relief the brutal tactics and cold calculations involved in these missions, while others like politician Joseph Chamberlain considered the British to be the “great governing race” with a moral obligation to expand its influence around the globe. Social evolutionists, such as Benjamin Kidd, likewise supported the British dominion through their beliefs about the inherent developmental inferiority of the subject peoples, thus suggesting that Europeans had a greater capacity for ruling—a suggestion that many took as complete justification of British actions overseas. Regardless of dissenting voices, British expansion pushed forward at an unprecedented rate, ushering in a new era of cultural exchange that irreversibly altered the British worldview.

Industrialism – Progress or Decline?

The Industrial Revolution — the changes in the making of goods that resulted from substituting machines for hand labor — began with a set of inventions for spinning and weaving developed in England in the eighteenth century. At first this new machinery was operated by workers in their homes, but in the 1780s the introduction of the steam engine to drive the machines led manufacturers to install them in large buildings called at first mills and later factories. Mill towns quickly grew in central and northern England; the population of the city of Manchester, for example, increased by ten times in the years between 1760 and 1830.

By the beginning of the Victorian period, the Industrial Revolution had created profound economic and social changes. Hundreds of thousands of workers had migrated to industrial towns, where they made up a new kind of working class. Wages were extremely low, hours very long — fourteen a day, or even more. Employers often preferred to hire women and children, who worked for even less then men. Families lived in horribly crowded, unsanitary housing. Moved by the terrible suffering resulting from a severe economic depression in the early 1840s, writers and men in government drew increasingly urgent attention to the condition of the working class. In her poem The Cry of the Children, Elizabeth Barrett Browning portrays the suffering of children in mines and factories. In The Condition of the Working Class (NAEL 8, 2.1564), Friedrich Engels describes the conclusions he drew during the twenty months he spent observing industrial conditions in Manchester. His 1845 book prepared the ground for his work with Karl Marx on The Communist Manifesto (1848), which asserts that revolution is the necessary response to the inequity of industrial capitalist society. Elizabeth Gaskell, wife of a Manchester minister, was inspired to begin her writing career with the novel Mary Barton (1848) in order to portray the suffering of the working class. In Hard Times (1854), Charles Dickens created the fictional city of Coketown (NAEL 8, 2.1573–74) to depict the harshness of existence in the industrial towns of central and northern England. During the 1830s and 1840s a number of parliamentary committees and commissions introduced testimony about the conditions in mines and factories that led to the beginning of government regulation and inspection, particularly of the working conditions of women and children.[click on image to enlarge]

Other voices also testified powerfully to the extremities of working-class existence in industrial England. Poverty Knock, a nineteenth-century British folk song, catalogs the hardships of the weaver's job. Correspondent Henry Mayhew's interviews with London's poor portray the miseries of life on the streets. Drawing an analogy from popular travel writings, reformer William Booth's In Darkest England compares the dense and gloomy urban slums to the equatorial forests of Africa. Especially dramatic are the contrasting accounts of C. Duncan Lucas, who writes in 1901 about the pleasant "beehive of activity" that he sees as the typical London factory, and crusader Annie Besant, who passionately analyzes the economic exploitation of workers by wealthy capitalists. Ada Nield Chew's letter about conditions in a factory in Crewe states strongly the case for improving wages for the tailoresses who "ceaselessly work" six days of the week. These sharply different perspectives define an important argument in the debate over industrialism: Was the machine age a blessing or a curse? Did it make humanity happier or more wretched?[click on image to enlarge]


Great Britain during Victoria's reign was not just a powerful island nation. It was the center of a global empire that fostered British contact with a wide variety of other cultures, though the exchange was usually an uneven one. By the end of the nineteenth century, nearly one-quarter of the earth's land surface was part of the British Empire, and more than 400 million people were governed from Great Britain, however nominally. An incomplete list of British colonies and quasi-colonies in 1901 would include Australia, British Guiana (now Guyana), Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Egypt, Gambia, the Gold Coast (Ghana), Hong Kong, British India (now Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), Ireland, Kenya, Malawi, the Malay States (Malaysia), Malta, Mauritius, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somaliland (Somalia), South Africa, the Sudan, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Trinidad and Tobago. Queen Victoria's far-flung empire was a truly heterogenous entity, governed by heterogenous practices. It included Crown Colonies like Jamaica, ruled from Britain, and protectorates like Uganda, which had relinquished only partial sovereignty to Britain. Ireland was a sort of internal colony whose demands for home rule were alternately entertained and discounted. India had started the century under the control of the East India Company, but was directly ruled from Britain after the 1857 Indian Mutiny (the first Indian war of independence), and Victoria was crowned Empress of India in 1877. Colonies like Canada and Australia with substantial European populations had become virtually self-governing by the end of the century and were increasingly considered near-equal partners in the imperial project. By contrast, colonies and protectorates with large indigenous populations like Sierra Leone, or with large transplanted populations of ex-slaves and non-European laborers like Trinidad, would not gain autonomy until the twentieth century.

As Joseph Chamberlain notes in The True Conception of Empire, the catastrophic loss of the American colonies had given rise to a certain disenchantment with empire-building. But despite a relative lack of interest in the British imperial project during the early nineteenth century, the Empire continued to grow, acquiring a number of new territories as well as greatly expanding its colonies in Canada and Australia and steadily pushing its way across the Indian subcontinent. A far more rapid expansion took place between 1870 and 1900, three decades that witnessed a new attitude towards and practice of empire-building known as the new imperialism and which would continue until World War I. During this period Britain was involved in fierce competition for new territories with its European rivals, particularly in Africa. It was becoming increasingly invested, imaginatively and ideologically, in the idea of empire. It found itself more and more dependent on a global economy and committed to finding (and forcing) new trading partners, including what we might call virtual colonies, nations that were not officially part of the Empire but were economically in thrall to powerful Great Britain. All of these motives helped fuel the new imperialism. British expansion was not allowed to progress unchallenged — the Empire went to war with the Ashanti, the Zulus, and the Boers, to name a few, and critics like J. J. Thomas and John Atkinson Hobson (NAEL 8, 2.1632-34) denounced imperialism as a corrupt and debasing enterprise — but it progressed at an astonishing pace nonetheless.[click on image to enlarge]

The distinction between imperialism and colonialism is difficult to pin down, because the two activities can seem indistinguishable at times. Roughly speaking, imperialism involves the claiming and exploiting of territories outside of ones own national boundaries for a variety of motives. For instance, Great Britain seized territories in order to increase its own holdings and enhance its prestige, to secure trade routes, to obtain raw materials such as sugar, spices, tea, tin, and rubber, and to procure a market for its own goods. Colonialism involves the settling of those territories and the transformation — the Victorians would have said reformation — of the social structure, culture, government, and economy of the people found there. Thomas Babington Macaulay's "Minute on Indian Education" gives us a good sense of this kind of interventionist colonialism at work.[click on image to enlarge]

The Empire did not found colonies in all of its possessions, nor were colony populations necessarily interested in anglicizing the indigenous peoples they shared space with, as is clear from Anthony Trollope's dismissive assessment of the Australian aborigines. But in general Great Britain was able to justify its expansion into other peoples lands by claiming a civilizing mission based on its own moral, racial, and national superiority. As we see from the selections by Edward Tylor and Benjamin Kidd, late-Victorian science sought to prove that non-Europeans were less evolved, biologically and culturally, and thus unable properly to govern themselves or develop their own territories. Other writers like W. Winwood Reade and Richard Marsh described the imperfectly evolved colonial subjects as fearsome cannibals and beasts, hardly human at all. Thus they were patently in need of taming, and taking on this job was "The White Man's Burden" in Rudyard Kiplings famous phrase.

The Woman Question

Many of the historical changes that characterized the Victorian period motivated discussion and argument about the nature and role of woman — what the Victorians called "The Woman Question." The extension of the franchise by the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867 stimulated discussion of women's political rights. Although women in England did not get the vote until 1918, petitions to Parliament advocating women's suffrage were introduced as early as the 1840s. Equally important was the agitation to allow married women to own and handle their own property, which culminated in the passing of the Married Women's Property Acts (1870–1908).[click on image to enlarge]

The Industrial Revolution resulted in changes for women as well. The explosive growth of the textile industries brought hundreds of thousands of lower-class women into factory jobs with grueling working conditions. The new kinds of labor and poverty that arose with the Industrial Revolution presented a challenge to traditional ideas of woman's place. Middle-class voices also challenged conventional ideas about women. In A Woman's Thoughts About Women (NAEL 8, 2.1596–97), the novelist Dinah Maria Mulock compares the prospects of Tom, Dick, and Harry, who leave school and plunge into life, with those of "the girls," who "likewise finish their education, come home, and stay at home." They have, she laments, "literally nothing to do." Likewise in Cassandra (NAEL 8, 2.1598–1601), Florence Nightingale, who later became famous for organizing a contingent of nurses to take care of sick and wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, writes passionately of the costs for women of having no outlet for their heroic aspirations.[click on image to enlarge]

Popular representations of Florence Nightingale, "The Lady with the Lamp," reflect the paradox of her achievement. While her organization of nurses was an important advance in hospital treatment, the image of her tending the wounded seems to reflect a traditional view of woman's mission. Even Queen Victoria herself represents a similar paradox. Though she was queen of the British Empire, paintings and photographs of her, such as Winterhalter's The Royal Family in 1846, represent her identity in conventional feminine postures and relationships.[click on image to enlarge]

Texts in this topic address both the hardships faced by women forced into new kinds of labor and the competing visions of those who exalted domestic life and those who supported women's efforts to move beyond the home. Journalist Henry Mayhew's interviews with a seamstress and a fruit seller vividly portray the difficulties of their lives. In Of Queen's Gardens John Ruskin celebrates the "true wife," and Elizabeth Eastlake's "Lady Travellers" proposes her as a national ideal, while in The Girl of the Period Eliza Lynn Linton satirizes the modern woman. In contrast, two fictional characters, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and George Gissing's Miss Barfoot, from The Odd Women, speak passionately of the wish that their existence be "quickened with all of incident, life, fire, and feeling." All of these texts show how complex the debate was on what the Victorians called "The Woman Question."[click on image to enlarge]

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