The Victorian age
Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901)
When George IV died, in 1837, he was succeeded by his niece, Queen Victoria (1837-1901), the last of Hannover family to sit on the throne of England.
At that time the working class lived in very poor conditions: workers’ demonstrations were common. The largest workers’ movement was that of the Chartists, so called because they asked for a charter of social reforms: the extension of the right to vote and to stand election to the working class.
However the Chartist Movement failed. It’s only in 1867 that a second reform gave workers the right to vote, and with a third Reformation Bill suffrage was extended to all workers.
The Conservatives grew out of the old Tories, and the Liberals out of the Whigs.
The old struggle between land-owners –mainly conservative- and industrialists and tradesmen –mainly liberal- still continued.
Usually it’s called “Victorian Age” not only the period during which Queen Victoria reigned, but also several years later. Practically we can call Victorian age all the period from Queen Victoria’s coronation to the beginning of the World War I.
The Victorian Age was a period of changes and process of democratization. Great freedom was given to Catholics, that, grouped in the “Oxford Movement”, asked for more social rights.
Also the middle class was fostered by the new industrial progresses and obtained more power.
These improvements spread a wave of optimism in the country. Because of these so diffused hopes, people even started ignoring the problems that afflicted England: although the Victorian Age is always remembered as a period of development and prosperity, poverty and illness were frequent and widely diffused, especially among the lower classes.
The persons that lived in the slums, for example, had lots of health problems. Poverty was considered as a crime and it was not rare that poor people were arrested in the streets and kept in jail with the mere accuse of “being poor”, and the “New poor law”, approved in those years, was not a solution at all.
Moreover, in school teachers often used to give corporal punishments to their students.
The progress made in industry, economy and literature contrasted with poverty and corruption.
It is also for this widely spread corruption that people belonging to the upper classes started to oppose it a strict morality. The so called “Victorian Compromise”.
Parliament introduced in those years also reforms for humanitarian reasons and tried to improve poor people conditions of living.
Great importance has also the “Evangelism”, that fostered lots of changes, like the abolition of certain public entertainments and the observance of Sunday.
In this period also the “Fabian Society” was founded, by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The name derived from Quintus Fabius Maximus, the “delayer”. The movement claimed for gradual reforms instead of drastic and revolutionary reforms.
The Victorian Age was extremely Puritan. Sex became a taboo and all the words that were vaguely sexual were abolished from the usual language.
The Victorian family became an example of respectability: the father was authoritarian and the mother meek and mild. Families were numerous and women had to be frail and innocent.
The growing puritanism in the country started to influence clothes too, that were, at that time, very formal in their shape.
The Victorian Age was full of contradictions, brought by Materialism and Positivism.
The most known philosophers of this period were:
1) Jeremy Bentham, that said that only what is useful is good and that every action should be done only to get what is better for a great number of people.
2) Charles Darwin, that said that men descended from apes and that there’s a natural selection by which only the stronger survive.
3) Karl Marx
4) Arthur Schopenhauer, that said that God and the immortality of soul are human illusions.
5) Auguste Compte.
6) Hyppolyte Taine, that underlined the influence of heredity on man’s character.
According to Positivism everything is entirely decided by a sequence of previous causes, so that men’s actions don’t depend on their free will, but are instead beyond their control. This led to a spread pessimism.
The Victorian Age was marked by numerous progresses in industry and technology. As a reflection of this industrial development a deep crisis of traditional religious belief took place, replaced by an almost blind faith in science.
Science seemed to be the main enemy to belief, and poetry too, which –together with faith- always used to exalt the beauty of nature as the evidence of the existence of a benevolent Creator.
The most famous poets and writers of the Victorian Age were Tennyson and Browning.
They were, as writers, complementary. In fact, they were different in their literary characteristics, but similar in their attitudes (they were both strongly interested in the numerous social problems of their period).
The most important features of Victorian Poetry were:
1) Reaction to every kind of standards;
2) Continuation of the Romantic ideas;
3) A detachment of the artist from every ethical rule.
The new ideas of this period have their roots in the “Pre-raphaelite Brotherhood”, founded in 1848.
The Pre-raphaelites wanted to come back to nature, a return to the past simplicity full of the mysticism of the middle ages, when there were important values and men still have their creativity.
The main representatives of this movement were Dante Rossetti and his sister Christina, and also William Morris and Angerlon Charles Sirinburne. They were all against the common standards of their period and they found inspiration from a sort a spiritual sensuality.
Basically, Victorian poetry is divided into:
1) Poetry of sensation;
2) Poetry of reflection, which wanted to give moral lessons.
Tennyson started writing his works imitating the Romantics, but then, thanks to the pressures of his literary friends and fellows too, he managed to develop his own style, thus beginning to write another kind of poetry that made him popular and interested in the great social problems: the role of women, evolution, industrial progresses….
In very many ways Tennyson was not only a poet: he can be considered as a sort of prophet of his time. Only a poet could fight against the unromantic materialism of modern life.
Actually many poets of that period has been seen as prophets, not only during their historical period, but even by more modern critics.
It’s not easy to understand why poets were commonly seen as prophets during Victorian Age. Probably one reason was the growth of the reading public.
A prophet is in fact a person with great and innovative ideas that manages to take his message to a wide audience.
So, even though artists always had great and innovative ideas, it’s only during this period that the English writers are able to make them popular and known to a big amount of people.
Moreover Tennyson wrote in a way that was accessible also to those who were not particularly learned.
Another important mind of this period is William Paley. He compared universe to a watch found abandoned on the ground. And as this watch must have had a maker, the intricate mechanism of natural world demonstrates the existence of a Creator.
Unfortunately the new discoveries in astronomy and geology challenged the account of creation given in the Book of Genesis, making it clear that life on earth evolved gradually.
Tennyson, for example, was worried that the idea of man might be nothing more than the prelude to other forms of life.