VICTORIAN AGE (1837-1902): HISTORICAL, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT
Great Britain reached the height of its power during this period, from 1837 to 1901. Trade and commerce expanded, and the science and technology maderapid advances. The Industrial Revolution, which had begun in the 1700's, brought increased wealth to the middle classes.
But Victorian Age is an age of contradditions and tension:
1)on the one hand, life had became easier thank to a lot of smalls improvments in the small things of life: gas and oil were gradually sostituited by elettricity, there was more clothing , food and forniture. london had became the world-center of finance.
2) On the other hand industrial revolution also brougth with it many several problems: workers and their families were forced to live in crowed and unhelty condition, in the slums of larges cities. There had always been problems like overcrowding or expoitation of child in industry, but now the industrial revolution brought these evil to public attention.
One of the cause of this gap betwen social classes was the doctrin of utilitarism, expounded by Jeremy Bentham: The state have not to interf with market and his laws of profict, costs and return.
In other words, with this theories , that influenced john mill’s “ liberalism”: men must be free to follow their own goals , their objet so they would achive the best result to the society.
Many utilitarians bealived that Dawrins theories of evolution ( wich was based on the concept of the survival of the fittest species) was in according with Mill’s point of view. But Charles Darwin was relutant to apply his theories on Human Society.
This period marked the triumph of the industrial middle classes, with their confidence in progress , their belief in the theory of laissez-faire in economics and utilitarianism in philosophy, their generic philanthropism and sentimentalism, their conventional religious faith and their morality observant of exterior forms and conventions characterised by a prudery that often bordered on the ridiculous.
This is what has been called Victorian compromise , that is the utilitarian compromise of a large section of English society that 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.
But not all the Victorians accepted the current optimistic interpretation of the new industrial civilization; indeed, many of them attacked its contradictions. They realised that it left unsolved the problem of the distribution of wealth, a problem that increased social injustice.
The lower classes continued to suffer poverty. Two major Victorian poets, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning, became the spokesmen for their age.
The most importan Victorian novelist was Charles Dickens. He helped make the novel the most popular literary form for the middle classes.
Dickens aroused England's social conscience by exposing the miseries of the lower classes in such novel as "Oliver Twist" and "David Copperfield". He became increasingly bitter in his later novels, "Bleak House" and "Great Expectations".
Dickens's novels are defined as social or humanitarian novels , because he used fiction to denounce the injustices of Victorian society. But he didn't suggest any specific means of reform, because he never questioned the basic values of his time. For him the happiness consisted in hard work, romantic love and family life.
Dickens's characters are not heroes and heroines. He drew most of them from reality , so he became the painter of the portrait of English life : In Dickens's works sets are always richly detailed, because of the personal observation of the author. He particulary observed the parts of Londons where the poor lived, and he described the British homelife, the school system, the domestic life, the middle-class people, with every detail of manners, appearance and dress.
Apperance an respectability
In this period the therm “ respectability” covered a lot of behaviours and attitude, that is to say have good manners , good breeding, go to church or the unquestioned father’s authority. Aristocrat were securely respectable, becouse of the very nature of their class position, while the middle classes had to work hard for any social recognition they won. Money could not buy respectability, but can buy what is required to be respectable.
Queen Victoria herself was a simbol of respectability: When King William IV died, she succeeded him when she was only 18. She became soon very popular because of her strong sense of duty and her simplicity.