The Victorian Age was a time of great change for Britain. Queen Victoria reigned longer than any other British Monarch: 63 years. She had an unhappy and lonely childhood, because her mother was very protective. In 1837, when King William IV died, she became the new Queen, but she was only eighteen, and so she knew very little about politics and government. For this reason, Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister, a kind and loyal friend who gave her advices and helps, was the most important person in Victoria's early years as Queen. She was an honest, highly dedicated monarch and so was dearly loved by her people. During her reign British became the richest and most powerful nation in the world: it became so vast that “the sun never set on it”, Victoria obtained the title of “Empress of India” and commerce and industry prospered, creating a lot of wealth.* It was also a time of exceptional achievement in science and of increasing information and knowledge: it seemed that, with knowledge, solutions could be found to almost any problem and this gave rise to an optimistic belief in progress. But this was also an age of serious discontent and the government tried to avoid the political revolution by compromise. The aristocratic Whig politicians had succeeded in making laws which kept them in power and avoided this revolution. The most important reforms were:
• Second Reform Act, that gave the vote to the skilled working man;
• Third Reform Act, that gave the vote to all man householders;
• Factory Act, that prevented children from being employed more than 48 hours a week and no person under eighteen could work more than 69 hours;
• Ten Hour's Act, that reduced the working hours to ten a day for all workers;
• Trade Union Act, that legalized this unions;
• Elementary Education Act;
But these reforms didn't solve the problem of poverty: many people lived in dangerous conditions, were usually hungry and often ill, lived in squalid houses or in streets, where became often beggars, drunk unclean water and didn't live long. So the government established the New Poor Law, that stated that a person who, in desperation, asked assistance to the State, could receive it entering in the workhouses, but, in this way, was considered destitute, was divided by his family (because in the workhouses men are separated from women) and was obliged to work hard and in bad conditions. The real objective of this law wasn't clearly to help the neediest, but to discourage every request of assistance and, so, to reduce public expenditures.
In 1840 Victoria married Prince Albert: they had nine children and spent a lot of time with them, giving an example of the importance of family values and morality and providing a model of respectability for their people.
Respectability was a mixture of morality and hypocrisy. It implied the possession of good manners, comfortable house with servants, regular attendance at church and charitable activity (in fact in this period the phenomenon of philanthropy grew and many societies were created to demonstrate the false interest in the poor people of the lower classes, with charitable works). This respectable families were patriarchal units in which husband was dominant: he had a respectable work, imposed the rules of the family and had, in apparency, a perfect behavior (but in reality the husbands were often unfaithful and their lovers were often prostitutes); women could be only teachers or nurses and had to look after the child education, the menage of servants and the budget of the the family; sexuality was generally repressed in public and private forms and so nudity in art and words with sexual connotation were rejected.
*British foreign policy was based on free trade and liberalism: China was forced to open to British trade and the Crimean War was fought to keep Russia out of Ottoman Empire and India. The real hero of this war was Florence Nightingale, known as “the Lady with the Lamp”, who created the first nursing team and an institution for the training of nurses.
During the Victorian age developed throughout Britain many movements of thought.
• Patriotism was deeply influenced by ideas of racial superiority: the races of the world were divided by fundamental physical and intellectual differences and some were destined to be led by others;
• The religious movement known as “Evangelicalism” influenced the Victorian emphasis upon moral conduct, because evangelicals believed in the need to bring enthusiasm into the established Church, in the dedication to humanitarian causes and social reforms, in the obedience to a strict code of morality which opposed many forms of entertainment and in the importance of Bible reading and praying at home;
• The theories of natural selection and evolution of Charles Darwin, who discarded the version of creation given by the Bible affirming that all living creatures in existence have taken their forms with a slow process of change and adaptation in a struggle for survival and so favorable conditions determine the survival of a species and unfavorable its extinction;
• The philosophic ideas of Herbert Spencer that applied Darwin's theories to social life, believing that the economic competition was the same as natural selection: the strongest survived and the weakest deserved to be defeated, so the poor and oppressed didn't deserve compassion;
• The protests against the harm caused by industrialism in man's life and in the environment;
• The theories expressed by Karl Marx in the Capital, based upon research done in England, according to which only the organization of a massive movement of workers could solve the problems of the industrial society.