Victorian Era

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Date: Jan. 1, 2010
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 4,876 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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Dating the Victorian Era

The Victorian era refers specifically to the period Queen Victoria reigned over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and ultimately over India and the British Empire, the nineteenth-century's world power. Born in 1819 Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 at the age of eighteen. She reigned for a little less than sixty-four years, dying in 1901, making hers the longest monarchy in history. Her reign is the easiest way to establish the starting and ending date of an era that took its name from hers. However, the Victorian period is sometimes dated from the passage of the First Reform Bill in 1832, and a much later starting date is the death of the poet laureate William Wordsworth in 1850, which rang the death knell for idyllic romanticism in the arts and the onset of Victorian high seriousness with the ascent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) as the new poet laureate.

The Victorian era evolved in the hot aftermath of the French Revolution, when many Englishmen of class and education were sobered by the news from Europe of insurrection and bloodbath. There was a sense of protectionism coupled with proximate vulnerability that led informed individuals to consider what might be done to prevent revolution from infecting the English way of monarchy and parliamentary rule. Sometime during the first several decades of the nineteenth century, people began to feel and comment upon the changing times. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) called it an age of transition. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) urged people to stop reading their Bryon and begin reading their Goethe, meaning to stop their romantic dreaming and take up urgent moral and civic-minded duties. These among many observations reflected a sense that a new era had begun.

Political Climate: At Home and Abroad

The American Revolution (1775-83) and the French Revolution (1789-99) tinted the political sensibilities and parliamentary discussions in London during the first three or more decades of the nineteenth century. Educated men and propertied people born toward the last quarter of the eighteenth century knew full well the risks to them of such an uprising from the lower classes. Insurrection, retaliation, military action, coup and execution, news of these continental events filled newspapers and seemed to threaten English shores. The fact of this political mayhem abroad, coupled with the social and economic upheaval at home (called by the late 1840s the Industrial Revolution), served as the major catalysts for topics and attitudes debated in the London Parliament. The acts passed during the century attest to the political consciousness, at least among Englishmen toward their own country, that legal redress was an important way to pacify the disenfranchised and dispossessed classes.

Reform through Acts of Parliament

The Reform Bill of 1832, which was followed by the Reform Bill of 1867 and of 1884, sent a definite message to middle-class Englishmen that their hopes for being heard in government had some basis. The first act, sometimes called the Great Reform Bill, addressed an archaic electoral system that divided the country into voting districts called boroughs, which had remained fixed despite massive shifts in population from rural areas to urban centers. The redrawing of boroughs attempted to make representation in the House of Commons reflect population density, and as a result, it eliminated 56 so-called rotten boroughs. This act also extended the franchise to include some smaller-property owners. Its passage thus reduced the power of the House of Lords and increased the number of voters by 65 percent, lifting to 20 percent the total of adult males who could vote. As important, this act shifted the selection of a prime minister from the monarch's choice to the majority vote by members of Parliament, thus separating monarchy from government. The Reform Bill of 1867 extended the franchise into the working class, increasing to 30 percent those who could vote, and the Reform Bill of 1884 increased the franchise to 60 percent, by extending the vote to farm laborers. (Catholic emancipation, first stated in law by the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, gradually removed restrictions on Catholics, allowing Catholic men of property to vote; no females voted during Victoria's reign.)

The consciousness of reform was expressed in other laws passed during the Victorian era. For example, with the persuasion of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), who argued for an end to protectionism, the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846. These laws had controlled through tariffs the price of grains, both local and imported, in the English marketplace. As the Corn Laws made import tariffs higher in order to reduce importation and increase the price of locally grown grains, the cost of bread increased sharply. The repeal of the Corn Laws made the cost of bread fall, a change much valued by poor people but resented by wealthy local and distant growers. Carlyle in his multi-volume French Revolution: A History (1837) argued that law is better than insurrection, and the repeal of the Corn Laws suggests a majority of men in government, at least in the House of Commons, agreed.

When Victoria ascended the throne, her female subjects had no legal status and could not bear witness in a court of law. Their legal concerns were represented by their fathers or brothers if they were yet unmarried, by their husbands if they were married, and by their sons if they were widowed. So-called redundant women (those completely without male connection) had no access to law. However, across the nineteenth century, this situation improved gradually, edging its way from aristocracy into propertied classes. The Custody Act of 1837 gave women the right to petition a court for access to and custody of their children under the age of seven (the Custody Act of 1878 changed the child's age to sixteen). The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 established a civil divorce court and allowed women to ask the court for rights to their own property. Finally, the Married Women's Property Acts (1870, 1882) progressively extended to wives the control over property they owned prior to the time of their marriage. As these acts served people of property, other acts attempted to serve the working poor.

The Factory Acts (1833, 1844, and 1847) attempted to meliorate the grievous situation of female and child workers in mills and factories. These acts reduced the working hours of some women and children in certain circumstances, initially affecting woolen mills and gradually extending to other industries. These acts covered how long women and children could work in a given day, disallowed hiring a child under the age of nine to work full shifts (though eight-year-olds could be hired to work six-hour days), and limited the shift length to twelve hours per day for young workers between the age of fourteen and eighteen. Other provisions mandated mill owners to provide two sets of clothing for each child they employed and allow an hour off for lunch. The Factory Acts did not change the fifteen-hour workday of men over the age of eighteen. The Mines Act (1842) made illegal the employment of women and children in coal and lead mines. In sum, these laws restricted mill, factory, and mine owners, but the loss of income they caused among families living in extreme poverty brought other kinds of suffering. Much industrial exploitation remained in effect, probably because law making is one thing and enforcement another, and over the years, the proletariat increasingly suffered from stunted growth, respiratory diseases, various kinds of chemical poisoning, and the like, and life expectancy hovered below 40 years, that is, for the 80 percent who made it past the age of five. Sharp drawbacks in the limits of reform notwithstanding, the pattern of ever widening social consciousness can be traced in the bills that became law during the Victorian period.

The Irish Problem

Population figures for the century reflect the contrast between overall growth in England, Scotland, and Wales with the grim realities across St. George's Channel and the Irish Sea in Ireland. Between 1837 and 1901, the population of England, Scotland, and Wales increased from 25.5 million to 41 million; however, in Ireland for the same years, the population dropped from 8 million to 4.5 million. One million Irish died in the Potato Famine (1845-47), and the rest emigrated, under extreme hardship, to the Americas and Australia during the second half of the century. Leading up to and during the famine, the Irish saw corn and wheat packed up and shipped out of their country, while they were left to starve as a result of the potato blight that ruined their little cottage vegetable plots. Englishmen of great wealth owned estates in Ireland, but they lived in England, comfortable, well-fed, and focused on their own interests. When English aid did respond, the Irish poor knew it was too little and far too late. As the Irish became increasingly cynical and bitter, the belief became widespread that the Acts of Union (1800), which combined the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland, was a ruse to benefit English greed and that Home Rule for the Irish was imperative. This unrest exacerbated by widespread protracted suffering among farm laborers fueled resistance to British control that continued well into the twentieth century.

Global Imperialism

Queen Victoria inherited a throne, whose great power derived in part from an unmatched naval force and an already well-established record of global imperialism. With an unswerving presumption of racial superiority justifying their economic exploitation, the British merchant fleet maintained trade routes that ringed the seas, the ultimate effect being to line pockets of Englishmen at home with the goods garnered abroad. Exploration and trade were inextricably wedded to growing industrialism at home, a burgeoning market economy, and a rising middle class. London grew from 2 million at the time of Victoria's ascension to 6.5 million at the time of her death, and by 1890, Queen Victoria ruled over one-fourth of the territories around the world, her subjects including 25 percent of the earth's population. The British form of government and education, along with the English language, were superimposed on foreign continents, and where the British were not in control they waged war to establish it. By the end of the nineteenth century, Great Britain was the unrivaled world leader.

Wars for British Control

Advancements in exploration and trade were to some extent shackled by engagement in foreign wars across the century. The British competed with the Russians in Afghanistan, for example, where the English had taken Kabul in 1839 and then were defeated by an Afghan uprising in 1842, known among the British as the Massacre of Elpinstone's Army, in which about 16,500 British soldiers and civilians were lost. With an alliance of European countries, the British declared war on Russia and engaged in the Crimean War (1853-56), during which the military disaster later glossed over and celebrated at home as the Charge of the Light Brigade occurred. The Crimean War elicited the medical expertise of upper-class Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), who established a hospital and staffed it with English nurses at Scutari (present-day Üsküdar) and the uneducated but equally extraordinary service of the biracial Jamaican Mary Seacole (1805-1881), who nursed soldiers literally in the line of battle and ran an inn for injured, sick, and exhausted troops near the front. A victory for the British alliance, this war at mid-century had a high cost. Approximately 5,000 British soldiers died from battle engagement and another 16,000 succumbed to disease, not to mention the thousands of casualties of other nationalities. The Crimean War was graphically depicted by the journalist and first war correspondent William Howard Russell (1820-1907). Russell's reports allowed newspaper readers at home for the first time to visualize the reality of military action abroad.

Shortly after the Crimean engagement, the British were victorious in the Indian Rebellion (1857-58), bringing India under the British Crown. The Boer Wars (1880-82, 1899-1902) engaged the British and its allies from as far away as Australia in Africa, and in 1882, the British invaded Egypt, took control of the Suez Canal (opened in 1869), and made Egypt a Crown Protectorate. These and other conflicts across the globe illustrated to some the shocking cost of empire. Arguably, no one understood better the ramifications of such a price than William Gladstone (1809-1898).

Gladstone's Efforts to on Behalf of Home Rule

During a century of remarkable political leaders, only one man served as prime minister four times: the great liberal reformer, William Gladstone. While he was head of the government, Parliament passed the Education Act (1870), the Trade Union Act (1871), and the Married Women's Property Acts. Arguing against his main opponent, the imperialist Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), Gladstone spoke on behalf of the Irish for Home Rule and introduced a bill in support of it in 1886 and again in 1892. On the second occasion, it passed the House of Commons but was rejected in 1894 by the House of Lords, causing Gladstone to resign from office permanently.

Technology and Industry

Just as widespread use of the computer in the last third of the twentieth century transformed the concepts of time and availability of information and changed permanently the way people live and work, so too did the widespread use of the steam engine transform the world for nineteenth-century people, first in Great Britain and then in Europe and North America. The Scotsman James Watt (1736-1819) is often credited with inventing the steam engine, but it was actually the original and collaborative work of several men. Nonetheless, Watt's improvement in the Newcomen steam engine (1775) marked the inception of the Industrial Revolution, a progressive change that moved across the Victorian landscape, shifting the way of life from rural land ownership and farm work to trade and manufacturing in cities. Steamboats became the method of transportation between countries, and in England, Scotland, and Wales, railroads connected outlying areas with urban centers moving people and goods quickly across 5,000 miles of railroad tracks by 1848. With these two effective means of travel, commerce expanded quickly, both at home and abroad, leading to sharp increases in wealth among those who owned the steam-operated means of production and trade and intensifying poverty for the workers who made that production and trade possible.

The Great Exhibition

Industrial growth and prosperity were applauded enthusiastically by such essayists as Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), who saw these changes as evidence of English superiority and the doctrine of progress. The exceptional expression of this self-congratulatory stance was the Great Exhibition (1850), an extravaganza of enormous proportions, where the riches of capitalism from around the world, including new inventions, foreign art, and tribal artifacts, were displayed, complete with fountains and tropical plant conservatories. Joseph Paxton (1803-1865), the landscape architect, designed the colossal exhibition hall, called the Crystal Palace, the world's first building of glass and cast iron, which was built in Hyde Park, London. Twenty thousand people attended the first day in May 1850 and six million had visited by the time the exhibition closed in October. While not without its critics, the Great Exhibition was a miracle to most, a confirmation of industry and creativity, of capitalism and growth, proof positive of human ingenuity and the superiority of the British Empire.

Industrialism's Effects on the Poor

But industrialism cast a smoggy shadow across the lives of working people. (The word smog is a contraction of smoke and fog, an English invention.) An impetus behind the massive population shift that produced urban slums was the series of Enclosure Acts, which through the 1840s and 1850s gradually curtailed the historical right of poor rural people to graze their animals on and mow grass from land belonging to great estates. As these estate lands were fenced off, the fundamental means by which rural poor survived was lost, and thousands were forced to abandon their cottages and head into urban areas in search of work. Overcrowding in squalid conditions gave rise to rapidly deteriorating urban centers. Rivers that provided water for drinking and cooking thickened with garbage and human waste; streets ran thick with mud, open privies emptied into allies, and coal burning blackened metropolitan buildings and dulled people's eyes and contaminated their lungs. Inevitably, epidemics erupted. Across the middle decades of the century, three major cholera epidemics claimed more than 100,000 lives, mostly among the poor. Tuberculosis alone claimed 70,000 per decade, though diphtheria and scarlet fever were also persistent threats.

Fear of contamination through imported goods, from proximity to slums, and disgust at putrid waterways and roads thick with waste made middle- and upper-class people pull back in self-defense and suspicion. An exception was the German-born, well-to-do Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), son of an industrialist who helped manage his father's cotton factory in Manchester and who actually went through slums taking a close look at what rich people avoided seeing. In his graphic description of Manchester and London in Conditions of the Working Class in England (1844), Engels bitterly called Manchester "the masterpiece of the Industrial Revolution." (Scenes Engels described from his first-hand examination of industrial slums appeared also in widely read serial novels, such as David Copperfield [1849] and Hard Times [1854] by Charles Dickens [1812-1870] and North and South [1854] by Elizabeth Glaskell [1810-1865].) Engels was also instrumental in supporting the work of another German, Karl Marx (1818-1883), who saw the inequities besieging the working classes and thought they predicted class warfare. Together, these two men evolved a theory of economic revolution, which Marx published in his pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto (1848).

The Woman Question

In addition to the explicit suffering among the working poor and indigent, another form of social inequity was increasingly experienced by middle-class women who were gradually moved from essential household work to elevated yet peripheralized positions of vanity and idleness. In eighteenth-century middle- and lower-class rural families, a husband and wife worked as a team, with clearly identified roles. Husbands and sons worked the fields, harvested crops, cared for farm work animals; their wives and daughters did the family work of caring for children, doing the housework, and preparing meals. These women also carded and spun, made clothing, did the canning, cared for poultry, and sold butter and eggs using the separate money they earned to buy other goods the farm economy could not produce, such as coffee and tea, salt and sugar, and needles and thread. If necessity required, women worked in the fields with their men, but oftentimes, woman's work was centered in the house and with the children. This teamwork between men and women shifted as the means of earning a living was removed from the land and workers began to trade their hours of labor in exchange for cash. As this change became more common, women of a certain class were able to stay at home and manage the household by directing servants and determining how family income was spent to acquire goods, once made at home and increasingly obtained from shops in town.

As a family rose economically, its income was spent in ways that redefined female responsibility and work and women's lives became increasing idle. Prospering families hired more servants, tutors for their sons and governesses for their daughters, upstairs and downstairs maids and kitchen staff. Indeed, female idleness was a status symbol, an outward proof of a man's economic success. Thus, a system evolved that came to be called Separate Spheres, in which the male-dominated world of work was distinct from the female-dominated domestic haven of repose and beauty. The man was associated with the world of business, trade, higher education, and law; the woman was associated with the home and hearth, with decorative arts, interior decorating, fashion, and music, her task to create a retreat in which the man recuperated after his exhausting day at work. While poor women worked elbow-to-elbow with poor men, middle- and upper-class women devoted their days to dressing, eating elaborate meals, and receiving and making calls. What must have looked like an envious lifestyle to female servants and laborers was a source of frustration and anger among some female intellectuals, some of whom wrote angrily, describing their lives as superfluous and trivial. One example is Cassandra (1852), the autobiography of Florence Nightingale. Another is conveyed in the portrait of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch (1871-72), the novel by George Eliot (pen name of Marian Evans, 1819-1880), who both understood the oppression of middle-class women and in her cosmopolitan London life as editor of the Westminster Review was quite free of it. The autobiographical novel Jane Erye (1847), by Charlotte Brontë, describes the conditioning of young females of wealth and the education and isolation of lower-income females who worked as governesses. These views of the limitations of women lives countered the idealized portrait Coventry Patmore (1823-1896) rendered in his poem, "Angel in the House" (1854).

John Stuart Mill: The Great Feminist

Few men championed the rights of women more personally and publicly than John Stuart Mill, who was educated in the subtle oppression of middle-class women during his long friendship with Harriet Taylor (1807-1858) and who signed a prenuptial agreement that once married to her he would never exercise his legal right over her, her body or her property. Decades ahead of his time, Mill intuited that gender roles were a matter of conditioning, that culture is determined by time and geographical location and not inborn. A man who acted on his convictions, Mill introduced in 1866 a parliamentary motion to extend the franchise to women, and he published The Subjection of Women in 1869, an essay that argues that all people ought to be free to evolve as far as they can and try to work as they want, letting ability not the biological fact of sex determine their lives. Many took part in the debate of what was called the "Woman Question," an exploration of the nature of gender and women's rightful place, and Mill, who also believed in birth control, occupied the most liberal end of that debate. Conflicting views on women's nature and roles continued throughout the nineteenth century. Suffrage societies were formed, arguments made for admitting women to the great English universities, and yet all women in Great Britain did not enjoy the franchise until universal suffrage was achieved in 1928.


Across the Victorian era another revolution occurred, witnessed at the time by a smaller population than the political and industrial ones, but nonetheless enormous in its long-range impact and ramifications. Among educated middle- and upper-class individuals gifted with inquiring, observant minds, people in university or well-to-do enough to devote leisure time and money to their chosen areas of interest, there was a burgeoning investigation of the natural world. Expeditions abroad that returned with specimens of strange animals and plants and reports of foreign peoples and their cultures elicited curiosity and further investigation. Fomenting this drive to know was the Victorian middle- and upper-class fascination with collecting, a pastime illustrated by Reverend Farebrother in Middlemarch, for example, who invites his gentleman guest into his library to see his display cases and drawers full of specimens. In their travels abroad, certain Victorians focused only on collecting specimens; in their lives at home, these individuals along with their stay-at-home colleagues reveled in walking tours aimed at finding unusual insects, flowers and leaves, stones, and shells. This avocation defined the lives of certain remarkable people who were devoted exclusively to finding, describing, and classifying. Four among them were the geologist William Smith (1769-1839), who amassed a huge collection of rock specimens (which ultimately went to the Victoria and Albert Museum) and single-handedly surveyed and mapped England; the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1910), who explored the Himalayas, the Far East, and the western United States and was director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew; the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), a self-labeled agnostic who specialized in comparative anatomy and defended Darwin's theories; and the philologist and etymologist James Murray (1837-1915), who spent almost thirty years compiling words for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, a project whose goal was to provide the derivation and definition of all English words and prevent the English language from changing.

Charles Darwin

Of all the extraordinary individuals whose nineteenth-century work contributed directly to twentieth-century scientific knowledge, arguably no name is better known in the early 2000s than that of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Born into a prosperous middle-class family and with esteemed medical physicians for his father and grandfather, young Charles enjoyed a life of comfort and leisure. Curious and astute, he seemed destined to take up the medical profession, but a stint at the University of Edinburgh proved him completely unworthy. Charles could not sit in a classroom and learn, and he balked at dissection and witnessing operations conducted without anesthesia. His professional prospects narrowed to that of country parson, and he obtained a divinity degree (1831) at Christ's College, Cambridge University. But his avocation at college and before was collecting and after hours and on weekends with friends, Darwin explored the natural world, sharing and examining insect and plant specimens. When the opportunity came for him to join the HMS Beagle on its five-year voyage around the world (1831-36), Darwin signed on as naturalist. He went aboard with his belief in Genesis, his intimate knowledge of William Paley's Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802), and a copy of Charles Lyle's new Principles of Geology (1831). He returned home to Kent to devote himself to five-years' worth of collected samples and spent the next twenty years studying them, publishing his Origin of Species in 1859.

Scientific revolution depends on many factors, chief among which are the perceptiveness and industriousness of its leading thinkers. Early on influenced by the population theories of economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), Darwin perceived natural selection and how survival is linked to the competition for available resources, and he had the sustained industry to compile two decades' worth of supporting data before he formulated his thesis. Then in his shy and self-effacing way, he shifted the world's concept of itself. In his last revision of Origin he notes the change in attitude among colleagues from a practically universal belief in the permanence of species to wide acceptance at least among naturalists of evolution and the transmutation of species. Darwin's universe operated by natural selection rather than design, and he spent the rest of his life publishing his ample research to prove it. (The 1953 discovery of DNA substantiated Darwin's theories.)

Crisis in Faith

While many applauded the industrial and political preeminence of Great Britain and specialists in various areas of science acknowledged great gains, a cloud of self-doubt and anxiety edged its way into Victorian consciousness. There was a growing sense of uncertainty, of things not being the way they were or should be, of faith weakened by the aftershocks of discovery and scientific theories. The confidence at mid-century that sung the praises of progress was muffled by an ill ease that strengthened with the decades. The hymn, "Abide with Me," written by the Reverend H. F. Lyte in 1847, expressed the worrisome pleading of many who feared a growing darkness. Some moved into the comforting if rigid arms of High Church Tractarianism; others like John Henry Newman (1801-1890) moved through a crisis of faith to convert to Roman Catholicism. Still others slipped away from established religion altogether, shifting from faith in church to faith in radical liberalism and socialism. The tectonic plates of belief had shifted, and people found their balance as well as they could.

The End of an Era

If Victoria herself had been asked, she might have confessed that the beginning of the end of her era occurred in 1861, when her Prince Albert died, and the English public might have remarked the death throes took the next forty years. Prince Albert's death, perhaps of typhoid or of cancer, robbed Great Britain of an intelligent and astute leader, one who formed a bridge between the monarchy and science and the arts, a man who was respected by intellectuals as he had respected them. The widowed queen withdrew from public service into a stern, reclusive mourning. Monarchy in the visible workings of government seemed to shrink. In addition, the Heir Apparent, the Prince of Wales Albert Edward, was a self-indulgent licentious man, who scorned education and indulged in outlandish fashion and exorbitant leisure during the many years he was excluded from real service.

The end of a century typically brings trepidation about what lies ahead, and as Victoria died in 1901 at the age of 81 and her eldest son ascended as Edward VII (1901-10), many had a dreary sense that they understood more about what was lost than what lay ahead. Thomas Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush" (1900) voiced this somber sense of desolation. This foreboding lingered on toward World War I (1914-18). Even as late as 1925, the eponymous Mrs. Dalloway in Virginia Woolf's stream-of-consciousness novel, could enter Bond Street reflecting on how slack decent society had become, what with women going out in public without their white gloves. But at that post-war date, everyone knew the Victorian era was over, though perhaps many could not pinpoint the moment when it had died.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2359070240