1. The Victorian Age – Background History

1. The Victorian Age – Background History
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1. The Victorian Compromise

The word ‘Victorian’ derives from Queen Victoria who ruled for more than half a century and became the symbol of the nation. It was a complex and contradictory era: it was the age of progress stability and great social reforms. 

The Victorians were great moralisers, they were obliged to support certain values which offered solutions or escapes. They promoted a code of values based on personal duty, hard work, respectability and charity. 

These values were refined by the upper and middle classes who had the political and economic power. Respectability distiguished the middle from the lower classes and it was a mixture of morality, hypocrisy, severity and conformity to social standards. 

The family was a patriarchal unit where the husband represented the authority and the key role of women regarded the education of children and the managing of the house. 

Sexuality was repressed in its public and private forms, and prudery is the most extreme manifestation led to the denunciation of nudity in art and the rejection of words with sexual connotation in vocabulary. 

In the late 19th century expressions of civic pride and national fervor were frequent among the British. Patriotism was deeply influenced by the idea of racial superiority. There was a powerful belief that ‘races’ of the world were divided by fundamental physical and intellectual differences. The concept of ‘the white man’s burder’ was exalted in the works of colonial writers like Rudyard Kipling and the expansion of the empire was often regarded as a mission. 

Victorian emphasis upon moral conduct was influenced by Evangelicalism, inspired by the teachings of John Wesley (founder of Methodism). 

The Utilitarians and their theorist Jeremy Bentham neglected human and cultural values. The key words of their philosophy were: usefulness, happiness and avoidance of pain. 

Charles Dickens and John Stuart Mill were the major figures in the British empiricist tradition. They believed progress came from mental energy and gave great importance to education and art. 

In the middle phase of the Victorian Age, scientific discovery, geology and biology began to question the belief in a universe which was stable and transparent to the intellect. 

Moral and religious certainties were shaken by Charles Darwin’s scientific work ‘On the Origin of Species’. Man is the result of a process of evolution and that in the fight for life. This complex framework was mirrored in literary works and movements. 

2. The Age of Expansion and Reforms

Queen Victoria’s reign was the longest in the history of England (she came to the throne in 1837 and died in 1901) and the Victorian Age began with the First Reform Act. It was a period of unprecedented material progress, imperial expansion and also one of political developments and social reforms. 

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During her reign the two political parties were: the Liberals and the Conservatives who alternated in Government. Also Chartism, a working-class movement, played an important role in this period, drawing up the People’s Charter which called for social reforms and the extension of the right to vote. 

Social unrest didn’t prevent the increasing power of the middle class, the expansion of industry and trade. There were scientific and technological developments. Britain’s progress was symbolized by the Great Exhibition of 1851. Meantime workers began to come together in Trade Unions. In 1906 the Labour Party was born. 

The industrial development creates some problems: poors lived in segregated areas known as slums and they had terrible working conditions in polluted atmospheres. 

The Government promoted a campaign to clean up the towns devastated by cholera epidemics and TB. Modern hospitals were built. Other services were introduced such as water, gas and lighting, but also public houses, music halls, parks and stadiums. Even new Victorian institutions were prisons, police stations, boarding schools, town halls etc. In 1829-30 the Prime Minister Sir. Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police. 

The age of Queen Victoria allowed British power to extend into Asia, Africa, Central America and Oceania. 

Moreover they were proud of their empire and regarded colonial expansion as a mission. This attitude came to be known as ‘Jingoism’

3. The American Civil War

The American Civil War was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, a collection of eleven southern states that left the Union in 1860 and 1861. The conflict began primarily as a result of the long-standing disagreement over the institution of slavery. 

The reasons for the Civil War were disagreements over slavery, states versus federal rights, the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the economy. After the inauguration of Lincoln in 1861, the South succeeded and the Civil War officially started with the Battle at Fort Sumter.

4. The Victorian Novel

During the Victorian Age for the first time there was a communion of interests and opinions between writers and their readers. 

Novels became the most popular form of literature and the main form of entertainment since they were read aloud within the family. 

The novelists felt they had a moral and social responsibility to fulfill: they aimed at reflecting the social changes that had been in progress for a long time, such as the Industrial Revolution, the struggle for democracy and the growth of towns. 

From a structural point of view it is possible to divide Victorian novels into 3 groups:

  1. The Early-Victorian novel (Charles Dickens) dealt with social and humanitarian themes and expressed the ideas of the age;
  2. The Mid-Victorian novel was linked to the Romantic and Gothic traditions and to the psychological vein (Bronte sisters and Stevenson);
  3. The Late-Victorian novel was about the European development of ‘Naturalism’ (Hardly Wilde) and the sense of dissatisfaction. 

Victorian novels followed the same pattern with some exceptions. 

There were the most common features: 

  • the voice of the omniscient narrator provided a comment on the plot and a rigid barrier between right and wrong;
  • the setting chosen by Victorian novelists was the city; the main symbol of industrial civilisation was the expression of anonymous lives and lost identities;
  • the plot was long and complicated;
  • Victorian writers created characters and achieved analysis of inner lives;
  • retribution and punishment were found in the final chapter.

5. Victorian Poetry: the Dramatic Monologue

During the Victorian Age poetry was concerned with social reality and expressed the intellectual and moral debate of the epoch. The new figure of the poet was of a ‘prophet’ and a ‘philosopher’ able to reconcile faith and progress with a coloring of romance rich with materialism elements of modern life. 

The major poets of the age were Alfred Tennyson was ‘Poet Laureate’ by Queen Victoria. 

Dramatic monologues followed the same pattern with alterations. 

There are main features: 

  • being narrative poems;
  • use of the first singular person ‘I’; 
  • revelation of the speaker’s crucial moment of crisis;
  • interest in human psychology;
  • use of pronouns, verbs and expressions;
  • use of dramatic language;
  • different points of view and absence of a unique truth was the exact opposite of the Victorian love for certainties and paved the way to new possibilities for the best poetry of the Modern Age.

6. The Victorian Comedy

New theatres were built in London and in other cities during the Victorian Age

They were more comfortable and luxurious and the use of painted scenery and the new gas-lit stages were capable of producing more ‘realistic’ effects. 

Here are the most common features of Victorian Comedy:

  • brilliant, sparkling dialogue;
  • humorous witty remarks to expose the foolish behavior and hypocrisy of the upper class;
  • use of a provocative form as a vehicle for presenting the playwright’s views on social institutions and human experience;
  • caricatures of social types;
  • long, detailed stage directions containing information that is not in the dialogue. They established the background scenery and the time of action, they supplied an identity card of the characters, they illustrated aspects of their personality, they described actions or gestures and they conveyed the author’s comments.

7. Aestheticism and Decadence

The Aesthetic Movement developed in the universities and intellectual circles in the last decades of the 19th century. Originating in France, with T. Gautier, it reflected the sense of frustration and uncertainty of the artist. 

The bohemian embodied his protest against the monotony and vulgarity of bourgeois life. This doctrine was imported into England by J. Mcneill Whistler an Aesthetic Movement can be traced back to the Romantic poet John Keats but also in D.G. Rossetti, John Ruskin, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. 

A number of features can be distinguished in the works of the decadent artists:

  • evocative use of the language of the senses;
  • excessive attention to the self;
  • hedonistic attitude;
  • perversity in subject matter;
  • disenchantment with contemporary society;
  • absence of didactic aim.

8. Realism

Literary realism is a literary movement that represents reality by portraying mundane, everyday experiences as they are in real life. It depicts familiar people, places, and stories, primarily about the middle and lower classes of society. Literary realism seeks to tell a story as truthfully as possible instead of dramatizing or romanticizing it.

Literary realism is part of the realist art movement that started in nineteenth-century France and lasted until the early twentieth century. It began as a reaction to eighteenth-century Romanticism and the rise of the bourgeois in Europe. 

Works of Romanticism were thought to be too exotic and to have lost touch with the real world.

The roots of literary realism lie in France, where realist writers published works of realism in novels and in serial form in newspapers. The earliest realist writers include Honoré de Balzac, who infused his writing with complex characters and detailed observations about society, and Gustave Flaubert, who established realist narration as we know it today.

Literary realism existed, in some form, in England before the genre was fully defined. Some critics credit the first British novelists, like Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, as realists, because they wrote about issues related to the middle class.

Once realism took shape, George Eliot published Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life in 1871, which is considered the most famous work of literary realism to come from the United Kingdom. The genre developed in parallel with the U.K.’s new middle class and authors took the opportunity to echo their interests and concerns. 

There are a few different types of literary realism, each with its own distinct characteristics:

1. Magical realism. A type of realism that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Magical realism portrays the world truthfully plus adds magical elements that are not found in our reality but are still considered normal in the world the story takes place in. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967) is a magical realism novel about a man who invents a town according to his own perceptions. Learn more about magical realism here.

2. Social realism. A type of realism that focuses on the lives and living conditions of the working class and the poor. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862) is a social novel about class and politics in France in the early 1800s.

3. Kitchen sink realism. An offshoot of social realism that focuses on the lives of young working-class British men who spend their free time drinking in pubs. Room at the Top by John Braine (1957) is a kitchen sink realist novel about a young man with big ambitions who struggles to realize his dreams in post-war Britain.

4. Socialist realism. A type of realism created by Joseph Stalin and adopted by Communists. Socialist realism glorifies the struggles of the proletariat
 by Fyodor Gladkov (1925) is a socialist-realist novel about the struggles of reconstructing the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution.

5. Naturalism. An extreme form of realism influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Naturalism, founded by Émile Zola, explores the belief that science can explain all social and environmental phenomena. 
A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner (1930), a short story about a recluse with a mental illness whose fate is already determined, is an example of naturalism.

6. Psychological realism. A type of realism that’s character-driven, focusing on what motivates them to make certain decisions and why. 
Psychological realism sometimes uses characters to express commentary on social or political issues. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866) is a psychological realist novel about a man who hatches a plan to kill a man and take his money to get out of poverty—but feels immense guilt and paranoia after he does it. Gissing, Arnold Bennett, and George Moore.

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