The Victorian Era: 1832-1901
I.  Historical Background

Dates: Queen Victoria did not take the throne until 1837, but the dawning of the Victorian period is traditionally marked with passage of the First Reform Bill in 1832.  1901 is the year of Victoria's death.

Social ills of industrialization
Widespread migration from rural areas to booming cities all over England progressed throughout the 19th century.  Despite concessions to the middle classes in the 1832 Reform Bill, conditions for the working classes in the industrializing cities continued to be appalling.  Vice and crime became commonplace in London and other cities, and men, women, and children were forced into 16-hour days in horrible working conditions for pitiful wages that kept them mired in poverty.  New housing construction was unregulated and shoddy, and slums of overcrowded ramshackle tenements were often made worse by inadequate water supply and little or no sanitation—proper disposal of sewage and garbage was non-existent, people lived in unhealthy proximity to pestilential, overcrowded graveyards, and there were deadly outbreaks of cholera in 1831, 1848, and 1853-54.  Severe economic depression caused the 1840s to be called "the hungry '40s," which were hungriest of all in Ireland after a devastating blight of the mainstay potato crop in 1845.

Utilitarianism and laissez-faire economics
Following Adam Smith's 1776 Wealth of Nations, the reigning economic theory in the first half of the 19th century held that capitalistic self-interest was the most important law of social action.  The role of the government was to protect "life, liberty, and property," and it was up to each individual to compete in complete freedom: those who worked hard and deserved it would be rewarded by economic stability.  Supporting Smith's laissez-faire capitalism was Thomas Malthus's 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, which argued that populations increase at geometric rates while means of subsistence increase only arithmetically: Malthus concluded that poverty, disease, starvation and war were necessary products of natural economic law.

Jeremy Bentham's 1780 (and 1789) Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation gave rise to the movement of English Utilitarianism, which held that right and wrong are determined by the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, and that pain and pleasure should be the sole considerations in determining people's actions.  The essence of utilitarianism was practicality: "there is no such thing as moral or immoral action; everything is either useful or not useful."  The utilitarians believed in Smith's theories of free competition, but they supported reforms to improve conditions for the lower classes because they thought "bad working conditions were bad for business."  Utilitarianism as championed by John Stuart Mill, who formed the Utilitarian Society in 1823, was a highly controversial movement, and Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens were among the most vocal in opposing utilitarian thinking.

Reform and "Chartism"
The 1832 Reform Bill expanded the vote to include small property owners and adjusted parliamentary districts to account for the growth in urban population.

The 1833 Factory Act restricted and regulated child labor in textile industries.

The 1834 Poor Law staffed, nationalized, and regulated workhouses for the destitute.  (Workhouses were intentionally harsh and degrading; they sheltered only the truly desperate, not the temporarily unfortunate—see Dickens's Oliver Twist.)

In 1846 the "Corn Laws" were repealed, reducing high tariffs on import grains and greatly expanding international trade.  This move made bread more available to the poor and benefited the merchant class at the expense of the agrarian, but it led England out of depression into a long period of prosperity.

The 1867 (Second) Reform Bill expanded male suffrage to include all working class men.

In 1836 the London Workingmen's Association drew up a "Charter" proposing universal male suffrage, removal of property qualifications for election to the House of Commons, payment of members of parliament, and the secret ballot.  The aim of the Chartists was to get working class representatives in parliament to redress the social ills of industrialization.  The Chartists were divided into two factions, one in favor of rational persuasion, the other for threats and force; this division ultimately led to the movement's demise.  Throughout the 1840s, when the other major European nations experienced bloody rebellion and revolution, Chartism aroused much fear of revolt and bloodshed in England.

The 1840s saw the formation of labor unions in England, and in 1848 Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto, which along with Marx's 1867 Das Kapital initiated the rise of communism  (Engels and Marx both lived in England and wrote about English social and economic conditions.)

Growth and Prosperity
The 1850s and 1860s were a time of great prosperity in England, and even the lower classes enjoyed higher wages and improving social conditions.  English trading ships dominated the seas, rapid development of railroads improved mercantile transport on land, and English imperialism spread England's economic dominion all over the globe.  England had been first to industrialize, and since the major European powers were preoccupied with nationalistic wars in Europe during the 1850s and 1860s, England remained the world's leading economic power through most of the 19th century.

Darwin and Evolution
There was religious controversy throughout the 19th century in England, from the early rise of the Anglican Evangelical party in response to revolutionary fervor imported from France in the 1790s, to the granting of legal equality to dissenters (non-Anglican Protestants), to the Catholic Emancipation in Ireland which gave rise to the "Tractarian" Sect and stormy ecclesiastical debates over church vs. personal authority in religious matters.  The early-century Evangelicalism led to the hypocritical, prudish "Victorianism" we often associate with this period.  Of course the greatest challenge to formal religion was the advent of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Though we often seem to think today that Charles Darwin came up with his monumental 1859 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and 1871 Descent of Man in a sort of scientific and intellectual vacuum, the debate over evolution had been developing throughout the 19th century.  Geologists and paleontologists had discovered fossil evidence of extinct life forms coexisting with humans that predated the 6000-year history related in the Bible.  In truth, theories of evolution were fairly common before Darwin (most notably those of Charles's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck); the pre-Darwin dispute typically centered on whether man was specially created by God as told in the bible, whether geologic changes were brought about by cataclysmic divine catastrophes ("catastrophism"), or whether species evolved by gradual change.  What Charles Darwin supplied to the theory of gradual evolution was the mechanism of how the changes in species were accomplished—natural selection of species with specialized traits, or "survival of the fittest."  Darwin's plausible substantiation of evolution theory, and his more disturbing 1871 theory that man descended from primates, of course gave organized religions a shock still felt today.

II. Trends in Victorian Literature

The Essay
More than in previous times, the Victorian Era was an age of important essay-writing.  Writers such as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, John Henry Newman, and John Ruskin were often able to earn a living writing entirely from writing essays and tracts on such topics as religion, politics, economics, history, and philosophy.

The poetry of the Victorian period is much more diverse and eclectic than that of the Romantic Era.  Excepting the Pre-Raphaelite poets (Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Christina Rosetti, William Morris, et al), most of the major English poets in the Victorian Era worked in relative isolation.  There was not the same sense of community among Victorian writers as there had been between Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Charles Lamb, for instance, or between the Shelley's, Byron, Leigh Hunt, and John Keats.  If form, subject matter, and technique, Victorian poetry developed along divergent paths.

The Novel
Over the nineteenth century the novel grew rapidly in popular and critical prominence.  Sir Walter Scott's Waverley Novels (1814-1831) enjoyed worldwide popularity the like of which was then unprecedented.  But during the romantic period the novel had a questionable reputation as frivolous entertainment for the undiscriminating masses.  In England, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, George Eliot, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy and a host of other Victorian novelists vaulted fiction into a position of ascendancy over poetry as the dominant literary genre by the end of the nineteenth century.

Part of the novel's rise in respectability came from its being a vehicle of important social criticism.  Novelists not only reflected their contemporary world in the more realistic mode of fiction, they brought attention to important social and political issues and influenced major reform and advancement.

Realism, the literary movement 
Increasingly as the century progressed, novels moved from romance and idealism to realism.  The term "realism" has many definitions relating to literature, but the literary movement of realism started in France and spread to England and America in the middle of the nineteenth century.  In a nutshell, realists tended to have democratic ideals and concentrated on "the common, the average, and the everyday" in their writing.  Realists thought that art should present  close imitation of reality, and they were less concerned with the traditional symmetry and plot than previous novelists.  "The surface details, common actions, and minor catastrophes of middle-class society constituted the chief subject matter of the movement.  Most of the realists avoided situations with tragic or cataclysmic implications.  Their tone was often comic, frequently satiric, seldom grim or somber" (Holman).  George Eliot was perhaps the purest of the British realists.

The movement of naturalism grew out of the realistic tradition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in essence naturalism "applies the principles of scientific determinism to literature."  Naturalist writers described people basically as animals in the natural world, beset by "environmental forces and internal stresses and drives, none of which they can control or understand."  Often, naturalistic novels seem to have a gloomy tone: although naturalist writers presented their material with greater objectivity than the earlier Victorians, their works tend to show protagonists as victims of an indifferent and unfeeling fate--"Nature" was not, could not have any concern for the destiny of humans individually or collectively.  Thomas Hardy is perhaps the purest of the British naturalists.