The Victorian Era

Michaela Pernetti and Rachel Wong


The Victorian Era was one that many people view as a time of poverty and struggle. However, it is important to remember that those at the time praised the idea of honor and sexual propriety. While there was a big loss, the nation at the time was actually one of the wealthiest at the time. People are also not even clear on when this era started and ended, thus there was some cultural overlap with the Romantic Period. However, most would agree that it most likely started in the 1830s when the monarchy switched over from William IV to Victoria (498-499).

Many changes occurred during this time, such as the growth of the population and where they tended to spread out. There were 11 million people at the beginning of the century, and by the end, there were 37 million. At the beginning of the century about 75% of the population was located in rural areas, and by the end of the century there was about the same percentage but they relocated to urban areas (499-500).

There were other changes such as new classes and even more luxuries.This era very famously marks the rise of the “middle class.” The males in this class were granted some political rights, including representation in Parliament due to the Reform Bill of 1832. However, despite this representation, most males in this class still could not vote. Despite the struggles that people faced in the middle class, new goods were brought from steamships and other luxuries such as the telegraph and daily newspapers were very abundant in the houses of the wealthier class. There was also the mark of the first World’s Fair, known as The Great Exhibition of 1851. This showcased consumer goods and other technologies that were being invented at the time (501).

On the opposite spectrum was the class of people that were unemployed and lived in crowded industrial cities. This made up a majority of the population, as about 70% of it was considered poor. In response to this poverty was the New Poor Law which separated “deserving” from “undeserving” people. Those that were deserving considered of elderly and physically infirm people, while undeserving were able-bodied and unemployed people. The poor were able to receive assistance in public workhouses as a result of how they were classified. Bad housing conditions caused a lot of illness and disease amongst the poor, and as a result of this 140,000 people died from various cholera epidemics (501).

Those that were working also faced a lot of dangerous conditions. A lot of the literature at the time, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children”, spoke about underage child employment. The Factory Acts worked to fix the child employment of children under the age of nine. Other writers that chose to comment on the working class’s conditions consisted of Robert Blincoe, Charles Dickens, and Ellen Johnson (501-502).

The rise of Utilitarianism is also a huge part of this era. Utilitarianism is essentially seeing that the happiness and the best outcome for the greater good should determine what is right and wrong. Two philosophers that were known to fully support this way of thinking were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism also inspired reform of social policy, such as the New Poor Law as mentioned before (502).

Other struggles that people faced during this era consisted of problems with crops as well as religion and gender equality. There were major crop failures in the 1840s when even bread could not be afforded by the working class. Corn Laws were passed in order to have tariffs on imported grains, however, these laws were repealed in 1846. The Potato Famine also occurred, and help was sent out to those affected. However, once the government changed this help stopped and this started the Irish independence movement. This caused other works to be written, such as Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli which commented on the disparity between the rich and poor. The Morning Chronicle daily newspaper also played a big role in that there were lots of social commentaries made and published in this newspaper by Henry Mayhew which helped spur social change. During this time the Trade Union Act of 1871 legalized unions and strikes called for publicity on what was happening in the work field. The patriarchy also caused many issues for women at the time, as the marriage status of women was finally being questioned. Women were seen as the property of their husbands once wed, and literary works such as “The Enfranchisement of Women” by Harriet Taylor Mill and The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill commented on this. The Victorian era also emphasizes family and the idea that a family consists of a male breadwinner and a female helpmeet (504-510).

In terms of going abroad, there was lots of Indian resistance to British soldiers that went abroad. Many were executed for intruding on others land. However, many writers used this as an opportunity to document their own experiences from travel. Mary Kingsley wrote books such as Travels of Africa and West African Studies about her travels. There was also opposition to the Christian faith and church, also known as religious skepticism. Charles Darwin wrote works such as On the Origin of Species and Descent of Man which embodied the idea of rejecting the Christian ideal of people being created in God’s image. With opposition to Christianity came the growing of Evangelicalism. This form of religion is not very hierarchical, it is anti-Catholic, and it attracts both the middle and the working class (510-517).

The Victorian period also resulted in significant changes in cultural trends. There was a distinct increase in visual appreciation and entertainment, and exhibitions such as traveling shows and circuses, sporting events, and holiday resorts became part of popular culture. The theater became more entertaining due to an improved quality of visual effects, and music halls, museums, and shopping arcades became respectable and affordable pastimes. All of this was due to a growing amount of disposable income and leisure time throughout the middle class (520-521).

Mass visual culture was also aided in part by the invention of photographs and cinema. Victorian visual artists, much like their literary counterparts, focused on depicting relatable scenes of middle class hardships or scenes of domestic harmony. New, inexpensive ways of mass producing art prints meant that pictures could be sold cheaply to a wide audience (523).

The largest technological advancement of the period was the adaptation of the steam engine for use in the production of coal, textiles, heavy metals, and printing presses. Additionally, railway steam locomotives and the opening of the London underground revolutionized travel (524-525).

Victorian literary and visual artists alike shared a fascination with and reverence for the middle ages. The pre-Raphaelite brotherhood returned to painting in the medieval manner, while the idealization of the middle ages and freedom of thought was shared by many writers. Also during this time, gender roles returned to being seen as “natural” and “innate,” as women were expected to be quiet, beautiful, pure, and selfless, while men were expected to display the characteristics of a chivalric medieval male. The century’s close resulted in new emerging styles of masculinity and femininity in literature– women began wearing men’s clothes and debating in public, while men were depicted as being more feminine (526-531).

Realism was very popular in the Victorian era, as artists and writers alike centered on everyday experiences and the struggles of an ordinary individuals. The Victorian novel was popularized during this time. These novels contained multiple plot lines and a range of characters and typically presented a social commentary on the cohesiveness of various social communities in a newly industrialized, commercializing society. Taste for subjects and approaches shifted regularly, so there was a lot of room for experimentation! One unique mode of publication was serialization, where serial installments of a few chapters would be released monthly and sold in parts or as part of a literary magazine. Realism’s dominance in literature eventually came under attack by a group under the umbrella term “aestheticism” (531-533).

Due to the reign of the Victorian model, other modes of literature took a back seat during this era. One major advancement in poetry was the further development of the dramatic monologue. This period wasn’t really known for having great stage drama or comedies, and audiences tended to prefer light hearted melodramas. In the realm of nonfiction, writers fully embraced the task of educating the public, and wrote about everything from scientific developments to religious controversies to economics and politics (533-539).

During this era, the English language continued to expand and new words entered the vocabulary, especially words to name aspects of human nature that were being seen in new ways or acknowledged for the first time. The Oxford English Dictionary was founded during this period. Additionally, an American-led movement to simply phonetic spellings was met by British and Canadian resistance (539-541).

Looking back to the Victorian era, we can connect some of the ideals to our own modern times. For instance, some of the radical ideas of gender identity and expression introduced toward the end of the Victorian era remain at the forefront of today’s social issues. Additionally, the Oxford English Dictionary continues to flourish as a very reputable source.





Introduction to Literary History and Interpretation Copyright © by Michaela Pernetti and Rachel Wong. All Rights Reserved.

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