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Conventionally, the Victorian age overlaps with the reign of Queen Victoria, from her coronation, in 1837, to her death, in 1901. Geopolitically, it is the age of the British Empire which occupied one third of the world and declared it to be British. From its insular headquarters, the British Empire extended in Asia to Afghanistan and Tibet, covering the whole of India, which was thirty-four times the size of England; by 1877 actually Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. The British Empire extended to Hong-Kong, New Zealand and Australia (where Magwitch in ”Great Expectations” or Hetty Sorrell in ”Adam Bede” by George Eliot and many a real Victorian villain got transported in a kind of surrogate of a criminal’s execution). The British Empire also extended to Canada, 40 times the size of England. In Africa, the British Empire occupied Nigeria and Egypt to the North, after the Purchase in 1875 of the Suez Canal, and went as far down as the tip of the continent where it conquered South Africa after the Boer War, in the 1890s. (A clear outline of the British conquest of the world in the Victorian age is offered by G. M. Trevelyan, in his ”Illustrated History of England”, 1962, translated into Romanian in 1975. See Book 6, 3rd Chapter).
Britain’s geopolitical power in the 19th century was due to its being the first industrialised country in the world, as a result of the scientific and technological progress it had been involved in since the end of the 18th century. In the span of a single century the history of science unites in Britain the names of James Watt, Michael Faraday, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, George Boole, James Clerk Maxwell. The technological advances include the invention of the telegraph, the intercontinental cable, the generalisation of steam power (with the large scale implementation of the steam hammer, the steam turbine, the steam loom and the steam plough) or the universal milling machine; the communication industry was revolutionized by the invention and the world-wide spreading of the telegraph, the intercontinental cable or photography and by the rotary printing press; land transportation developed tremendously with the building in Britain of the first successful railroad system in the world – followed by the construction of the first underground railway system, the Metropolitan, in 1860; the electric lamp increased the urbanization standards, too; the commodity industry was changed by the introduction of the vacuum cleaners, and the war industry ”thrived” after the invention of the automatic guns, the shell gun and the Winchester gun (cf. 1991 Information Please Almanac, Houghton Mifflin, Boston).
All this spelled progress, Progress with a capital letter, and proposed England as ”the greatest and most civilized people”.
At a closer look at the age, progress meant a great deal of environmental change: the change of the countryside and the city alike. Quite often, a plain would be spectacularly transformed into a canyon by the sprouting railways which cut through meadows in depth or cut tunnels through the mountains: all these site changes amounted to a special kind of environmental events thought worthy of being celebrated in work songs about the navies (or railway workers) and their prowess in taming nature (as the theme park folklore demonstrates today, in the most recent and fashionable kind of museographical exhibition in Britain, aimed at recreating the commoners’ everyday life in the regional British near past). Urbanization became overriding, with the displacement of the rural population in the mass. In literature, this was reflected by the nostalgic rememberance of the rural past in quite a number of success, or simply representative, Victorian novels, such as the majority of George Eliot’s novels or the rural gentry and family chronicles that spawned into a picturesque Victorian genre.
Sociologically , the Victorian age was the first mass age in history, the precursor, therefore, of the 20th century mass society. The main difference from the 20th century mass society, however, resided in the respect paid to the middle-class owners of property and their sense of prosperity, with the leaders regared by Victorian standards as heroic protagonists of progress. Consequently, the dominant middle-class ethics of progress involved materialistic optimism (the cult of what can be seen and achieved with skill, passion and pride), mercantilism and the hypocritical praise of excessive pragmatism and of the ”virtues” of a newmade class which were brilliantly satirised by Dickens in the description of the Veneerings at the beginning of his last finished novel ,”Our Mutual Friend” (Book the First, Chapter II). The upper mobility of the middle classes also and especially involved a considerable amount of cultural ambition too, an urge for intensive instruction of the ”bran new” leaders; culture will therefore be ”translated” to make it accessible to the understanding of the middle-class average everyman, and the major effect of this was the massification of culture. Culture will be used and administered in the Victorian age of utilitarianism as a kind of community good or public service, it will be wrapped in a didactic, widely communicative finish.
Politically, the Victorian or liberal state was essentially non-interventionist as it was dominated by the mercantile regulations of the free market. It was based on the political doctrine of ”laissez-faire” that gave free reign to the private capitalistic enterprise without regard to the public welfare. Thus, the liberal legislation was double-edged: protectionist, for the capitalistic, entrepreneurial class and impoverishing when not simply indifferent or even oppressive towards the working class. From a populist or social-democratic viewpoint this could be seen as a ”cruel” state. Two sets of examples will be offered in what follows, for these two defining Victorian socio-political trends: on the one hand, the liberal laws that defined the age as an age of reformism meant to empower the new whig class as typified by William Ewart Gladstone’s Liberal Party; on the other hand, the social unrest caused by the same political whiggery which this otherwise triumphant age managed or failed to appease.
Firstly, the liberal laws which enfranchised the man of property were called ”Reform Bills”, since they completely changed the voting qualifications at the beginning from nominal to real property qualifications by eliminating the old ”rotten” boroughs and the appointment of constituencies by royal charter. The Reform Bill of 1832 enfranchised all the male owners of property worth at least 10 pounds in annual rent; the Reform Bill of 1867 doubled the number of voters; and the 1884 Bill brought about the universal male enfranchisement. The parliamentary battle was fought throughout the 19th century between the representatives of the two political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, with William Ewart Gladstone, nicknamed ”The Old Man” at the head of the Liberal Party and four times at the head of the executive as the British Prime Minister, between 1868-74, 1880-85, 1885-6 and 1892-3; the other mandates were held for the Conservatives by Sir Robert Peel, first, then by Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria’s friend and British Prime Minister between 1874-1880. The two parties are also distinguished by their foreign policy, in so far as the Tories advocated a ”big England”, imperial policy, while the Liberals were the ”little England” party.
Between the two of them, the Tories and the Liberals carried through the property-strenghthening and free-trade measures required by a successful political machine meant to sustain the kind of progress associated with the British power in control of a newly industrial economy and a modern empire. Thus, in 1846, the old Corn laws were repealed, which had offered protectionist tariffs for British agriculture. This was the pre-requisite for effectively securing free trade, by 1860. The year 1846 also saw the achievement of Catholic Emancipation, which meant the modernization of the British polity now capable of making allowance for other than its own Reformed, Anglican political formations . A similar modernization embraced the British polity services and institutions, thanks to the measures passed by Gladstone’s administration during the 1868-1874 mandate. (See the relevant chapter in G. M. Trevelyan’s ”Illustrated History of England” for a pertinent discussion of the Liberal modernization of the British institutions, including the religious and military ones). In education, reformism meant that essential education was generalised, so that the 1870 Education Act opened the way to generalised literacy in Britain. By 1871, the abolition of the university tests virtually transformed the leading universities of Oxford and Cambridge into lay, metropolitan, ”universalist” universities. The quality of urban life was improved by reforms in the fields of public administration and municipal management. As a result, what we know today as roughly modern city life became a reality translated into higher living standards and the increased number of commodities. The Victorian periodical, serialised pamphlets, the formal discourses, not to mention the fiction and satirical documents of the age retain numerous traces of the eventful addition to cities of public baths and laundries, museums, libraries (public reading rooms), parks, public gardens and later trams, gas and electricity facilities or water networks.
Secondly, the poverty problem which represented the reverse of the great imperial and colonial coin, included in the Victorian age the passing of a number of poor laws, such as the 1834 Poor Law Amendment which created the workhouses or prisons in disguise for containing what was considered to be, at the time, the social scum of the street villains. The poor street population literally haunted the Dickensian imaginary in so many of his youthful novels. The Chartist Movement of 1836–1854 proved that beyond the middle-class modern paradise there reigned supreme social chaos. For almost the entire first half of the age, the Victorian masses demonstrated in the streets and sent petitions of rights (charts) signed by ever-increasing numbers of people to the leaders of the nation but they were never listened to (the 1840 Chart, for example, was signed by over three million three hundred people. This prolonged street demonstration reminds one of the long demonstration for democracy in Bucharest, in the Piata Universitatii Square at the beginning of the 1990s); under Chartist inspiration, there were organised strikes, such as the first general strike of 1842 but all these got practically nowhere and had to continue their ”fight” by the better organised trade-unionist movement of the 1860s and 1870s. This proved that there exisited virtually ”two nations” in Britain, as Benjamin Disraeli put it, the rich and the poor. The rich passed and enacted quite a big number of consistent laws for the poor, but it appears that the former were too busily engrossed in their business to devote enough attention or resources to rescuing the poor. The Factory Acts of the period 1833–1878, however, eliminated child labour and gross overworking in factories. Some support was granted also by the government’s Public Health Acts of 1871 – 1875 which granted some measure of medical assistance to the poor as well. Still, for all the echoes of the social unrest and unhealthy living conditions of the poor in the printed Victorian media, including the literature of the age, the 1880s saw the rise of more radical social movements, such as the wide-spread socialism of the Fabian brand or the utopian socialism of the intellectuals (cf. Martin Day: ”A History of English Literature. 1837 to the Present”, Doubleday, New York, 1964, the chapter on Victorian prose) and of Marxian communism, some time after the publication of the Communist Party Manifesto by Karl Marx, in 1859. By 1903, the Socialist Labour Party had also been formed as a potential opposition force on the political stage.
Culturally and critically, the main question remains to what extent Great Britain was great in the Victorian age, when regarding it from outside the magic circle of its own, self-sufficient statement about its greatness in being ”the greatest and most civilized people”. The cultural arguments pro-greatness would include its generalised mass literacy and its modernization of education, its quality journalism reflected in the wide circulation of prestigious magazines (such as the Blackwood’s Magazine, the Cornhill Magazine, the Edinburgh Review, the Westminster Review or the Athenaeum), out of a total of 115 periodicals started in London only. One monthly issue of a literary periodical would contain scientific or general critical essays, poetry and serialised fiction. Statisticaly speaking, for a wide circulation magazine totalising 20,000 copies, there existed about five people who would read each copy, which means that the readership amounted to one hundred thousand per issue, people who kept themselves up –to- date with fiction, poetry and the essay, which form the subject of these lectures in Victorian literature. We can assume, therefore, for the profile of the age, that it was endowed with very strongly informed - and ample - currents of opinion and shared learning or entertainment. This recommends the Victorian age as one of the most paradoxically learned modern ages. It was modern in so far as it was a mass communication age and learned in as much as it entertained itself with encyclopaedic conversationalism and serious debate in the widely-read essays; with encyclopaedic fiction (in Northrop Frye’s terms, encyclopaedic literature being any successfully comprehensive, all-encompassing fictional forms functioning as ambitious totalisations of the basic historical knowledge and experience on a given topic at a given moment - and the novel or the great poetic epic tends to be precisely that). In poetry, the Victorian age entertained itself with a rather ample poetry of ideas that the age had inherited from its immediate precursors, the Romantics; in fact one label attached to the Victorian poets was that of ” the post-romantics” (cf. the title of a book edited by the poet Donald Thomas in the 1970s; this casebook is a typically British dossier of criticism and reception of the Victorian poets Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Clough and Swinburne in the 19th and the 20th century; had it not been successfully stolen from the British Council Library in Bucharest, it would still be available today on its shelves for the wide reading public). In the novel, the Victorian popular spirit proved equally ambitious and ”eminent”, i.e., serious and didactic in its outreach, tone and subject-matter. When we read the fully realistic existential dossiers of the novelistic prose we are invited to make major sense of the fictive life presented by Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontë sisters or George Eliot; the same is true for Thomas Hardy’s naturalistic and universal plus almost, avant-la-lettre, ample existentialist case studies. A similarly didactic tone pervades the ”interminable briefs” (as Dickens put it in his introductory chapter to ”Bleak House”) of the social cases and ideological debates presented in the essays by Thomas Carlyle, John Henry Newman, John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold or Walter Pater. In fact it is one function of the essay to popularize a multitude of traditions, some of which are advocated, like in a royal court room or like in the Greek Areopagus or Roman forum, while others are more or less ceremoniously rejected. The Victorian essay student is suddenly cast in the reading role of a judge or a scholar of medievalism, the Renaissance, classicism - which Matthew Arnold terms Hellenism -, of Hebraism as another name given by Matthew Arnold to the Puritanical Victorianism of his day, of romanticism, or hedonism as revived by the painters and poets of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood or at Oxford by Walter Pater, of aestheticism and socialism as invented in and for the Victorian Brits by John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and William Morris. A direct, dramatic discussion of the same ”-isms” as cultural fashions or phenomena occurs in George Bernard Shaw’s plays, in the novel ”Middlemarch” by George Eliot, or in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s and Robert Browning’s poetry, in the species called ”the dramatic monologue”, one of the favourite Victorian literary species in addition to the idyll or the long allegorical poem.
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