The Victorian Era

The Victorian Era
The Victorian Era
1832 (Passage of Reform Bill) or 1837 (Accession of Queen Victoria)
1901 (death of Queen Victoria)
Early Victorian (to 1848); Mid-Victorian (1848-1870); Late Victorian (1870-1901)
- major reorganization in social, political, industrial, economic, religious, and intellectual
spheres (the literal and metaphorical landscape—the “way of seeing”—was changed
drastically) – e.g. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is published in 1859
Dido building Carthage; or the Rise of
the Carthaginian Empire 1815
JMW Turner (1775-1851)
Sunrise with Sea Monsters
c. 1845
1832 Reform Act – changed the electorate in two crucial aspects
- elimination of “rotten boroughs” – areas of low population that retained voting
rights in House of Parliament (could easily be controlled by a single “patron” due
to low population and lack of secret ballot)
in Borough
in 1831
Duke of Rutland
Lord Clinton
Lord Huntingfield
East Looe
John Buller
Sir Mark Wood
Old Sarum
Earl of Caledon
Sir Fitzwilliam Barrington
Plympton Earle
Earl of Mount Edgcumbe
- plan to give newly booming industrial towns like Birmingham, Manchester and
Leeds representation in the House of Commons where they formerly had none
(unlike the rotten boroughs)
However, voting rights were still limited to property owning males
(men whose property was valued at a minimum of £10)
roughly 1 in 7 males had the right to vote (though the next Reform
Act, in 1867, would add some 1 million voters – those even further
down the economic scale – to the electorate....)
Queen Victoria – 1837-1901
- ironically (?) Victoria did not support female
suffrage, writing in 1870, "let women be what God
intended, a helpmate for man, but with totally
different duties and vocations.“
- how unthinkable?......women could not vote in
federal elections in the U.S. until 1920
The Victorian Era
- it was not necessarily the social/political/intellectual changes
themselves that were alarming, it was the speed at which they
could happen (and their seeming unalterability and inevitability)
- what was the new status of the “self”?
- could the Wordsworthian turn to a “restorative” nature function
to recoup/re-unite the “self” with the “world”? (Did the world
become “too much with” humanity? What was Wordsworth’s
response in his 1835 sonnet, “Steamboats, Viaducts, and
- industrialization (mechanization speeds production); enclosure
forces agrarian populations into cities; urbanization tries to
accommodate them; the middle class expands; consider the new
urban landscape
- as early as the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes foresees what he calls “the war of all against all” or
the “war of every man against every man”; man as a purely selfish creature driven to provide for
himself alone (Leviathan, 1651 – “leviathan” suggests an external power capable of controlling
this “war”)
- later political economists must reconcile this “war” with nascent industrialization (often
conflated with “progress”); how to provide for a “community” if each individual is concerned for
their own well-being alone (an idea of individualism that capitalism depends upon)
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776):
“Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he
can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is
promoting it [...] He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by
an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the
worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently
promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have
never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”
“Nobody but a beggar chuses [sic] to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellowcitizens.” (cf. Genesis iv. 9 “...Am I my brother’s keeper?”)
“What the capitalist system demanded was... a
degraded and almost servile condition of the mass
of the people, the transformation of them into
mercenaries, and of their means of labor into
capital.” – Marx and Engels, Capital, vol.1 (1867)
- i.e. - “the war of all against all”
- note Matthew Arnold’s response to the degraded
condition of humanity in Culture and Anarchy
Factory life
Culture and Anarchy (1869)
- appeals to “right reason” as that which would
lead to each individual’s “best self” (note the
Romantic ideal of the infinitely perfectible
human being/spirit)
- education (or “total perfection”) through
exposure to “the best which hath been thought
and said in the world”
- a balance of “scientific passion” and “social
passion” (or Hellenism and Hebraism) would
counter the purely “mechanical” – i.e. that
which was done for its own sake, as an end in
- the final ideal balance of “sweetness” (beauty)
and “light” (intelligence) – and these could
operate outside of class interests
Arnold’s great fear?
The Victorian Era
- positivism – the belief that all knowledge must come
through empirical (what William Blake called
“Newtonian”) deduction; i.e. “fact” from experiment
- Higher Criticism – strategies for biblical interpretation
that treated the bible as an historical and literary document;
argued for the bible as a collection of myths
- the bible was historical (i.e. subject to history;
derived from textual sources; employed literary
- it was not to be taken as an accurate historical
- the bible was not the inspired word of God and
therefore not a source for incontrovertible truth
- “the woman question” – the public, social struggle for
women’s rights; note the frequency with which women
authors struggle with voice and identity (“Cry of the
Children” Browning “speaks for” the poor and the
disenfranchised; in Aurora Leigh, the main character is a
woman poet)
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