One of the most important passages of the history of Britain is the Victorian Period. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was the first English monarch to see her name given to the period of her reign whilst still alive. The Victorian Period revolves around the political career of Queen Victoria and it started with her coronation in 1837. Many historians opine that the period should be named "Albertine", after the name of Prince Albert whom Victoria married in 1840. It was actually his rectitude that set the tone of the era.
Though he did not live long (he died in December, 1861), his philosophy was sacrosanct to Victoria and his wishes and way of life continued long after his death till 1901. There are some other historians who argue that the Victorian age actually begun in 1832 with the passage of the Reform Act 1832. The Victorian Period was preceded by the Regency Period and succeeded by the Edwardian period.
The Age was characterised by impetus change and developments in every sphere of life- from science and technology to medicine, from population, culture and literature to architecture; the period saw the beginning of a new economic dawn as a result of the Industrial Revolution. These rapid developments and transformations deeply influenced the British society in particular and the whole humanity in general. The Victorian Age also saw the emergence of a new literature that was more concerned with social reforms.
Important Features Of The Victorian Age:
Queen Victoria was the longest serving monarch in British history ruling almost 64 years. The Victorian Age was so long that it had many phases. During her reign, England experienced huge transformation in every field resulting in great expansion of wealth, power, and culture. But these developments were not smooth. Within a few years after ascending to the throne, the young queen faced many problems like epidemics (cholera, typhus), crop failures and economic collapses, riots over enfranchisement and the repelling of the Corn Law. But she overcame all the early jitters and ushered in a golden age for England.
Scientific & Technology and Engineering:
The Victorians invented the modern idea of "invention"-the concept that human beings can create solutions to problems faced by them. The period is marked by many great scientists and thinkers and their legendary inventions. Though the seeds of the great Industrial Revolution were already sown earlier, it was during this period that it gained ultimate momentum. The revolution led to the expansion of the railways to wider areas thus connecting even the remotest areas to cities. It also led engineering fields to a great leap forward. The spinning wheel became outdated, new factories were set up at breakneck speed; people migrated to cities by large numbers resulting in the growth of slums and over crowded apartments. It also created a new aristocracy class in the society -the industrialists.
The progress in science also resulted in significant development in medicine during the heydays of the Victorian era. Several new, specialised hospitals were established. These hospitals began to employ advanced surgical treatments due to pioneering breakthroughs in anaesthetics and antiseptics.
Politics and Ideology:
Politics was very important to people of the Victorian Age. As in science and technology, the Victorians also created a host of important innovations and changes in the field of ideology, politics and society. New ideas like democracy, liberalism, socialism, labour unions, Marxism, feminism and other modern movements that were to change the whole world in future, took form during this period. Darwin, Marx, Freud and other great thinkers not only experimented with modern social problems but they also attempted to find solutions to them. The Victorians were liberal in their hearts and wanted to spread their ideas throughout the British Empire.
The era is famous for great explorations and expansion of the British Empire in large areas of Asia and Africa. The British Navy went virtually unchallenged in the whole of the nineteenth century. But queen Victoria remained bothered about the Irish problem throughout her reign and faced humiliation as well as failure at the Boer War.
Society, Religion and Institutions:
English society was divided into three distinct classes prior to the Industrial Revolution-the Church and Aristocracy, Middle Class and the Poor Working Class. The Clergy and Aristocrats were the most privileged and yielded great power and had all the wealth. They didn't have to pay taxes. The middle class consisted of factory owners, lawyers, engineers, merchants, traders and other professionals. Though some of them had huge wealth still they did not enjoy enough privileges, which was a cause for resentment amongst them. On the other hand, the lower class consisted of the working people in both urban and rural areas. They lead a very sub standard life. The middle and lower section of the society were also burdened with numerous taxes that made their life miserable.
The Industrial Revolution brought about a sea of change into the structure of the British society. Due to the spread of the railway network into remote areas, more and more people migrated into cities and they found work in new factories which were rapidly growing by numbers. This new phenomenon along with the emergence of new ideologies like democracy, liberalism, socialism and trade unionism created hostility between the upper class and the lower class. People of the middle class and lower class were demanding more privileges and started to fight for their legitimate rights. The transformation also saw the creation of a new "under class" sometimes referred to as the "sunken people" who lived in slums. Growth of wide spread prostitution also posed a great threat to the society. According to the 1851 census, there were around 75,000 prostitutes in England out of a total population of 18 million. This problem is referred to as “The Great Social Evil" in British history.
Victorian England was deeply religious. During this period, families were generally large and patriarchal. Habits of hard work, respectability, deference and religious conformity were taught to the new generation. People were frequent Church goers and read the Bible regularly. But at the later stages of Queen Victoria's reign, doubts were raised against institutional Christianity or organised religion especially after Charles Darwin published his famous book "The Origin Of Species" in 1859. Many people started to question the role of the Church and the authority and privileges it enjoyed. They opined that the Clergy should concentrate on religion only.
Education during the Victorian era was not equal- between the sexes and between the classes. While children from Aristocratic families enjoyed all the benefits of going to famous educational institutions like Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, Westminster, Cambridge, Oxford and others, those from the lower class had to be content with low quality education. Female education was almost absent and they were basically taught languages, dancing, drawing, music, sewing, embroidery, accounts etc. at home.
When Victoria became queen, English literature seemed to have entered upon a period of lean years with the death of Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Byron and Scott. But the leanness is more apparent than real. Soon great literati consisting of Tennyson, Barret, Browning, Carlyle, Ruskin, Dickens, Disraeli appeared on the scene and heralded a new age in the British Literary history that was to rank along with Elizabethan and Romantic periods.
Victorian Culture and Architecture:
The apparent change that took place during the reign of Victoria bonded together modernity and cultural continuity and led to the Battle of the Styles between Gothic and Classical ideas. This had been reflected in Charles Dickens' famous novel “A Tale of Two Cities". Gothic ideas were popular as they epitomised communal and inclusive social values, as opposed to Classicism, which was considered to epitomise mechanical standardisation. The period saw Gothic revival, Neoclassicism, Renaissance revival, Neo-Greek and Folk style houses in the field of architecture. The invention of photography greatly influenced in the works of artists and changed their outlooks.
The Victorian era started with optimism and rapid economic growth but later on it paved the way for the disintegration of the legendary British Empire. Today, the nineteenth century is associated with the Industrial Revolution, great economic boom and prosperity, Protestant work ethics, family values, religious and institutional faith.
"The time for levity, insincerity, and idle babble and play-acting, in all kinds, is gone by; it is a serious and grave time"- Thomas Carlyle
"All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their own peril."-Oscar Wilde.
Original Authors: Bishal Chakma
Edit Update Authors: M.A.Harris
Updated On: 15/07/2008