The Historical Background – Queen Victoria (1819 – 1902), daughter of the Duke of Kent, came to the throne of England at the age of eighteen (1837). She restored the image of the monarchy with her wisdom and gained the respect of the people with her private life, ruled by sobriety and hard work, in a word, by “respectability”. After he death, her son Edward came to tried to follow his mother’s steps.
Home Policy – The Parliament had to face the problems of the workers with a series of Acts (the Factory Act, the Ten Hours’ Act; the Mines Act; the Public Health Act) to improve working conditions, limit the hours of work and the exploitation of children in mines. In 1884 the Third Reform Bill extended the suffrage to all male workers.
Foreign Policy- Ireland found its political leader in Charles Parnell who, in 1880, demanded the Home Rule or independence for Ireland (but the bill was not passed till after the First World War). In 1887 Queen Victoria became Empress of India: its dominions included Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and parts of Africa. In 1899-1902 the Boer War broke out in Orange and Transvaal and in 1854-56 the dispute over the borders between Russia and Turkey gave origin to the Crimean War (during which Florence Nightingale founded the Red Cross).
Literary Background – The developed ways of communication and a new printing system improved literature. The period can be divided into three stages:
Early Victorians – The novelists identified themselves with their own age; they wrote long books published in serial installments and structured every episode as a plot. They tried to attract the masses with suspense and the sensational (make them – the readers – wait, make them cry and make them laugh). Main authors: C. Dickens; W. Thackeray; the Bronte Sisters. The poets at first followed the Romantic way of writing, but soon they captured and reflected the uneasiness of their society. They developed the Dramatic Monologue in which a persona reveals his thoughts and feeling unconsciously to a silent listener. Main authors: Lord A. Tennyson and Browning.
Mid Victorians (or Anti Victorian Reaction) – New scientific and philosophic theories (Darwin’s Origin of Species) provoked a sense of dissatisfaction and rebellion The realism of the novels mirrors the clash between man and environment, illusion and reality, leading to Naturalism: men are no longer responsible for their actions since they are determined by forces beyond their control. The writer’s task was to record events objectively, without comments. Main Authors: George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and Thomas Hardy. The poets followed John Ruskin’s theories (1819-1900) against the standardization and the materialism of society; the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood proclaimed a return to simplicity, and to nature as an escape from their society. Main authors: Dante Gabriel and his sister Cristina Rossetti.
Late Victorians – The novelists searched for an escape “travelling” in their selves; they put in evidence the contrasts between classes and races and the contradictions of colonialism. Aestheticism reacted against Utilitarianism and moral restrictions, and broke social conventions by means of free imagination. Main authors: R. L. Stevenson (duality of man); R. Kipling (colonialism) and O. Wilde (mouthpiece of Aestheticism). The poets were still heavily influenced by Aestheticism, but the most original voice was G. M. Hopkins, the isolated poet who combined lyric passion with his deep religious faith and used a musical and sensuous language, identifying matter and form. After a long period of sterility due to the lack of new ideas and to the audience’s taste (playgoers requested amusing comedies, great effects and famous stars) in the 1890s, drama started its rebirth thanks to the influence of French, Russian and Danish (H. Ibsen) playwrights that focused their attention on the psychological study of the characters, in particular, of women and of the social world. Main authors: O. Wilde and G. B. Shaw.