The Historical Background
Queen Victoria, daughter of the Duke of Kent (1767-1820) came to the throne of England at the age of eighteen (1837). She succeeded in restoring the image of the monarchy with her wisdom and gained the respect of the people with her private life: an adored husband, Prince Albert, and nine children.
Her pattern of life was ruled by sobriety and hard work, in a word, by “respectability”. As a consequence the Victorian Period was based more on exteriority than on spiritual values, on conformism and, often, on hypocrisy.
As to political and social life, England lived a period full of changes and extensions in every field.
Home Policy – Social Achievements
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.
Ireland found its political leader in C. Parnell. In 1880 Parnell demanded 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 and the Empire enlarged its dominions to 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
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)
Queen Victoria died in 1902. Her son Edward came to the English throne trying to follow his mother’s steps.
Under the reign of Queen Victoria, literature improved thanks to developed ways of communication and a new printing system. It became a means to confute ideas and reveal thoughts.
This period can be divided into three stages:
Fiction – The writers identified themselves with their own age; they wrote long books published in serial instalments and structured every episode as a plot. They tried to attract the masses with suspense and the sensational. Their motto was to make the readers wait, cry and laugh.
Main authors: C. Dickens; W. Thackeray; The Bronte Sisters
Poetry – Victorian poets at first followed the Romantic way of writing, but soon they captured the uneasiness of their society and reflected it in their poetry. 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)
Fiction – A sense of dissatisfaction and rebellion pervades this period due to new scientific and philosophic theories (Darwin’s Origin of Species)
The realism of the works mirrors the clash between man and environment, illusion and reality, leading to Naturalism: man is no longer responsible for his actions since they are determined by forces beyond his control. The writer’s task is to record events objectively, without comments.
Main Authors: George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and Thomas Hardy.
Poetry – The writers followed J. Ruskin’s theories (1819-1900) against the standardization and the materialism of society; The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood proclaimed a return to simplicity, and nature as an escape from this world, idealizing and beautifying reality.
Main authors: D. G. Rossetti and his sister Cristina.
Fiction – The writers searched for an escape “travelling” in their selves and putting in evidence the contrasts between classes and races and the contradictions of colonialism.
Aestheticism brought to the extreme every attempt to escape from the real world supplying a way of avoiding frustrations and uncertainties, reacting against Utilitarianism and moral restrictions, breaking social conventions by means of free imagination.
Main authors: R. L. Stevenson (wrote about the duality of man); R. Kipling (dealt with the problem of colonialism) and O. Wilde (was the mouthpiece of Aestheticism)
Poetry – The followers of the Rossettis 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.
Drama – The stage had suffered a long period of sterility due to the lack of new ideas and to the audience’s taste. Playgoers, in fact, requested amusing comedies, great effects and famous stars. The rebirth of the 1890s took place thanks to the influence of French and Russian playwrights that focused their attention on the psychological study of the characters, in particular, of women. From Denmark, instead, came the new form of drama written by H. Ibsen that analyzed the social world and used the retrospective method.
Main authors: O. Wilde and G. B. Shaw.