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THE VICTORIAN AGE (1837-1901) - The historical and social context



- The historical and social context

The period of the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), which is usually called "The Victorian Age", was an age full of contradictions, of industrializations and technological progress, of extreme poverty and the exploitation of factory workers, of social reforms, of scientific discoveries and religious unrest.

The application of steam-power to machines and textile industry, the cutting of new canals and t 141f58b he building of new roads and railways (which made transport easier and cheaper), transformed Great Britain from an agricultural country to an industrial one.

This transformation resulted in the migration of rural people from the countryside to the industrial areas in search of job. Many of the cities and towns of the North, the most industrialised area, were actually created in this period. So within a few years more English and Welsh people lived in cities and towns than in the countryside. Urbanisation created an intolerable overcrowding: houses were mainly built back to back and side by side. They had no piped water, no sanitarians. The living conditions in this slums were very poor. As a consequence, typhus and cholera were very common.

The political parts in this period was liberalism, which defended the freedom of individual from any external restraints likely to prevent the complete realization of his/her potential. The economic theory of free trade was an important aspect of liberalism and popular among both the Whigs and the Tories. It advocated an unlimited competition and objected any interference by government in industry and commerce.

For much of this period, industrialization meant the exploitation of factory workers. Men, women and children worked in factories sometimes up to 14-16 hours a day while factory owners paid very low wages and closed down factories during periods of economic slump. The gulf separating the rich from the poor was so deep that a Tory Prime Minister wrote of two nations, and several contemporary novelists (like Charles Dickens) criticized the desperate situation of the working class in their novels.

When Queen Victoria came to the English throne, the nation could be divided into the aristocracy, the middle class and the working class. If such were the living conditions of labourers, those of the other two social classes of Victorian society were quite different.

Industrialization and technological progress further advanced the position of the middle class. By the end of the century, they held power previously held by the aristocracy and class distinction became more financial than hereditary.

Victorian middle classes were very proud of the nation's triumphs in technology and engineering which had so changed the look of the environment, as well as of its political stability, the freedom of its press its legal system. Optimism was their dominant mood. They believed the way of living could be exported to all parts of the growing empire. Their material progress, their interest in making money and reaching a good position was also reflected in the house they lived in: there was a proliferation of ornaments in buildings and an accumulation of pieces of furniture inside the Victorian house.

There was a strong belief in the family, which was usually large and in which the father's authority was unquestioned. Middle class girls were closely guarded by their parents till marriage. There was a prudish attitude towards sex, in fact, a lady was supposed to live in ignorance of it. Generally middle class girls spent their time reading novel, having singing lessons, and learning to play the piano. This was the good side of the picture. The other side, the bad one, was represented by prostitution and very high crime figures in large cities (London in particular).

Slowly, the situation of the working class improved: under the pressure of men of letters and public opinion, the government introduced several bills which improved the situation of the lower classes.

In 1847 and 1867 the "Factory Acts" regulated child labour in factories: in 1842 the "Mines Acts" forbade the employment of children under ten and women underground. Finally, in 1870, the "Education Acts" provided a new system of state primary school.

- The cultural context

From a literary point of view, the Victorian Age was above all the age of fiction, mainly because of the great popularity this literary genre gained in the period. Many outstanding writers turned to novels writing and the number of novels published yearly increased enormously. Novels were also serialized in magazines and this required that each single episode had to contain an element of suspense to keep the interest and curiosity of the reader alive. The quantity of fiction produced to meet the demand increased the existing gap between good and bad fiction.

Novelists saw and denounced the evils of the time such as poverty, the exploitation of children and factory workers, the inadequate educational system; but like their reading public, they didn't question the basic idea that the system was right or that that progress was inevitable and the evils only a temporary setback1.

The first part of the Victorian Age is characterized by the triumph of the realistic novel: the aim of the realistic fiction is to represent life as it really is. The authors' main concern2 was that the reading public should find his/her work credible and truthful.

Both events and characters were interpreted and judges by an external narrator who expressed the dominant moral views of the time.

Note: (1) Intoppo (2) Preoccupazione

Appunti di Francesca Marciano, classe V F a.s. 2005/2006


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