The Victorian Compromise
The Victorian Age takes its name from Queen Victoria who ruled from 1837 to 1901; it was a complex era characterised by stability, progress and social reforms, and, in the mean time, by great problems such as poverty, injustice and social unrest; thats why the Victorians felt obliged to promote and invent a rigid code of values that reflected the world as they wanted it to be, based on:
- duty and hard work;
- respectability: a mixture of both morality and hypocrisy, severity and conformity to social standards (possessions of good manners, ownership of a comfortable house, regular attendance at church and charitable activity); it distiguished the middle from the lower classes;
- charity and philanthropy: an activity that involved many people, expecially women.
The family was strictly patriarchal: the husband represented the authority and respectability, cosequently a single woman with a child was emarginated because of a wide-spread sense of female chastity. Sexuality was generaly repressed and that led to extreme manifestations of prudery.
Colonialism was an important phenomenon and it led to a patriotism deeply influenced by ideas of racial superiority: British people thought that they were obeying to God by the imposition of their superior way of life. The concept of the white mans burden was exalted in the works of colonial writers (such as Rudyard Kipling).
This code of values, known as Victorian Compromise founds its basis in some religious and philosophical movements:
- evangelicalism: influenced the emphasis upon moral conduct; it had been created in 18th century by John Wesley who believed in the dedication to humanitarian causes and social reforms;
- utilitarianism: whose theorist was Jeremy Bentham, neglected human and cultural values and trusted reason as able to overcome any problem;
- empiricism: firmly attacked the utilitarian philosophy; Charles Dickens and Jhon Stuart Milton, a major figure in this movement, thought legislation should have a more positive function in helping men develop their natural talents; therefore a great importance was given to education and art; Milton also promoted a series of reforms in order to improve the life of the lower classes (free education, emancipation of women, trade union organisation, etc).
Also Darwinism played a key role in this period: scientific discovery (expecially geology and biology) shoke many moral and religious certainties, giving a new view of the Universe as incessantly changing and governed by the laws of chance; Charles Darwins work On the origin of the species (1859) argued that man is the result of a process of evolution based on the fight for life; this theory discarded the version of the Creation given by the Bible.
Queen Victorias Reign
Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 and died in 1901, but the Victorian age is considered to have begun in 1832 with the first Reform Act.
The Queen reigned constitutionally and became a mediator above parties (the Liberals and the Conservatives): thats why the UK managed to avoid the Revolution which spread all over Europe in 1848.
The power of the middle class increased with the expansion of industry and trade; in order to conquer new markets Britain extended its power all over the world (colonial expansion was regarded as a mission, an attitude known as Jingoism). The Great Exhibition (1851), where goods coming from all the Empire were gathered, symbolised the British leadership in the world economy.
The extraordinary industrial developement made the town-dwellers increase: the poor had to live in slums, segraegated quarters characterised by disease and crime. Consequently, the social unrest increased and the Government had to make Social Reforms such as the legalisation of Trade Unions (1882) and the Third Reform Act (1884) which granted the right to vote to all male population. In 1906 the Labour Party was born.
The Government also promoted a campaign to improve the urban environment: hospitals, water, gas and lighting, paved roads, public parks, places of entertainement, boarding schools. In 1829-30, the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police (Bobbies).
The Victorian Novel
Novels were written for the middle class and usually published in periodicals: the contact between the writer and his public was strong and constant.
The novelists felt they had a moral and social responsibility, therefore they described the society as it was, in order to make readers realise social injustices (the favourite setting was the city as the symbol of industrial civilisation and expression of anonymous lives).
Several novels were written by women, who often used male pseudonym; these novels explorated the daily lives and values of women within the family and the community.
- omniscient narrator who comments the plot and distinguishes right and wrong
- long and complicated plots
- deeper anlysis of the characters
- a final chapter where the whole texture of events is explained and justified
social and humanitarian themes
persistence of Romantic and Gothic tradition and a psychological vein
(Bronte sisters and Stevenson)
A scientific look at human behaviour and discontent with values (Naturalism)
(Thomas Hardy and Oscar Wilde)
The Victorian Commedy
There is a gap in the history of the English Theatre between 1700 and the late 19th century; this situation can be explained by several factors such as the popularity of novel and the fact that actors were still considered as men of little respectability.
However new theatres were built during the Victorian age, smaller and more comfortable playhouses. In this period flourished these types of performances:
- the music hall (singers, dancers and acrobats)
- the pantomime
- the farce (in order to make the spectators laugh)
- the melodrama (romantic plot)
The best playrights of the end of the 19th centrury were George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.
Features of Victorian Commedy:
- brilliant dialogue and a provocative form
- caricatures of social types
- humorours remarks to express the hypocrisy of the upper class
- autors comment vehicled by long detailed stage directions, containing all sort of information (gestures, noises, music, etc)
Aestheticism and decadence
The aesthetic movement developed as reaction against the materialism and moral code of the middle class.
Thèophile Gautier, the inventor, reflected the sense of frustration and uncertainty, pursuing aesthetic isolation (art for arts sake), sensation and excess, cultivating art and beauty. Art became the only certainty, an art without reference to life and therefore it had nothing to do with morality and need not be didactic.
The doctrine was imported into England by Whistler, an American painter, though also the romantic John Keats was a strong example of an artist dedicated wholly to his art; the writer John Ruskin was the theorist of the aesthetic movement in England.
- evocative use of the language of the senses
- hedonistic attitude
- excessive attention to the self
- perversity in subject matter
- disenchantment with contemporary society