Renoir Young Girl Reading

The Victorians

The "Victorian" Age was named after Queen Victoria, whose reign lasted from 1837 until 1901 (she inherited the throne at age 18). The Victorians, unlike the people of any other time, had a sense of their time as an era of transition: they saw themselves as coming out of the "medieval" tradition and moving into the "modern" tradition. The medieval tradition was one in which the civil and religious were inseparable; the King was the head of the Church; the Church and the government demanded adherence to a single doctrine; there was a rigid and fixed social and economic system.

Movement away from that system had, of course, begun years before, but the Victorians had a sense of destiny, even of mission about it. Of course, change doesn't make everyone comfortable; with change comes a lot of upheaval. William Thackeray wrote,

It was only yesterday, but what a gulf between now and then! Then was the old world. Stage-coaches, more or less swift, riding-horses, pack-horses, highway-men, knights in armour, Norman invaders, Roman legions, Druids, Ancient Britons painted blue, and so forth--all these belong to the old period. I will concede a halt in the midst of it, and allow that gunpowder and printing tended to modernise the world. But your railroad starts the new era, and we of a certain age belong to the new time and the old one. We are of the time of chivalry as well as the...age of steam.

The "railroad" Thackeray mentions is the symbol of the Industrial Revolution, which by 1830 was well underway in England. The Industrial Revolution changed everything about life in Europe and changed it fast. Swept away was the old agricultural and feudal way of life, in which a man could farm a small plot of land that his family had farmed for generations, go to church on Sundays and see all of his neighbors week after week, pay his rents to the same landlord each year for his entire life (and know that it would be the same landlord or his son that his children would pay after he died and they inherited his tenancy), and never go more than 20 miles from his home. Replacing that way of life was a new, urban life in which factories, mechanization, and constant change were predominant. As the old farms were mechanized, their farmers were displaced from the land and fled to the cities looking for work. They were employed in the new factories. As railroads crisscrossed England (and the Continent), people and products were no longer bound to the places where they had been born. Change and progress became more important--and pervasive--than stability and tradition. For some, this was good; for others, it was disastrous. Edward Bulwer Lytton wrote in 1833, "...old opinions, feelings--ancestral customs and institutions are crumbling away, and both the spiritual and temporal worlds are darkened by change...The age then is one of destruction!...Miserable would be our lot were it not also an age of preparation for reconstructing."

(For more information on the details of the Industrial Revolution, click on the Links page.)

Writers of that time sound remarkably like the writers of our time in their complaints. W. R. Greg, writing in 1875, said in an essay called "Life at High Pressure, "...the most salient characteristic of life in this latter portion of the 19th century is its SPEED." People felt, Greg says, as if they were living "without leisure and without pause--a life of haste--above all a life of excitement, such as haste inevitably involves--a life filled so full...that we have no time to reflect where we have been and whither we intend to go...still less what is the value, and the purpose, and the price of what we have seen, and done, and visited." Victorian novelist George Eliot complained that "even idleness is eager now..." And Frances Cobbe, writing in 1864, writes of "That constant sense of being driven--not precisely like 'dumb' cattle, but cattle who must read, write, and talk more in twenty-four hours than twenty-four hours will permit..."

Victorian philosophy was undergoing the same upheaval as Victorian social and economic life. Theories about life, ethics, religion, and philosophy itself changed from day to day. The Victorians, however, were generally certain that the Truth existed and could be discovered. They believed in the power of reason and, despite their failure to arrive at any lasting or universal conclusions themselves, were certain that it could be done, and that they were paving the way for such a discovery.

Some reacted to this fluidity with optimism and flexibilty; other with pessimism and rigidity. These are the same attitudes we see today: some see the future as a field of endless, mostly good possibilities; others see it as a minefield through which we cannot pass without disaster. In the Victorian era, some saw all of the change as growth and progress, and predicted the outcome would be Utopia; others saw it as a disintegration of the social and moral order, and predicted that the outcome would be destruction.

Among the Victorian middle classes, the latter feeling often was predominant--ironically, since the middle classes were those driving the changes of the Industrial Revolution. Their fears helped to create rigid social and moral attitudes that remained strong until around 1870. The Victorians are famous for their complacent certainty that their way of life was the best--and not just the best, but the most morally sound. Economic success was often equated, illogically and incorrectly, with goodness. The use of force against "ignorant natives" in other countries they wished to conquer was considered completely justified, since they felt they were bringing "civilisation" to the "savages." Even at home in England, many Victorians felt that it was their duty to monitor the behavior of their neighbors, friends, and relatives and their right to pass judgment and make "helpful" comments on that behavior.

The essence of Victorian morality can be summed up in the term "respectability." A person who was respectable was sober, thrifty, clean, tidy, well-mannered, respectful of the law, honest in personal and business affairs, and above all, chaste. A respectable person was often "earnest"--that is, opposed to vanity and frivolity, and dutifully zealous in pursuing worthwhile personal and social goals.

The Victorians exalted the family. The home was considered the source of virtue and peace, and the woman's role was to maintain it in that function. Women were idealized as the protectors of spirituality. Men had to go out into a laissez-faire business world, in which honesty and morality were not just a luxury but a weakness; every day, their labors led them further from virtue. Their sole refuge was their home, where their wives would gently help them back onto the path of goodness and integrity, and their children would allow them to feel the "softer" emotions of love and generosity.

This concept of gender roles was extended to sex, as well: women, as chaste spiritual beings--angels, almost--were not expected to enjoy sex. Men were physical creatures whose needs had to be fulfilled, and it was merely one of a wife's more distasteful jobs. One marriage manual of the time advised that the woman should try to make the fulfillment of her "conjugal duty" more bearable by thinking of the Queen. Men were advised to think of sex as a physical function--and to think of it as little as possible. Talking about sex was considered in the worst of taste. Thus, in houses bursting with children, sex was never discussed. (The fact that this created unrealistic expectations of both men and women is reflected in several statistics of the time: in 1851, 42,000 illegitimate children were born in England; by 1850, there were at least 50,000 prostitutes known to the police in England and Scotland, 8,000 of them in London alone.)

The Victorians expected their art to reflect their social values. They considered that a novel written without a clear moral, in which the good were rewarded and the bad were punished, set a dangerous example and had the power to corrupt the fragile moral order.

As you can imagine, the Victorians disliked the Romantics; they felt that the Romantic poets had carried the idea of "subjectivism" to an unhealthy extreme. The idea that any individual's perceptions carried more weight than the social order seemed dangerous to them. In fact, although the commercial spirit of the age led many people to question the value of art, literature was considered by many Victorians to be a powerful tool in fighting the decline of moral and social standards. Matthew Arnold wrote, "Poetry is the criticism of life." He meant that art is the model of what life should ideally be; its function is to set an example for proper conduct in private and public life. Generally, speaking, the Victorian audience did not appreciate subtlety; they wanted a lesson and they wanted it spelled out clearly.

This is not to say that all Victorian novelists blindly accepted Victorian values or standards. In fact, novelists such as Charles Dickens were ruthless in exposing and satirizing the excesses and hypocrisies of Victorian England. But while they might despise the extremes to which the Victorian culture had gone ("earnest" can easily become "self-righteous," for example), few of the Victorian writers argued with their society's basic assumptions about class and virtue.

Jane Austen

Critics disagree about how to classify Jane Austen: is she a Romantic? Is she a Victorian? Her life span (1775-1817) falls within the Romantic era, but her philosophy and her work don't seem to reflect the basic Romantic ideas. She has a bit in common with the Victorians in terms of her realism and her emphasis on the social milieu of the individual characters, but her work doesn't fall within the Victorian era, chronologically (1830-70). The Norton Anthology of English Literature solves this problem simply by ignoring her.

Jane Austen herself would have been amused by any attempt to categorize her work. She was always modest about her novels--at least publicly. In 1816, in a letter to her nephew about her writing and his, she said, "What should I do with your strong, manly spirited sketches, full of variety and glow?--How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor?"

Austen's modesty was misplaced. When she wrote that letter, she'd already had four novels published: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816). After her death, two more of her novels were published: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both in 1818.

Although Austen wasn't published until she was 36 years old, she wrote most of her novels much earlier, in her teens and early twenties. She was born in Steventon, where her father was the rector and schoolteacher. She was the seventh of eight children. Austen was close to her brothers, but her closest companion was her sister, Cassandra, who was three years older. Both girls were sent away to school for brief periods, but were mostly educated at home, by their father. Her formal education ended when she was 13; from then on, she and Cassandra shared a sitting room where they worked together most days: Jane writing and Cassandra drawing. Most of her novels were written in their early form in that sitting room, beginning in 1797 with First Impressions, the early version of Pride and Prejudice; Elinor and Marianne, the early version of Sense and Sensibility; and Susan, the early version of Northanger Abbey (which was begun in 1797, completed in 1803, but not published until after her death).

In 1801, Jane's father retired and the family moved to Bath. Jane was very unhappy there; she wrote almost nothing for several years; she didn't begin to write seriously again until 1809, after her father's death and after she, Cassandra, and her mother moved to a cottage at Chawton.

Money had never been plentiful for the Austens; now it was a serious concern. Perhaps to help alleviate their financial situation, or perhaps to escape her family's problems (Jane's sister-in-law, Elizabeth, to whom she had been very close, had died in childbirth the previous year), Jane began to write seriously again, and decided it was time to attempt to publish her work. Her novels were initially published anonymously, but their popularity soon led to her identification as their author. But she was never comfortable with her fame, and managed to lead a relatively obscure life.

She died in 1817, 6 years after the publication of her first novel, after being ill for a year. She was 42 when she died. She was mourned by all of her family, but most of all by her sister, Cassandra, who wrote, "She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself."

Jane Austen never married. She was certainly in love at least once, and probably more often than that; family legend has it that she fell in love with a young man who died before the relationship could progress to a formal engagement. She once accepted a proposal of marriage, but changed her mind the next day. She had been tempted by financial security to accept the young man's proposal, but by next morning, she found that she could not marry a man she didn't love.

Many of the details of Jane Austen's life remain a mystery. After her death, her sister Cassandra, in an attempt to preserve Jane's privacy, burned a large number of her letters.

At first glance, Austen's novels appear simple; some find them boring. And it is true that they are hardly adventure stories, packed with dark castles or raiding pirates. Austen drew her characters from the world she knew--the world of the country gentry--and limited herself to their social and family lives. The drama of these books takes place on a small stage: "two inches of ivory," as Austen put it. But they are anything but simple. Austen ruthlessly satirizes not only the sentimental romances which were popular in her time, but the self-importance and pride of her own class. As Dorothy Van Ghent points out, that "two inches of in substance an elephant's tusk; it is a savagely probing instrument as well as a masterpiece of refinement."

If you'd like more information on any of the topics covered in this lecture, go to the Links page. Enjoy!

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English, eds. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
2. The Victorian Frame of Mind, Walter E. Houghton
3. Victorian People and Ideas, Richard D. Altick
4. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Victorian Prose and Poetry, eds. Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom
5. "On Pride and Prejudice," Dorothy Van Ghent, in the Norton Critical Edition of Pride and Prejudice
6. "Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice," Reuben Brower, in the Norton Critical Edition of Pride and Prejudice
7. Jane Austen: A Life, Claire Tomalin