Victorianism | What Is Victorianism?

Abundance of Output: By the second half of the 19th century, the Romantic movement had exhausted itself, and with the reign of Queen Victoria there began a new golden age in the literary history of England. The sixty years covered by Tennyson’s working life were rich in literature of almost every kind. They were years of rapid change, stimulating thought and provoking criticism. The growth of wealth gave increased leisure for the pursuit of letters, and widened the audience to whom a man of letters could appeal. In a single year, 1855, there were published Tennyson’s Maud, Browning’s Men and Women, Arnold’s Balder Dead, Patmore’s Angel in the House; and Macdonald’s first work in fiction, Dickens’ Little Dorrit and : Thackeray’s Newcomes, Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South, Kingsley’s Westward Ho! And Trollope’s Warden; in history, the third and fourth volumes of Macaulay’s History. At the same time, there were writings of such eminent writers as Rossetti and Fitzgerald, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and George Meredith, and in the world of criticism, Ruskin, Carlyle, Mill and Newman. It was the golden age of literature.

Literature and Social Criticism: As a whole, the literature of the period is critical of the age rather than representative of it. The popular philosophy of the time was Utilitarianism. It was the philosophy of a commercial people, whose chief aim and achievement was material progress. Utilitarianism appears in the imaginative literature of the time only to be criticised and vilified. Everywhere, in the poetry of Tennyson and Arnold, in the novels of Dickens and Thackeray, in the art criticism of Ruskin and the literary criticism of Carlyle, we get the same note of social criticism, the same dissatisfaction with contemporary ideals. “Complacency and optimism are the keynotes of the Victorian Age in everything but its literature; mental struggle and spiritual dissatisfaction are the keynotes of its literature”.

Literature: Science and Religion: Literature came to the aid of religion in upholding high ideals against the rising materialism of the age. It had also to aid religion in its more special work of upholding an idealistic view of the universe” A scientific method was being developed which made the investigation of nature effective to an extent hitherto undreamed of; and man’s conception of the material universe was changed. By Darwin’s application of the law of evolution to biology, man’s conception of himself was changed as greatly. The critical method of the natural sciences was extended to history and theology, and the fabric of authority found itself undermined on every side” (Watt and Clay). Old views of the universe, of man and his relation to God, had to be given up or resisted. The orthodox hesitated, tried to ignore the criticism; but the thoughtful laymen felt his old beliefs giving way, and naturally turned to the sciences. Rationalistic theories eliminated the supernatural from the universe, and, perhaps, unintentionally gave some support to the materialism of the age. Those whose honesty compelled them to give up traditional faith-at any rate in the form in which they had received them-and who could not find any permanent satisfaction in a purely material conception of life, took refuge indifference to religion. Carlyle, the first great figure of the period, is typical of its literature, because he preached the necessity of faith and though he was unable to reach such faith himself, proclaimed the insufficiency of existing social ideals. Tennyson’s work is full of the struggle between knowledge and faith. Clough and Arnold represent it, the one tempering agnosticism with hope, the other with stoicism. In fiction, until we reach George Eliot, there is little evidence of the intellectual changes of the time; but in all of it there is abundant criticism of the social tendencies and ideals”.

Interest in the Past: Dissatisfaction with their own age combined with the romantic impulse of curiosity to turn men’s interests to past ages. “As in most literary revivals the classical myths received a new life; and in the hands of Tennyson, Arnold and Swinburne, were made to express the thoughts and feelings of the modern world”. Arnold lived in habitual converse with the Greeks and derived his art and ideas from them rather than from any modern source. Browning made the period of the Renaissance living and real. Pater found much that could be applied to modern conditions in the life of the second century of the Christian era. But the chief historical interest of the time was in the Middle Ages, and the chief expression of this interest was, perhaps, the Oxford Movement.

Poetry, Chiefly Lyrical: The poetry of a period generally reflects the main characteristics of its intellectual life; but it may be doubted whether the Victorian poetry does so. Historically perhaps prose fiction is the most important, or at any rate the most characteristic product of the literature of that century. “Poetry during the period is chiefly lyric or episodic in character”. There are few great constructive works. Browning is an exception; but even his plays are the least successful part of his work. Morris was a great narrative poet, but his narrative was not dramatic; and Tennyson’s plays and Idylls of the King are the part of his work with which the majority of people would most willingly dispense. “The best poetical work of the age was done in the realisation of separate characters, single episodes, isolated emotions. We rarely find successful poems the chief interest of which lies in the interrelations of a number of characters and the interplay of their emotions. For this kind of work we must go to the novel” (Watt and Clay).

The Novel: Its Representative Character: The novel is perhaps the most clastic and adaptable form that the literary artist has discovered. The eighteenth century had invented it, but its possibilities, so far from being exhausted by the eighteenth century writers, were barely explored by them. Scott, with enormous success, made the novel a vehicle of the Romantic spirit. Janes Austen showed its possibilities in the way of the quietest realism. And the Victorian novelists followed her example in treating contemporary life and manners. While allowing the author to elaborate his characters and incidents in detail, the novel requires elaborate dramatic construction. It gives the humourist his opportunity, whether his humour lies mainly in the perception and creation of oddities of character, as with Dickens, or in his style, as with Thackeray. The variety of treatment it permits gives the writer scope for fullest self-expression; and the variety of subjects it can treat is so great that the works of, for example. Dickens and Thackeray, give us a more complete picture of the London of their time than we could have got in any other way. The Victorian novel gives us a panoramic view of the life of the time; it is a social document of great value and significance.

The Collapse of Drama: The only rival of the novel is the drama; and for some reason or other the Victorian age was singularly poor in this branch of literature. “It may have been that drama requires the concentration of the intellectual life of a nation in one place, as the life of France is now concentrated in Paris, or as that of England was in London in the times of Shakespeare, Congreve and Sheridan. It may simply have been that the people with dramatic genius did not think of the stage because the novel could command a much larger audience with much less trouble. Whatever the cause, however, the drama plays only a small part in the literature of the period”. A number of poets wrote poetical dramas which had literary value, but were unsuited for the stage. Tennyson’s plays were acted, but have not kept the stage. The same is true of Browning’s plays though their dramatic value is higher than those of Tennyson’s and in Mr. Birrell’s words, they “entitle the author to the very first place amongst those dramatists of the century who have laboured under the enormous disadvantage of being poets to start with. “Of the commercially successful dramatists of the age, Bulwer Lytton and Charles Reade have a place in literature, but as novelists rather than as dramatists. The revival of drama came only with the last few years of the century.

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Lack of High Literary Ideals: The wide appeal of prose fiction is significant of an important tendency. With the growth of population and the diffusion of education, a great reading public grew up unlike any that had existed before. This new reading public had no high literary standards. It asked for something to read, and two great industries grew up to satisfy that demand through popular fiction and popular journalism. Hence it has become difficult for an author to always satisfy his standards of literary taste and at the same time to make a popular appeal. Dickens succeeded, but others have not been so fortunate, and hence we have the new and strange condition of a great class of readers who have no interest in true literature of the time.

Journalism: Serial Publication: To reach this class there has grown up a great mass of magazines and other serial publications which, with much that is purely ephemeral, contain a good deal of real literature. “At the same time, thanks to education, the proportion of the nation with a genuine interest in literature is increasing; and the effect of this popular demand on literary development is one of the most interesting studies in contemporary criticism”.

The Impact of Science on Victorian Literature: Two prominent factors in the literature of the Victorian era are:

  • The steady advance of democratic ideals, and
  • The progress of scientific thought. Both these movements profoundly affected the literature of the period, both directly and indirectly.

The advance of science revolutionised the physical and social environment, and profoundly affected the outlook and temper of men as well as intellectual activity during the period. The evolutionary theories of Darwin, Hebert Spencer and Wallace completely revolutionised the contemporary views about man and society. Faith in The Biblical view of cosmology and creation was shaken, and was replaced by the Darwinian theory of evolution through struggle for existence.



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