Victorian Age: Historical Background


During the Victorian age, Great Britain ascended to the status of a world power, the richest country in the world, with imperial holdings worldwide. Queen Victoria‘s lengthy reign played a pivotal role in establishing a stable governmental structure, which, in turn, acted as a catalyst for remarkable industrialization, territorial expansion, and substantial economic prosperity. This epoch epitomized a period characterized by democratic principles, an emphasis on equality, and unprecedented advancements in scientific and technological realms, as well as in the realm of arts and culture. Nevertheless, as the Victorian era progressed, Britain’s global political and economic supremacy began to wane in comparison to other major powers, most notably the United States. The discernible signs of this decline, however, did not become prominently evident until the advent of the Second World War. 

Some of the most obvious characteristics of the Victorian society are as follows: 

 1. Establishment of Democracy 

The long struggle in favour of individuality and personal liberty was finally settled, and democracy became the established order of the day. The remaining traces of personal government and the voices in favour of the divine rights of the monarchs finally trailed away. The House of Commons became increasingly powerful, and the real ruling body in England. A series of new reform bills rapidly extended the voting rights (suffrage), until every individual could vote to select his representative in the Parliament. Thus, shaped the modern form of democracy, making every individual equal to others. 


2. An Age of Social Unrest 

The Victorian Age was an age of democracy that provided the right to equality to the Britons. Facilities were established for popular education. With the rise in education came religious tolerance. Different sects of Christians co-existed and the Anglican churches of England, Wales and Ireland were the state churches, with the monarch as the nominal head. Britain was the home to other non-Anglican Protestants (mostly Methodists), Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others, including a few atheists. Britons had learnt to live in harmony and brotherhood. 

However, there had been profound social unrest. Even though the negro slaves have been freed in 1833, there emerged in Victorian Society—among the majority (nearly 80%), working-class—men, women and little children working in mines and factories, who were the victims of a more terrible industrial and social slavery. They were the unwilling victims of industrialists’ and capitalists’ unnatural competitive methods. They were being exploited as cheap labourers—an unwanted consequence of swift industrialization in Britain. 


3. An era of Domestic Peace. 

The Victorian age was an era of comparative peace because of the firm establishment of democratic ideals and the growth of education. Reform bills were passed for the benefit of the common people. Efforts were made to establish social equality. The rise in trade and friendly foreign relations also inspired the idea of the need for universal social equality. Conflicts were resolved with negotiations and legislation. However, England had a completely different view of foreign affairs. Imperialism was the deciding factor for its behaviour with other nations. Supporting and fuelling conflicts among other nations to the benefit of England and its colonial expansion were the policies of prime ministers like Benjamin Disraeli and Salisbury. The colonial wars that broke out during the period did not seriously disturb national life, except for the Crimean War. The civil struggle in America also left scars. The surges of the French Revolution trailed off (=diminished) and died down completely by the middle of the 19th century. 


4. Imperial Expansion and Material Growth

Queen Victoria and most of her ministers were desperate for territorial expansion, which, in turn, would bring the country material prosperity. With its imperial mission, the Victorian British Empire dominated the globe. People moved in both directions between Britain and its colonies. Money, too, flowed both ways. The Empire was a source of profit for Britain. Goods like jute, Calico cotton cloth and tea etc. were brought at cheap rates to Britain from various colonies all over the world. 

Much of the empire’s expansion involved violence, which include the Indian Mutiny (1857-59), the Morant Bay Rebellion (1865) in Jamaica, the Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60) in China, and the Taranaki War (1860-61) in New Zealand. From 1870 until 1914, the British continued with the aggressive expansion of the Empire (which included Britain’s participation in the so-called Scramble of Africa) with the assistance of new technologies like railways and telegraphy. 

Britain’s status as a world political power was reinforced by a strong economy which grew rapidly between 1820 and 1873. Industrialization also catalysed Britain’s imperial and economic expansion. Eventually, Britain became the richest country in the world. However, most of the working-class people were being exploited as cheap labours, which included children. Yet, overall standards of living were rising. This relative prosperity meant that there were not only shopkeepers but also shoppers. Even working-class people could afford to purchase non-essential items. Clothes, Souvenirs (= mementoes), newspapers etc. became affordable to almost everyone. 


5. Vigorous Intellectual Developments

The Victorian age is remarkable for its rapid progress in Arts and Sciences. Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution. People were also fascinated by the newly emerging fields of psychology and the physics of energy. The period saw myriads of mechanical inventions and developments like those of steamboats, matches, railroads, telegraphy, electric lights, etc. 

Popular education became practical. Leading to the growth of education and relatively higher literacy rates. There emerged a hunger for intellectual food, which reinforced high production in the press. Hundreds of magazines and newspapers became available at cheaper rates. Some really enduring genres of literature, like novels, literary essays, and social and political treatises (like those of Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill), became extremely abundant. Novels became a popular genre in Victorian print culture. They were intriguing, long and mostly centred around marriages, and featured complex plots with many characters. Writers of Sensation Novels like Wilkie Collins thrilled their readers. Many Victorian novels, especially those by Charles Dickens, are still read today. Theatre also thrived and music halls featuring various programs of singing, dancing, sketching, etc. attracted people of all classes. In theatre, Melodramas with evil villains, virtuous heroines, and intricate plots became the most important and popular genre. Later, Sensation drama became people’s favourite. 

Thus, in the Victorian period, Britain became the cultural capital of the English-speaking world, which included the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The theatre and the literature of the age were varied and rich and were a blend of melodrama, spectacle and morality. 


6. Dual Tendency of Victorian Society

Victorians were puritanical in the sense that they refused to admit the existence of sex, while also constantly discussing it, though in the guise of a series of warnings. Few educated Victorians wrote a lot about sex, pornography, medical treatises and psychological studies. While most of the others never talked about sex. Respectable middle-class women took it as pride that they did not know about sex and reproduction. Besides, there also existed a double standard in Victorian society about male and female sexuality, which held that males wanted and needed sex, while women were free of sexual desire, and that they submitted to sex only to please their husbands. It was a society, though, that featured prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, women with sexual desire and people with homosexual tendencies. 


7. Distinct Gender Roles and Class Identity 

Victorian Society was hierarchically organised. Gender and class were its main organising criteria. Gender roles were biologically determined and were based on the “doctrine of separate spheres“. This stated, quite justifiably and now well supported by modern research, that men and women were different with different areas of strengths and weaknesses and therefore should be allocated different tasks in society as per their biological, physical and psychological make-up. Men were, therefore, responsible for heavy and demanding external affairs, while women were the managers of internal household affairs. Men earned and supplied for the entire family, while women managed the available resources to run the family. However, the majority of Victorians were soon forced to move away from the doctrine of separate spheres, as greedy capitalism and hasty industrialization brought meagre earnings to the majority of working-class people and both men and women were forced to work in mines and factories to support themselves and their families.  

Besides, people also belonged to different classes, (both economic and cultural), on the basis of their income, occupation, education, family structure, sexual behaviour, etc. The working class populated 70 to 80% of the country and received wages with family income usually less than £100 per annum. The middle class earned from £100 to £1000 per annum from salaries and profit. This class grew rapidly during the 19th century from 15% to over 25% of the population. Middle-class people, often, were the moral leaders of society and also achieved some political power. The very small and very wealthy upper class got its income of £1000 per annum, and often much more from their property, rent and interest. They had titles, land and wealth. They owned most of the land in Britain and controlled local, national and imperial politics. 



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