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date: 23 November 2017


Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World

Rob Breton


In The Age of Improvement, 1783–1867 (1959)—the title itself arguing a pronounced feature of the Victorian period—Asa Briggs identifies four main elements of Victorianism: “the gospel of work, ‘seriousness’ of character, respectability and self-help” (p. 450). These are undoubtedly good examples of what was characteristic of the age. However, none of them adequately describes the social attitudes and styles of working people, for example, and even if the values of middle-class men here described were the culturally dominant values, we have to be aware that definitions of Victorianism are subject to different emphases. The Victorian age cannot be seen in terms of a unified set of beliefs or practices, not only because Victoria's reign lasted so long—from 1837 to 1901—but also because the age encompassed an extremely diverse group of people with extremely different interests, habits, and attitudes.

The commonplace or popular characterization of the nineteenth century today usually involves the idea that the Victorians were prim, prudish, or even repressed, exercising an emotional clampdown on themselves for the sake of an abstract notion of propriety, and there is ample evidence to support this view. But again, this does not describe the whole population, and most Victorians considered themselves—and they considered themselves very often—socially advanced, modern, and fully embarked upon a course of great change, even if they were stuffy. Indeed, the age is marked by huge changes to the technological, industrial, political, social, legal, and cultural order of things. But the response to these changes was often ambiguous. Victorianism, then, might be understood by examining the way in which Victorian culture simultaneously welcomed and resisted change and by the way that Victorians celebrated and feared that change. John Stuart Mill, in “The Spirit of the Age” (1831), wrote, “The first of the leading peculiarities of the present age is, that it is an age of transition. Mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones.”

What made the Victorians Victorian was the tremulous balance they kept between confidence, resoluteness, and pride on the one hand and uncertainty, reluctance, and even despair on the other. The compulsion to do, to work, to discover, or to win was countered by real doubt about what all that energy was producing. After a turbulent opening to the Victorian era marked by Chartist uprisings—roughly a fifteen-year, often violent struggle for an expanded franchise and Parliamentary reform—and other forms of class unrest, the 1850s began a period of relative peace and prosperity. But the self-congratulating sense that this

VictorianismClick to view larger

Victoria. Queen Victoria and her family, painting by John Philip. Image published for the Jubilee by Boussod Valadon & Co., 1897. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

generation was leading the world economically and morally was coupled with a nervous ambiguity about the direction of this apparent progress.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations—variously called the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Crystal Palace Exhibition—was to be a demonstration of British supremacy in industry, science, and technology and of British colonial dominance; more than half of the thirteen thousand exhibitions displayed British and colonial innovations. The central building was itself to be understood as a wonder of British design and workmanship, conceived by Prince Albert, Victoria's husband, and designed by Sir Joseph Paxton. Located in Hyde Park, it was built of iron and more than a million feet of glass.

Perhaps even more conspicuous than the building, however, was the exhibit of a giant piece of coal weighing twenty-four tons, again suggesting industrial power. In the five months it was open, the exhibition attracted more than 6 million visitors, allowing all classes of English society to share in this moment of back-patting. But in the same year, Charles Dickens, the most popular novelist of the Victorian era, published Bleak House, a novel that denounces the British public for allowing impossible poverty to run rampant on London's streets. The self-conscious split between culpability and a sense of superiority, between the sense that their age was the first truly modern one and a nagging guilt as to the immorality of the means by which the wealth had been won, runs throughout the nineteenth century. As Richard Altick says in his definition of Victorianism, “the age sponsored numerous reactions against itself while it was still running its course” (p. 299).

This double awareness was later dramatized in Robert Louis Stevenson's hugely successful The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The story can be read as a parable of Victorianism. Like Jekyll, it was an age distinguished by politeness, bent on philanthropy, dedicated to duty and effort, mindful of reputation, and justified by virtue. But behind or beneath that emphasis on the appearance of respectability was an underworld of prostitution—there were approximately eight thousand prostitutes in London at mid-century—abject poverty, corruption, crime, and everything else that might undermine the idealized image the Victorians might have of themselves. For instance, Leeds, a town in West Yorkshire, had 2 churches, 39 chapels, 451 taverns, and 98 brothels.

At this time, London was the cultural center of the country that felt itself to be the center of the world. The British Empire had a presence all over the world, covering one-fourth of it and dominating an equal fraction of the world's population. Victorians justified the expansion of the empire by declaring that British culture was the most advanced in the world and that it was only right that they should bring that civilization to others. At the same time, it was obvious that London was plagued with a Hyde-like underside of vice and immorality. Self-criticism was as much a part of the age as was the sense of superiority and self-entitlement.


This dualistic attitude toward their place in history and an ambiguous attitude toward progress and change can also be seen in the political realm. Victoria's accession to the throne took place on 20 June 1837. Some Victorianists today nevertheless argue that the Victorian period began in 1832 with the passing of the Reform Act, insofar as the passing of the act was a gesture toward democracy and thus a change in social sensibilities from the decadence of the Regency period. The Reform Act conferred the franchise to propertied adult men, but by 1911 only 60 percent of adult men could vote, and women did not get the vote until 1918. In other words, the resistance to electoral democracy and Parliamentary reform made for slow and awkward change. Some of the change was even accidental. Lord John Russell and William Gladstone's Reform Act of 1866 was defeated, ushering in a minority Tory government that, because of a complex amendment process, extended the franchise beyond the ambitions of Gladstone's act.

Though reform and change were deemed necessary by even the more conservative thinkers, as revolutions overtook Europe and working-class unrest grew at home, the idea of full democracy was a truly radical one. One of the century's most influential and revered thinkers, Thomas Carlyle, was vehemently antidemocratic. In Past and Present (1843), a book he wrote in seven weeks in the heat of responding to working-class uprisings in industrial centers, Carlyle argued that democracy institutionalizes the “atheism” of laissez-faire economics.

Carlyle's antidemocratic attitude was later reflected in Victorian intellectuals of both conservative and liberal orientations, such as John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell. Even John Stuart Mill, who in On Liberty (1859) furthered the democratic cause in many ways, said there that “we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. … Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians.”

At the same time, this group of thinkers also argued vehemently for reforms, working-class rights, and even expanding the franchise—Mill wanted to see women get the vote. The Victorians were self-assured about their ability to usher in the modern world but were also anxious about the world emerging before their eyes, and this made for tensions between concurrent ideologies of freedom and authority.


The Victorian era is also crowded with telling new legislation; many of the new laws reveal the simultaneous desire for and resistance to social change. Perhaps the most germane fact regarding a number of the new laws has to do with the slowness with which they were passed and the shortsightedness or callousness of their design. The factory laws, for example—a series of laws designed to regulate working conditions brought about by unprecedented industrial expansion—were opposed by industrialists and proponents of laissez-faire, as might be expected. They were to limit the number of hours that children could work in a factory, cotton mill, and coal mine and were to be enforced through inspections. But it was not until 1901 that the employment of children under age twelve in any factory or workshop was criminalized.

Another set of laws, the Poor Laws—and especially the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834—were introduced for the moral reform of paupers and to organize poor relief. Poor relief had been the responsibility of individual parishes since the Elizabethan period. But between 1780 and 1820 the number of poor quadrupled because of industrialization and demographic change. The bill's sponsors turned to Malthusian economics for a solution, thinking that less eligibility for poor relief would decrease the pauper population. Workhouses were introduced and soon became infamous for demanding degrading task-work and separating families. To the credit of the age, by the 1870s the laws were seen by many Victorians as relics of an unenlightened time that had been inefficient, cruel, and responsible for class antagonisms. Even so, the act was not entirely abolished until 1948. Middle-class Victorians were not uncaring people, and the self-critical diagnosis of a society in peril was pronounced; but the fact remains that laws curbing the powers of individual financial interests were resisted. George Orwell criticized Dickens for seeking only “a moralized version of the existing thing” (p. 426), but Dickens was not alone in his politics.


Still, new legislation was indicative of a spirit of reform, and the title of E. L. Woodward's book The Age of Reform, 1815–1870 (1938) describes an essential part of Victorianism. A sense of social responsibility allowed the Victorians to see themselves as fundamentally different from their immediate cultural predecessors, the Romantics. Indeed, it was almost fashionable for the socially conscious middle class to visit London's notoriously poor East End, Manchester, or other industrial cities and report back on the filth or on the “condition of England”—a phrase that has become popular to describe the social novels of the 1840s and 1850s, coined by Carlyle, who himself says in Past and Present, “Descend where you will into the lower class.” Henry Mayhew, Charles Booth, Friedrich Engels, Edwin Chadwick, Dickens, Beatrice Webb, and George Bernard Shaw, among others, all did it.

By the 1850s and 1860s photography was being used to document social conditions. Though critics today sometimes read this experiment with social exploration as a localized colonial mentality, the burden of the middle class, there is no doubt that the Victorians were highly conscious that the wealth and progress of the age came at the expense of others. Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh (1856) wrote,

  • The civilizer's spade grinds horribly
  • On dead men's bones, and cannot turn up soil
  • That's otherwise than fetid. All success
  • Proves partial failure; all advance implies
  • What's left behind; all triumph, something crushed
  • At the chariot-wheels; all government, some wrong:
  • And rich men make the poor, who curse the rich.


The popular conception today of Victorian life as simple and quaint expresses nostalgia for something that did not exist. Victorian periodicals and newspapers were filled with scandalous stories of murder, deceit, and cruelty. In fact, because of the hustle and bustle of public life, the family was seen and treated as a retreat from the stress of the industrial and business world. In Dickens's Great Expectations (1860–1861), one character, Wemmick, has a drawbridge separating his public and private lives. The middle classes especially idealized the home, the nuclear family, and children; A. N. Wilson argues, in fact, that the Victorians invented childhood.

The nineteenth century also saw a huge increase in art, especially the novel. In 1841 approximately nine hundred books were published, but by 1871 that number had increased to forty-one hundred. Artistic movements were varied and frequent, but one telling fashion related to the revival of Gothic architecture is the Victorian fascination with medievalism, as seen in Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1842) or the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. Not only do these works express dissatisfaction with utilitarian creeds, they also hearken back to a period of stability, free of the religious and moral uncertainty, industrial change, political unrest, and scientific revolution of their own age. Charles Darwin's groundbreaking On the Origin of Species (1859) is symbolic of some of this tension, because it depicts both evolutionary progress and also the unsanctioned randomness of change.


Anxiety over the rate and direction of imminent change can also be seen in the attitude toward the social place of women and what came to be known as the “woman question.” John Ruskin's “Of Queens' Gardens” (1864) argues that women ought to rule the home and be moral leaders in the creation of private values, but it also argues that they do not have a real function or place in the public sphere. In Coventry Patmore's famous poem “The Angel in the House” (1854), women exist for a husband and are to absorb the ill feelings that he may pick up from his activity in the public realm:

  • Man must be pleased; but him to please
  • Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf
  • Of his condoled necessities
  • She casts her best, she flings herself.
It was a commonplace of nineteenth-century gender construction to dictate that the heart, feeling, and sentiment were the attributes of women and that the intellect and reason were the attributes of men. Until the Married Woman's Property Act of 1882, men, under coverture, took possession of all of a woman's personal property upon marriage, and until the opening of Girton College, Cambridge, in 1869, women did not have access to a higher education; objections to women at the university continued to be pronounced well into the twentieth century.

But by the 1880s the so-called New Woman—a term coined by Sarah Grand in 1894 in order to name a social and literary type that had become the subject of frequent commentary—dominated at least the literature of the period. Punch magazine responded to what it seems to have perceived as a threat to masculine authority:

  • Therefore, dear Donna QUIXOTE, be not stupid,
  • Fight not with Hymen, and war not with Cupid,
  • Run not amuck 'gainst Mother Nature's plan,
  • Nor make a monster of your mate, poor man,
  • Or like La Mancha's cracked, though noble knight,
  • You'll find blank failure in mistaken fight.
Indeed, the 1890s was a period when new women, new drama, new poetry, and a new value system in general sought to overturn the politics and aesthetics of what artists then took to be Victorianism, propriety and stiff social codes, though mainstream society continued to be much more ambivalent about change.
  • Ah, love, let us be true
  • To one another! for the world, which seems
  • To lie before us like a land of dreams,
  • So various, so beautiful, so new,
  • Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
  • Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
  • And we are here as on a darkling plain
  • Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
  • Where ignorant armies clash by night. (Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach,” 1867)

[See also British Literature; Darwinism; Evolution; Great Reform Act; Industrial Revolution; Laissez-faire; and Liberalism.]


Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas: A Companion for the Reader of Victorian Literature. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1973.Find this resource:

Brantlinger, Patrick. The Spirit of Reform: British Literature and Politics, 1832–1867. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977.Find this resource:

Briggs, Asa. The Age of Improvement, 1783–1867. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 2000. Briggs has written extensively on the Victorian period and provides wonderfully detailed theoretical and anecdotal evidence of Victorianism in all of his work. See especially his Victorian Things, rev. ed. (Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 2003), and Victorian Cities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).Find this resource:

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.Find this resource:

Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830–1870. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957.Find this resource:

Langland, Elizabeth. Nobody's Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995. A very important book on the Victorian idealization of womanliness and the power of middle-class culture.Find this resource:

Orwell, George. “Charles Dickens.” In The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Vol. 1: An Age like This: 1920–1940. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968.Find this resource:

Wilson, A. N. The Victorians. London: Hutchinson, 2002. A study of important Victorians.Find this resource:

Woodward, E. L. The Age of Reform, 1815–1870. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.Find this resource:

Young, G. M. Portrait of an Age: Victorian England (1936). London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. This annotated edition by George Kitson Clark is twice as long and twice as good as Young's masterpiece.Find this resource:

Rob Breton

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