The 19th Century was known as the Victorian Age as Queen Victoria ascended the English Throne in 1837. She ruled for the next 63 years until her death in 1901. She was a popular queen who drew support from the sentiment and enthusiasm of her people. As a constitutional monarch, her powers were limited but she made the royal throne the embodiment of the moral values and beliefs of her age. No wonder she gave the age her name.
Major Events of 19th Century & Their Impact on Literature
It was an economic social movement. It drew men away from the land by opening out new and exciting career options. With the emergence of democracy, political power was transferred from aristocracy to people. When the middle class attained political as well as financial eminence, their social influence increased rapidly.
The industrial revolution also had an impact on literature as can be seen in various novels of that time. The famous novel ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens has its theme from the industrial revolution, as he was born in 1812 & was a product of the revolution. Dickens’ polemical response to industrial growth, utilitarianism, capitalism, education, economic self-interest, and trade unionism is reflected in the novel through Coketown, Gradgrind Bounderby, Mr. M’Choakumchild, Harthouse & Slackbridge. Coketown shows an industrial town. Hard times as a text constructs a psyche developed in the socio-economic conditions of 1850 England.
Social criticism at the turn of century saw Hard Times not just as a novel of social indignation but of ‘passionate revolt’, where there are no villains and heroes but only oppressors and victims. And the culprit is the industry.
Scientific Temperament of the Age
The spread of science was largely a result of changing focus in the spread of education. More and more technical & night schools were opened in order to provide popular education for the mechanics and artisans. New institutes broadened their curriculum to include scientific and technical instructions.
Science played an important and moral role. The 3 major scientists whose works became fairly controversial were Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), Robert Chambers (1802-1871) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882).
Lyell published his ‘Principles of Geology’ in 3 volumes in 1830-33.
Chambers publishes his ‘Vestiges of Creation’ in 1844 while Darwin published his two books ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859 and ‘The Descent of Man’ in 1871.
Darwin’s book questioned the nature of divine creation and spoke about a universe governed by natural laws. It hit out the very basis of religion.
In the second half of the century, agricultural employment fell sharply. White collar workers and clerks grew in number. Increasing specialization multiplied the number of people who stood between the producer and the consumer. 70% of the population was working class.
Working class lifestyle was dominated by a sense of total insecurity of no employment insurance and no medical or health plans. There was an ambivalent attitude towards the society which resulted in deep-rooted prejudices. The industrial revolution destroyed the lifestyle of the laboring poor without any alternative.
Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice shows the prevailing class structure. Austen examines the importance assigned to class and rank in the post 1790s English society & dramatizes the interactions of the various classes, the underlying tensions amongst them and the process of accommodation that emerges between the landed gentry & the rising middle class.
Status of Women
During that time, there were not many opportunities for women, neither in terms of education nor occupation. In fact, they did not have property rights, i.e. they could not inherit their father’s property.
A woman was allowed to choose from two professions, a teacher or a governor. The governor’s job was not a solution but a mere alleviation of a woman’s dependency.
The institution of marriage was often a means of commercial exchange, improving fortunes, and of securing the future. But with the spread of education more and more women writers emerged. Though they were not accepted by society. In fact, the three Bronte sisters had to assume ambiguous pseudonyms whilst getting their novels published because of the prejudices prevailing in the society.
Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre (1847) is both a historical novel and a critic of society.
It challenges Victorian England’s prudishness and snobbish attitude towards women and the lower classes. The character of Jane Eyre represents the plight of the Victorian governors in the 1840s. The other three novels that take this theme forward are Deerbrook (1839) by Harriet Martineau, The Governors (1839) by Lady Blessington and Amy Herbert (1841) by Elizabeth Sewell. Bronte’s novel shows that while scant economic social provision for women was available, there was even less propriety in paid employment for women.
The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot was another novel that highlighted the repression of women. Born in a working-class family, George Elliot had to experience the entire range of marginalization common to a woman in the 19th Her fiction is recurrently concerned with the attempt to work through the moral dilemmas of young women in a patriarchal society.
The Luddite riots refer to an active working class movement which originated in Nottingham in 1811 and spread to Yorkshire in the early decades of the 19th Luddism spread far and wide due to the declining status of the skilled worker in the new industrialized process. It was a movement against the introduction of new machinery which furthered their decline and could make them unemployed.
Charlotte Bronte in her novel Shirley (1849), which is described as a condition of England novel, refers to the Luddite movement frequently.
The Victorian Age was an age of speed. A change was the catchword, and it was a cause of both anxiety and celebration. While science was demolishing religious beliefs, a practical religion that stressed on personal & non-doctrinaire faith became popular. A sharp dichotomy arose between the private, personal space and the public domain.
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