Victorian Period - a Time of Change (1837 -1901)

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"All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their own peril."--by Oscar Wilde, Preface, "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

The Victorian Period revolves around the political career of Queen Victoria. She was crowned in 1837 and died in 1901 (which put a definite end to her political career). A great deal of change took place during this period--brought about because of the Industrial Revolution; so it's not surprising that the literature of the period is often concerned with social reform. "The common perception of the period is the Victorians are “prudish, hypocritical, stuffy, [and] narrow-minded” (Murfin 496). As Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) wrote, "The time for levity, insincerity, and idle babble and play-acting, in all kinds, is gone by; it is a serious, grave time.

Literature of the Victorian Period:
It is important to realize from the outset that the Victorian period is quite long. Victoria’s reign lasted over 63 years, longer than any other British monarch. The Victorian era lasted roughly twice as long as the Romantic period. Keeping in mind that even the relatively short Romantic period saw a wide variety of distinguishing characteristics, it is logical that much longer Victorian period includes even more variety. Actually It forms a link and transition between the writers of the romantic period and the very different literature of the 20th century. The 19th century is often regarded as a high point in British literature as well as in other countries such as France, the United States and Russia. Books, and novels in particular, became ubiquitous, and the "Victorian novelist" created a legacy of works with continuing appeal. Many novels were published in serial form, along with short stories and poetry, in such literary magazines as Household Words. Below are a few of the noteworthy characteristics which appear often enough to be worth mentioning, but certainly do not encompass the entirety of the period. The drive for social advancement frequently appears in literature. This drive may take many forms. It may be primarily financial, as in Charles Dickens’sGreat Expectations. It may involve marrying above one’s station, as in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It may also be intellectual or education-based. Typically, any such attempt to improve one’s social standing must be accompanied by “proper” behavior (thus helping to provide the period with its stereotype). The period saw the rise of a highly idealized notion of what is “English” or what constitutes an “Englishman.” This notion is obviously tied very closely to the period’s models for proper behavior, and is also tied very closely to England’s imperial enterprises. Many colonists and politicians saw it as their political (and sometimes religious) duty to “help” or “civilize” native populations in colonized regions. It was thus important to have a model which provides a set of standards and codes of conduct, and the idealized notion of what is “English” often provided this model. Later Victorian writing saw the seeds of rebellion against such idealized notions and stereotypical codes of conduct. These “proper” behaviors often served as subjects of satire; Oscar Wilde’s plays are an excellent example. The later years of the Victorian period also saw the rise of aestheticism, the “art for art’s sake” movement, which directly contradicted the social and political goals of much earlier Victorian literature. One of the fascinating ways of approaching the Victorian period is to examine the influence of these later developments on the Modernist period which follows.
The Novel
The 19th century saw the novel become the leading form of literature in English. The works by pre-Victorian writers such as Jane Austen and Walter Scott had perfected both closely-observed social satire and adventure stories. Victorian novels tend to be idealized portraits of difficult lives in...
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