The Victorian period was in the late 19th century spanning the years of 1830 to 1901, the years that Queen Victoria ruled over England. This was the time when industrial cities thrived and the basis of life shifted from land ownership to an urban economy of manufacturing. A mixing of social classes resulted through factory owner/worker relationships and social standing became more malleable than it was in previous periods. Monetarily the country thrived but socially problems arose. The conditions of factories were horrendous and workers, including children, were forced to work up to 20 hour shifts. Women struggled to find a place in Victorian society outside of the role of wife and mother. “The Woman Question,” as it was called, engaged Victorians of both sexes, and led later to women’s acceptability in scholarly and literary institutions. A conscious effort to improve education in children resulted in greater literacy, which in turn spread a wide array of ideas to the masses. The term “Victorian” has become an adjective that the Norton Anthology defines as referring to qualities of “earnestness, moral responsibility, [and] domestic propriety” (1044).
The literature of the Victorian can be split into two categories; the novel and other non-fiction writings.
The novel is represented by works written by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, George Elliot, and Charlotte Bronte. The books are usually very long with intense physical descriptions of characters and places. A typical sentence of description is long and filled with both semicolons and commas. In The Woman in White, a mystery thriller of the time, Wilkie Collins describes the main character, Hartright’s first encounter with his pupil Marian:
Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. (34)
Wilkie Collins and other Victorian writers are part of what is called “Sensational Literature,” in which the author evokes the senses of his readers through writing with rich perceptual descriptions. Although there was mixing of social status most Victorian fiction deals with upper class or upper middleclass characters and plights. Charles Dickens’ Hard Times has an ironic title, given the main characters are rich factory owners and it is their workers who suffer the “hard times.” The novels present themselves as realistic with emphasis on the social structure as it actually stood in Victorian England. The Norton Anthology introduction to the Victorian period states that the novel was usually focused on “a protagonist whose effort to define his or her place in society is the main concern of the plot” 1059). The novel creates tension between thee hero/heroine and the surround social conditions, usually dealing with “the Woman Question” or Industrialization. Another interesting note that may help is the predominance of the color red or scarlet within texts.
Other Victorian Prose:
The growth of periodical literature made way for other more instructional ‘non-fictional prose.’ These pieces by writers such as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, and Sarah Stickney Ellis reflect social struggle and often propose alternative options to current situations.
The Main topics of these works are The Woman Question, Industrialization, and the debate between Science and Religion.
Thomas Carlyle in “Captains of Industry” discusses problems of industrialization and the need or factory workers to stand up to factory owners and demand better working conditions. John Ruskin in “Stones of Venice” questions the single menial tasks that are repeated all day by a single factory worker. He claims that a whole thing...