Victorianism and the Victorian Novel

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VICTORIANISM

AND THE VICTORIAN NOVEL

Nineteenth century English literature is remarkable both for high artistic achievement and for variety. The greatest literary movement of its earlier period was that of romanticism. It was born in the atmosphere of the violent economic and political turmoil that marked the last decades of the 18th and the first decades of the 19th century. A discussion of Victorianism involves a consideration of a diversity of views about a glorious epoch in English cultural history, and an analysis of the contradictory feelings that it stirred in those concerned with its achievements and decline. Those who lived in the age of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) were witnessed of an unprecedented material and scientific progress. But for some of them Victorianism was associated with cultural decline and anarchy of spirit. To our contemporaries, Victorianism signifies a far greater complexity, resulting from the interaction of a number of polarities that make up the cultural history of the age. An attempt to define and interpret Victorianism is doubtless difficult. An immense amount of information, often contradictory and even debatable, discourages one’s attempt to give a final interpretation of the epoch. In the Victorian age England became highly industrialized and a modern economy was developed. The force of steam power was used for railways, printing presses and a merchant fleet which had no equal in the world. England invested in all continents and was the world’s banker. The situation was regarded as anarchy of spirit, atheism, spiritual wasteland, as it comes out from Thomas Carlyle’s description of the age: The truth is men have lost their belief in the Invisible, and believe and hope ad work only for the Visible; or, to speak it in other words: this is not a Religious age. Only the material, the immediately practical, not the divine and spiritual is important to us. The infinite, absolute character of virtue has passed into a finite, conditional one; it is no longer a worship of the Beautiful and Good, but a calculation of the Profitable[1]. The intellectual history of the time consists largely of a series of reactions against it represented by: the Oxford Movement, Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Mathew Arnold, John Ruskin and Alfred Tennyson. Thomas Carlyle insisted on the importance of duty. John Stuart Mill, who had been educated according to the strict principles of utilitarianism, experienced a moral crisis and finally understood the importance of feeling. From Wordsworth he took over the principle of inner culture and from Goëthe a respect for a personality integrated in social life. John Henry Newman found the sense of existence in self-denying work and moral submission. Through their most brilliant representatives, the Victorians were also their most severe critics. The idea of progress had considerable currency during the developments in the nineteenth century. It may also be regarded as an outgrowth of the economic development. The notion of perfectibility prevailed in an age when people were organizing a system of education on a broad, democratic basis, establishing the rights of free speech and trade unionism, extending the franchise, reshaping their legal code. It was the age when the middle classes and a great part of the common people had access to culture. Moral duty remained an imperative with the most people, no matter whether it was supported by self-interest or Christian principles. Victorianism denotes not only an epoch but also a cultural phenomenon whose significance transcends the limits of the age. It might be defined by the complementary action of opposite tendencies: individualism and self-denial, material pursuits and idealization of existence, the influence of science and the force of religion. The Victorian age established the predominance of the novel as the best suited literary form to express the...
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