The Victorian age (1832-19019: GENERAL FEATURES
The 1832 Great Reform Bill is generally taken as the watershed between the Romantic Age and the so-called Victorian Age. The age that was taking shape in those years and that ended at the beginning of our century was much less homogeneous than it may appear at a superficial analysis. It was an age of extremes and contradictions under a surface of balance and respectability. The key-ideas that intersected in the seventy years of Queen Victoria's reign were no longer under the sign of heroic individualism but developed from the new relationship inside the social body provoked by the final success of the industrial organization of labour.
The 1832 Reform Bill, which shifted political power from the hands of the landowners to those of the manufacturers, implied cultural changes as well. The first area in which such changes occurred was the social area. If, on one side the new ruling classes were no less ruthless than those that had governed Britain in the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, on the other side they began to be gradually aware of the inhuman levels of exploitation of the workers. The dramatic situation of the working class was the main consequence of the economic theory of laissez-faire which refused to impose rules on the market and on the relationship between manufacturers and labours. At the political level this awareness gave rise to a series of reforms that in the end improved the conditions of life and work of the proletariat, avoiding at the same time that social revolution that, according to Marx's analysis, should have taken place in Britain first of all. Among the common people, this same awareness took the form of generic humanitarianism and often found expression in self-complacent sentimentalism. The Victorian novelists, mostly belonging to the middle-classes, shared the values and models of life of their reading public and consented with this attitude towards the main problems of their times. They reinforced their readers’ sense of guilt and, at the same time, they soothed it by indicating a facile way out of it: philanthropy granted from a position of social and economic privilege. Although among many contradictions, the more general prosperity that was spreading in Britain; the mechanical, scientific and even medical progress that was under everybody's eyes; the improvement of literacy; the well-meaning reforms that a middle-class Parliament gradually conceded to the lower classes, created a widespread belief that social peace was possible and progress practically limitless. This accounts for the optimism that characterised the age and for the self-complacency of the middle-class who were so successful as to impose their values even on the working class. The idea of respectability, for example . dominated the Victorian society and assimilated the Queen and the humblest of her subjects.
This moralizing attitude of mind did not eliminate, however, social evils such as poverty, prostitution, exploitation of labour, cruelty to children. These evils were removed from the average conscience either by being concealed under a veil of hypocrisy or by becoming the objects of mawkish drawing room talk.
Key-ideas of the Victorian Age
The Victorian Age was dominated by four main sets of ideas: Utilitarianism . the theory of Evolution, Tractarianism and social criticism or Socialism. Utilitarianism is a philosophical theory deriving from the Empiricism of Hume and Locke who had rejected all tradition and authority and posited that knowledge derives from experience. Utilitarianism moved further on and, refusing to admit any supernatural foundation for morality, stated that the only criterion to judge right or wrong is human welfare or, in Bentham's word “ the greatest happiness for the greatest number." The principle was severely criticised because it seemed to introduce material satisfaction as the only aim of man's existence. This...
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