The Victorian era, from the coronation of Queen Victoria in1837 until her death in 1901, was an era of severalunsettling social developments that forced writers morethan ever before to take positions on the immediate issuesanimating the rest of society.

Thus, although romantic formsof expression in poetry and prose continued to dominateEnglish literature throughout much of the century, theattention of many writers was directed, sometimespassionately, to such issues as the growth of Englishdemocracy, the education of the masses, the progress ofindustrial enterprise and the consequent rise of amaterialistic philosophy, and the plight of the newlyindustrialized worker. In addition, the unsettling of religiousbelief by new advances in science, particularly the theory ofevolution and the historical study of the Bible, drew otherwriters away from the immemorial subjects of literature intoconsiderations of problems of faith and truth. NonfictionThe historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his Historyof England (5 volumes, 1848-1861) and even more in hisCritical and Historical Essays (1843), expressed thecomplacency of the English middle classes over their newprosperity and growing political power. The clarity andbalance of Macaulay’s style, which reflects his practicalfamiliarity with parliamentary debate, stands in contrast tothe sensitivity and beauty of the prose of John HenryNewman. Newman’s main effort, unlike Macaulay’s, wasto draw people away from the materialism and skepticismof the age back to a purified Christian faith.

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His mostfamous work, Apologia pro vita sua (Apology for His Life,1864), describes with psychological subtlety and charm thebasis of his religious opinions and the reasons for hischange from the Anglican to the Roman Catholic church.Similarly alienated by the materialism and commercialism ofthe period, Thomas Carlyle, another of the greatVictorians, advanced a heroic philosophy of work,courage, and the cultivation of the godlike in human beings,by means of which life might recover its true worth andnobility. This view, borrowed in part from German idealistphilosophy, Carlyle expressed in a vehement, idiosyncraticstyle in such works as Sartor resartus (The TailorRetailored, 1833-1834) and On Heroes, Hero-Worship,and the Heroic in History (1841). Other answers to socialproblems were presented by two fine Victorian prosewriters of a different stamp. The social criticism of the artcritic John Ruskin looked to the curing of the ills ofindustrial society and capitalism as the only path to beautyand vitality in the national life. The escape from socialproblems into aesthetic hedonism was the contribution ofthe Oxford scholar Walter Pater. Poetry The three notablepoets of the Victorian age became similarly absorbed insocial issues.

Beginning as a poet of pure romanticescapism, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, soon moved on toproblems of religious faith, social change, and politicalpower, as in Locksley Hall, the elegy In Memoriam(1850), and The Idylls of the King (1859). All thecharacteristic moods of his poetry, from brooding splendorto lyrical sweetness, are expressed with smooth technicalmastery. His style, as well as his peculiarly Englishconservatism, stands in some contrast to the intellectualityand bracing harshness of the poetry of Robert Browning.

Browning’s most important short poems are collected inDramatic Romances and Lyrics (1841-1846) and Men andWomen (1855). Matthew Arnold, the third of thesemid-Victorian poets, stands apart from them as a moresubtle and balanced thinker his literary criticism (Essays inCriticism, 1865, 1888) is the most remarkable written inVictorian times. His poetry displays a sorrowful,disillusioned pessimism over the human plight in rapidlychanging times (for example, Dover Beach, 1867), apessimism countered, however, by a strong sense of duty.Among a number of lesser poets, Algernon CharlesSwinburne showed an escapist aestheticism, somewhatsimilar to Pater’s, in sensuous verse rich in verbal music butsomewhat diffuse and pallid in its expression of emotion.The poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet, artist, andsocialist reformer William Morris were associated with thePre-Raphaelite movement, the adherents of which hoped toinaugurate a new period of honest craft and spiritual truth inproperty and painting. Despite the otherworldly or archaiccharacter of their romantic poetry, Morris, at least, found asocial purpose in his designs for household objects, whichprofoundly influenced contemporary taste.

The VictorianNovel The novel gradually became the dominant form inliterature during the Victorian age. A fairly constantaccompaniment of this development was the yielding ofromanticism to literary realism, the accurate observation ofindividual problems and social relationships. The closeobservation of a restricted social milieu in the novels ofJane Austen early in the century (Pride and Prejudice,1813 Emma, 1816) had been a harbinger of what was tocome.

The romantic historical novels of Sir Walter Scott,about the same time (Ivanhoe, 1820), typified, however,the spirit against which the realists later were to react. Itwas only in the Victorian novelists Charles Dickens andWilliam Makepeace Thackeray that the new spirit ofrealism came to the fore. Dickens’s novels of contemporarylife (Oliver Twist, 1837-1839 David Copperfield,1849-1850 Great Expectations, 1861 Our Mutual Friend,1865) exhibit an astonishing ability to create livingcharacters his graphic exposures of social evils and hispowers of caricature and humor have won him a vastreadership. Thackeray, on the other hand, indulged less inthe sentimentality sometimes found in Dickens’s works.

Hewas also capable of greater subtlety of characterization, ashis Vanity Fair (1847-1848) shows. Nevertheless, therestriction of concern in Thackeray’s novels to middle- andupper-class life, and his lesser creative power, render himsecond to Dickens in many readers’ minds. Other importantfigures in the mainstream of the Victorian novel werenotable for a variety of reasons. Anthony Trollope wasdistinguished for his gently ironic surveys of Englishecclesiastical and political circles Emily Bronte, for herpenetrating study of passionate character George Eliot, forher responsible idealism George Meredith, for asophisticated, detached, and ironical view of human natureand Thomas Hardy, for a profoundly pessimistic sense ofhuman subjection to fate and circumstance.

A second andyounger group of novelists, many of whom continued theirimportant work into the 20th century, displayed two newtendencies. Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, andJoseph Conrad tried in various ways to restore the spirit ofromance to the novel, in part by a choice of exotic locale,in part by articulating their themes through plots ofadventure and action. Kipling attained fame also for hisverse and for his mastery of the single, concentrated effectin the short story.

Another tendency, in a sense anintensification of realism, was common to Arnold Bennett,John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells. These novelistsattempted to represent the life of their time with greataccuracy and in a critical, partly propagandistic spirit.Wells’s novels, for example, often seem to be sociologicalinvestigations of the ills of modern civilization rather thanself-contained stories.Category: History

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