The Victorian Era
The Victorian Era is agreed to have stretched over the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901). It was a very exciting period with many artistic styles, literary schools as well as political and social movements. Furthermore the era was characterized by rapid change and developments in nearly every sphere, from advances in medical, scientific and technological knowledge to changes in population growth and location. It was a time of prosperity, broad imperial expansion and great political reform. The Victorian Era is today seen as an era of many contradictions. Social movements concerned with improving public morals existed next to a class system that imposed harsh living conditions on many people. Dignity and restraint were contrasted to prostitution and child labor. This rapid transformation had a huge impact on the country's mood. The age began with confidence and optimism, which lead to an economic boom including growing prosperity. At some point the prosperity gave way to uncertainty and doubt regarding Britain's place in the world.
The term "Victorian" owns a wide range of connotations, most specifically the high and strict moral standards. Nowadays the Victorian time is usually associated with 'prudishness' and 'repression'.
The following topics were chosen to give an inside view into some parts of the Victorian Era:
History of Victorian Morality and the Royal Family
Two hundred years before Victoria took the throne, the Puritan Republican Movement had temporarily overthrown the British monarchy. While England had been a Republic, strict moral codes had been imposed on people and even the celebration of Christmas had been abolished. As soon as the monarchy had been restored, a period of loose living debauchery had followed to rebel against the years of repression. The two forces of Puritanism and Liberty influenced Great Britain enormously. They especially influenced the public perception of the Hanoverian monarchs. George IV for example was perceived as a pleasure-seeking playboy, whose time in office mostly caused scandals.
When Victoria took the throne, the gap and interplay between high cultural morals and low vulgarity was strongly embedded in British culture.
The Queen's and her husband's attitude about sexual morality evolved out of their knowledge of the morally lacking life of the previous monarchs and the effect that their behavior had had on the public opinion towards the crown. Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, had suffered from the divorce of his parents who had both been involved in public sexual scandals. Therefore their moral code was rather high.
Prudery and Repression
Nevertheless verbal and written communication about emotions and sexual feelings were mostly discussed in the language of the flowers. However there were some explicit erotica writings, the most famous one being called 'My Secret Life' and the magazine 'The Pearl', which was even published as a paper book in the 1960's. Other erotica survived in private letters displayed in museums and there even was a study of women's orgasms.
Homosexuality was illegal and regarded as gross in the Victorian Era. Nevertheless there were many famous men from the British Isles, who were notorious homosexuals. The most famous one was probably Oscar Wilde. Towards the end of the century large trials were held on the subject of homosexuality. Interestingly enough, in the 19th century most boys were sent to boarding schools and as a consequence many boys' first sexual experience was with another boy.
Victorian Family Life
Upper and middle class families usually lived in big and comfortable houses. Each member of the family had its own place and the parents made sure the children were taught to 'know their place'. For the parents the upbringing of their children was the most important responsibility. They believed that a child must know the difference between right and wrong in order to become a thoughtful, moral adult. Consequently, when a child did something wrong it would be punished for its own good. A common saying in that time was 'Spare the rod and spoil the child' in which the Victorians believed.
The mother would spend her time planning dinner parties, visiting the dressmaker, or calling on her friends. She did not engage in household chores like cleaning, cooking, or washing clothes.
People often came from the country to work at townhouses as servants. The jobs were very popular because housing and clothing was offered. People usually spent their working lives in the households.
Poor working class families feared to end up at a workhouse, where thousands of homeless and broke families were forced to live. This could happen to the families when the father grew sick or was for some other reason unable to work. In the workhouses the families would be split up and dressed in uniform with their hair cut short. Many children out of poor families died of diseases like scarlet fever, measles, polio and tuberculosis, which are all curable today.
The Victorian Era was a time of enormous scientific progress and ideas. Darwin took his 'Voyage of The Beagle' and later published 'The Theory of Evolution'.
The Great Exhibition took place at Crystal Palace in London in 1851, exhibiting technical and industrial advances of the age.
Medicine and Physical Science continued to develop and improve throughout the century. There were significant changes that increased the specialization in surgery and hospital building. Also there were notable breakthroughs in anesthetics. Queen Victoria was the most famous patient publicizing anesthetics by taking Chloroform for the birth of her son in 1853. Modern Psychiatry began with men like Sigmund Freud. Furthermore by the end of the century a radical economic theory was developed by Karl Marx and his associates.
Politics were important to the Victorians. They believed in the perfection of their evolved, representative government and in exporting it throughout the British Empire. The Victorian time saw the beginning and spread of political movements, most importantly socialism, liberalism and organized feminism. The social classes were newly reforming. The old hierarchical order was changing with the steady growing of the middle class. The composition of the upper class was changing from pure aristocracy to a combination of nobility and emerging wealthy gentlemen of commercial class. The definitions of 'lady' and 'gentleman' were constantly changing but towards the end of the century there was a silent agreement that a gentlemen was someone with a liberal public (private) school education, preferably from Eton, Rugby or Harrow, no matter what the ancestors had been.
Art and Literature
Throughout the Victorian Era movements for justice, freedom and other strong moral values dominated opposed to greed, exploitation and cynicism. Culturally the novel developed during this time. It was a very important era and can be compared to the importance of the Shakespearean plays for the Elizabethans. Some great novelists were Sir Walter Scott, Emily, Anna and Charlotte Bronte, Oscar Wilde and of course Charles Dickens.
An author criticizing the Victorian morality was the author Robert Louis Stevenson, writing the novel 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' which explored the duality of good and evil. Increasing literacy stimulated growth in popular journalism. The novel however became the most powerful popular icon.
The Victorian era covers multiple art styles, including Classicism, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism. Right in the middle of these artistic movements some painters around Dante Rossetti formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The brotherhood rejected the conventions of industrialized England, in particular, the principles of art instruction at the Royal Academy. The artists focused on painting directly from the nature, producing colorful, detailed, almost photographic representations.