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Victorian Era: History, Culture and Literature

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Victorian age, as the word itself is telling us, is the period of English and world history marked by the reign of Queen Victoria, the most long-lived from all English emperors. The adopted timing of this age coincides with the years of Queen Victoria’s reign, respectively from 1837. until 1901. During her sixty four year long ruling, history remembers this period as the “Victorian age”

In this period the habit of reading widely spreads, and in England appears a group of writers who were called “eccentric” and who their romantic vision and attitude alleviate with humor. From now on the personal experiences, instead of becoming poetry and part of lyric, are becoming part of work that belongs to genre of essays or confessions. One of the most famous essays from that period is the essay “On Liberty” by Stuart Mill in which Mill basically attacks the missing social conformity and states that “every human being has the right to freely develop their individuality” and he tries to put the accent on the quality of society. Many essayists, and poets too, such as Arthur Hugh Clough, assailed hypocrisy of Victorian society and criticized immoral behavior. So Clough in The latest Decalogue says “Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,

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When ’tis so lucrative to cheat. Thou shalt not covet; but tradition, sanctions the keenest competition”.

The most famous English literate of the Victorian age certainly was Charles Dickens who was conscious that in the Victorian society there were many things that readers, and writers too, treated as humiliating and not educative and considered that it should not be exposed. Despite that, he dedicated a lot of his work exactly on approaching that humiliating and unfavorable everyday behavior to his reader through realistic impressions of realistic people and their lives. That’s why the character Mr Podsnap, from the novel Our mutual friend, was represented as an average Victorian man who states “’I don’t want to know about it; I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!”. Social critics of Dickens are sometimes harsh, but he ignored it most of the time and tried to stay on the side of idealists. It was indeed his attitude against the Victorian literature that took away a lot from his reputation in society. Namely, he was classified on a level of vulgar, was accused that his style is messy and that the plot is unbelievable and unrealistic. However, he remained memorable as a great artist mainly thanks to his ability to describe the atmosphere of the city, and that makes him the first novelist who described the ambient of the big and malicious metropolis and their miserable blocks. Dickens’s colorful, pathetic, comic or sentimental scenes of everyday life and extensive dialogues are revealing his inclination to theater, and publication of his novels in type of newspaper column, such as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, was very appropriate for the concept of his story made for the theater piece. So the Victorian age, generally and surprisingly poor in theater pieces, found in Dickens his hope and its dramatist through master pieces such as David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities etc.

While Dickens was fussed about for his “thrill of feeling”, another famous Victorian novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, was fussed about the missing of his feelings and sarcastic restraint that gave some “icy note” to his work. Thackeray’s style excels with some kind of classical psychoanalysis, but dualism too. Namely, from one point Thackeray endeavored to defy to the society of his time and take of its fake mask such as in work The Book of Snobs and Vanity Fair, but, on the other point, he adjusts to the rules of civilian expression of respect and conventional values. Furthermore, it is also worth to mention Anthony Trollope whose work was spiced up with humor, but were freed from all sentimental and melodramatic elements that marked the work of many other Victorian novelists, especially Dickens. His most famous work is The Chronicles of Barsetshire in which he faithfully and objectively show’s customs of different communities, preferably provinces, politics and wealth.

There was also a big emancipation of females, and the big number of female writers is there to witness. Together with George Elliot (her real name was Mary Ann Evans) and Elizabeth C. Gaskell there were also the Bronte sisters whose work and novels are being considered as novels of huge value. Some novels that stand out are Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte and Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte. Beside that they also preferred to use pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Action Bell and wrote poems where they expressed “mystical pantheism and staunch stoicism”. All those poems were published together as a collection of poems in 1846.

Another poets that are worth of mentioning are Matthew Arnold, Alfred Tennyson and Elizabeth Barret Browning, through their poetry terms of spiritual discomfort and social and political questions can be felt too. Furthermore, poets of the Victorian age continued using the inheritance of romanticism which can be seen in the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

English literature in Victorian age was very much marked by the humor too. Plenty of it can be found in the work of writers such as Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and even Elliot, and in poets like Thomas Hood who wrote a lot of satirical poems. Humor can be found in classic fairy tales such as Alice in the Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and Edward Lear the author of the English so called nonsense-lyric, whose Book of Nonsense achieved great success.

Furthermore, in the second half of 19th century, and especially by the end of the century, new topics appear in English literature. A new so called esthetic school appears, which inspired people not to give up on their experience, not even the tiniest part of it, and not to allow to be closed in the system which could stop them in looking for new experiences. That kind of school was influenced by French decadents, and its leader was undoubtedly Oscar Wilde and his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and drama Salome and also essays about esthetics Intentions. But still, liveliest part of his work are the theater comedies, such as The Importance of Being Earnest. After the scandal and the process in which Oscar was convicted for two years sentence because of “violation of morality”, homosexuality, the popularity of esthetic school meets an end. By the end of the century in theater art George Bernard Shaw appears, whose belief in the advancement of mankind, achieved by moral convictions and free choice, found its best locution in the drama called Man and Superman in the year 1901.

Dualism of the human nature implies that in each one of use there is the external Me, the one that is showed and appropriated to the social norms and which is the humans mask, and the inner Me, that would be representing the human’s suppressed and hidden personality, lust and needs. The more people reject their inner nature, in fact the less they accept who they really are, the more the schizophrenia of their being is conspicuous. It is important to connect the relation between the individual and social context in which it is. Because every age carries with it different, more or less rigorous rules. Victorian age is, with the big right, being called as the era of hypocrisy, surely mostly expressed in the field of sexuality, but also through other types of blissfulness, and so as it was it very much affected ordinary people and it led them to doubling their personality to false one as socially acceptable and the natural one as branded from the social’s point of view. Many writers of that time recognized this phenomenon as very important to be studied in literature, which clearly shows us the unique relation between their works when specifically talking about this problem.

In the story “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” written by Robert Louis Stevenson, this case of multiplying is most explicitly shown. Two personalities of the main character are in the mutual opposition. As the writer himself said – Jekyll is socially accepted but unhappy character, and says for himself that he is charlatan, whereas Hyde represents a man freed up from all the social stigmas, who lives entirely according to his own wishes and instincts, not caring at all what other people might think. Later on this story gave the needed material for making the strip character.

In the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Oscar Wilde gave us a similar concept. Dorian becomes fascinated with the attitude of Dr Henry, who gives the priority to hedonism and pleasure in beauty. Still, conscious of the fact that the beauty won’t last forever, Dorian makes a wish for his portrait to get old instead of him and his wish was grant. That, again, is the moment of release for human’s lust and unrequited wishes, where Dorian is released from all social stigmas, and his “sins” leave the consequences only on the hidden portrait.

In the novel “The Mill on the Floss” by George Eliot (also known as Mary En Evans) the main character Maggie was also torn apart between what she really wants and what was under certain circumstances expected from her. She refuses to follow the path of her happiness, love and intellectual growth, and instead of doing that, though the whole novel she tries to make others happy, instead of herself. In this case it is expressed the problem of overemphasized need of other people acceptance, and personal non-acceptance, which in the society of hypocrite like the one as in Victorian age affected a person to be very unhappy.

In the children’s book “Alice in the Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, the male female character, little Alice, has the identity crises. Used to strict social norms and orders that were applied in her high society, she gets lost in a world in which different and definitely opposite rules are required. In some weird way, that wacky world, in which the mess and rudeness are totally accepted, it represents Alice’s hidden personality, or her need for accomplishing her suppressed and unfulfilled wishes.

In the novel “Erewhon” by Samuel Butler he explicitly blames the hypocrisy of the Victorian age, putting it in the context of one utopian society, for which later on is shown that is far far away from what it really represents itself to be. One of the best illustrations of the

framework in Erewhon is one university professor’s sentence saying “Think with your head, but in the way we tell you” which tells us enough about the two-faced people in the time the writer lived.

In the end it should be pointed out that the topics, and many other works from Victorian age, are only at first sight limited by the period they were created in. But they are in fact very unique, and the best witness for that is the todays’ age in which the social, political and any other type of society hypocrisy is very much present. 

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