Even seemingly unshakeable axioms are prone to reassessment by historians, and Victorianism is no exception. Even the very period of Victorianism itself stands challenged: historians no longer refer unquestioningly to the "Victorian Age" as the precise years associated with the monarch but instead concentrate on a shorter period—a "high age"—from about 1830 to 1880. Yet critics shadowed the entire period in question, and the negative connotations were fired dramatically forward soon after the period ended, notably with Lytton Strachey's (1880–1932) mocking attack Eminent Victorians (1918). Moralizing, prudish, repressed (and repressive), and old-fashioned (rather than traditional)—each of these notions captures what Victorianism has meant to later generations.
The early Victorian years witnessed the emergence of a cluster of values and beliefs that represented the central ideas of Victorianism. These years are associated with developments in governance, economic and social life, science, and learning that capture the essential features of Victorianism. In governance, one can look to the reforms which, if not immediately democratic, changed the structure of parliament, ushering in a tradition of evolutionary change (with major Reforms Acts in 1832, 1867, 1884) and the expansion of local, middle-class political power with the Municipal Corporations Act (1835). In economic life, the hard-nosed essentials of political economy and utilitarianism reached a high point prior to the 1850s. Associated with such notable names as Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), James Mill (1773–1836), and David Ricardo (1772–1823), and later refined and developed by luminaries such as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), political economy helped to shape the policy conditions for the reform of the Elizabethan Poor Law (in the form of the Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834), and the ideology of self-help which, for a while, attained the status of mantra. By the time Samuel Smiles (1812–1904) penned the popularized guide to the joys of this creed (Self Help, 1859), the concept had already begun to be pushed to one side by a creeping state and the tendency of the working class to collectivize in the face of demands for Smilesian individualism: hence, the staggering rise of friendly societies, trade unions, the co-operative movement, and countless other examples of collective identification by the people.
Values and Beliefs
In religion, Victorianism balanced the ancient regime Anglicanism of the Church of England with a growing pluralism through alternative Christianities, new faiths, and the toleration of unbelief. The backdrop to this was a crisis of faith for Anglicans, dating to the early Victorian years, when the Church of England was rocked by fierce debates about Tractarianism, "Romish" rituals, and the intellectual contribution of the Oxford movement. At a more prosaic level, the Religious Census of 1851 revealed a general weakening of popular interest in the established church and many dissenting faiths, whilst Roman Catholicism prospered through Irish migration. Victorianism may be equated with spiritual piety and Christian morality, but alternative and opposite forces also had some importance. Agnosticism, advocated most notably by Thomas H. Huxley (1825–1895), offered, by the 1870s, an alternative to faith in the attempt to answer profound questions about the nature of being.
Victorianism came to be associated with patriarchical social values, stressing the importance of family and an image of motherhood captured well in Alfred Lord Tennyson's (1809–1892) poem, The Princess (1847):
Man for the field and woman for the hearth;
for the sword, and for the needle she;
Man with the head, and women with the heart;
Man to command, and woman to obey;
All else is confusion.
Thus, poetry, as well as prose, painting, and music, reflected hegemonic notions. Yet, the stereotype of the Victorian family perhaps assumed its importance precisely because there were so many challenges to it. In the cities, drink and crime denied many children the full influence of parental guidance, and the critics of industrialism saw in female and child labor a collection of evils that had to be addressed. But economic conditions placed women and children in this position. Poverty, drunkenness, and alcoholism were sometimes causes of prostitution. Charles Dickens's (1812–1870) portrayal of Nancy, the pathetic, doomed heroine of Oliver Twist (1837–1839), obliquely, and somewhat coyly, suggested how easy it was for a woman to fall prey to professional gangs. In Mary Barton (1848), Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1901) captured the horror that Victorian society felt at the sight of a "fallen women" in her portrayal of the stunted relationship of the widower John Barton and his sister-in-law, the fallen woman. Social reportage also emphasized this aspect of Victorianism: Bracebridge Hemyng's (1809–1898) study of prostitution suggested that, in 1857, London had 8,600 who plied this trade.
Behind the facade of staidness there was another sort of Victorianism—a kind of anti-Victorianism. Here, stifling mores were replaced by more adventurous and plural sexualities. Liaisons outside marriage, such as Dickens's longstanding affair with the actress Nelly Ternan, were common. William Gladstone's (1809–1898) self-flagellation—a habit the four-time prime minister shared with the bohemian Algernon Swinburne (1837–1909)—was his punishment for the sexual feelings (though there are no known sexual acts) aroused by his attempts to rescue London's prostitutes. Pornographic pictures and texts were readily available in the nineteenth century. Peep shows were commonplace and provided titillation to a broad spectrum of male society. As Simon Winchester's The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1999) demonstrates, William Chester Minor (1834–1920), the American military doctor, murderer, and prolific contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, aggressively pursued a sex life that utterly contradicted the conventional image of his age. Obsessed with sex and a regular user of prostitutes—prior to his incarceration in 1872 in the new Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for murdering a man in London—Minor harbored such a strong sense of self-loathing that he cut off his own penis. Homosexuality may have scandalized Victorian sensibilities, but it was not invisible. Literary works with a homosexual theme, such as Teleny (1883), were produced; Oscar Wilde's (1854–1900) trial and imprisonment reminded Victorians that homosexuality and pedophilia were part of their worlds; while the artist and aesthete Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) helped to create a self-image of sexual radicalism, including an unfinished pornographic novel, Under the Hill (1894). Not long after, in 1899, Lord Longford was recorded for posterity in Hansard with a telling contribution to a parliamentary debate: "Of course I have seen people recover from homosexualism. A boy at Eton assaulted my elder brother in the bath there and was later expelled for repeating the offence on another boy. Later he became a pillar of society and captained the county cricket team" (Sweet, p. 190).
Victorianism and Progress
No other age was quite so strongly associated with a faith in the progress of technologies. Victorianism is correctly and inextricably intertwined with inventions and the rise of the machine. Steam locomotion, iron, and then steel ships, telegraphy, and many other developments receive attention from historians, for the Victorians triumphed over so many challenges of distance and power that had held up such progress in earlier times. Justifiably, Victorianism remains associated with industrialism, urbanization, transport, technologies, travel, and communication. The essential character of Victorian technological determinism was that science and the practical men could change the world through invention and implementation.
Leaps in technology were matched by developments in social thought. Prophets of progress and the enemies of industrial modernity competed for space, and both groups contributed to the sense of what Victorianism was about. From the 1830s, the critics of Victorianism grew. Modernity was feared by many and loathed by some. Tories, such as the "Young England" group (which included Benjamin Disraeli [1804–1881]) looked back to a bygone age of preindustrial harmony, where deference, social equilibrium, and a more agreeable life was once thought to exist. Disraeli's classic, Sybil; or the Two Nations (1845), captured these sentiments brilliantly. Another stern early critic, the Scot Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), shared the "Young England" aversion to modernity but looked forward, not back. He abhorred the Victorian tendency to seek mechanical solutions to human problems and sought, instead, a reinvention of an earlier morality, but in a future setting. This style of criticism connected many early nineteenth-century thinkers, such as Carlyle and Robert Owen (1771–1858), to later socialists, such as William Morris (1834–1896). By the 1880s the critique of Victorianism was powerful indeed. Unlike on the continent, where Marxism was much more influential and where anarchism and communism posed a seemingly greater challenge, most British socialism sought accommodation with capitalism and was reformist in character. The Fabian, Sidney Webb (1859–1947), represented an administrative type of socialism, based upon efficiency and organization. William Morris's utopian socialism was characterized by a more fundamental attack upon capitalism and a pursuit of an alternative moral and spiritual way of life. Socialist criticism of modernity also had echoes in the growing feminist challenge to Victorianism. Although suffragism achieved its ends beyond the Victorian period, its seeds were sprouting long before Victoria's end.
Traditional interpretations of society as a static entity were undermined as the period progressed. Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) theories of evolution and Herbert Spencer's (1820–1903) considerations upon human development were to have a startling impact, radically altering classic Victorian notions of society and how to manage it. A social science, borrowed from evolutionary theory, that downplayed contractual in favor of organic ideas of society emerged. Social Darwinism and other evolutionary theories played some part in the development of a philosophy of state interventionism, which marked later Victorian, and particularly twentieth-century, thought (though recent studies, for example, H. S. Jones's Victorian Political Thought , sound more cautious and complicated notes). The search for perfectibility in society, which echoed nature's selection of the fittest, could be set up for or against the collectivization of social welfare.
Victorianism Beyond Britain
Victorianism—in architecture, science, governance, and culture—impacted heavily upon the wider world. Britain's short-lived preeminence as an imperial power bequeathed a rather hardier cultural imprint on the world. After the globalization of the English language, the most striking effect was in the character of civic culture in the English-speaking colonies and dominions: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In these places, political systems, bureaucracies, and education took on a clearly Victorian character. Victorianism also affected street design and civic building programs—in India, parts of Africa, and the Far East, as well as in the Dominions. Urbanism marked the Victorian world outside of Britain, as well as within. So great was the growth in Sydney, for example, that in 1901 that city (not Liverpool or Glasgow) boasted "it now stands as the second city of the British Empire, as estimated by the annual value of its rateable property" (Briggs, p. 310).
Even when it stood at the leading edge of world culture, exercising a hegemonic power over large swaths of the globe, Victorianism had its critics. In politics, social thought, and economics, interventionism and a demand for action pushed classical laissez-faire ideologies to one side. Sexual repressiveness was challenged; many on the left of politics rejected capitalism; and an imperial rot set in after the arduous struggles of the Boer War (1899–1902). The challenge to Victorianism often came in the shape of a wholesale anti-Victorianism from a disparate array of groups: workers, women, socialists, bohemians, and from anticolonialists beyond the metropolitan stage.
See also Empire and Imperialism ; Europe, Idea of ; Progress, Idea of ; Social Darwinism ; Utilitarianism .
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Sweet, Matthew. Inventing the Victorians. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.
Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nellie Ternan and Charles Dickens. London: Penguin, 1991.
Walkowitz, Judith. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. London: Virago Press, 1992.
Wilson, A. N. The Victorians. London: Arrow Books, 2003.
Winchester, Simon. The Surgeon of Crowthorne. London: Penguin, 1999.
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Donald M. MacRaild
VICTORIANISM. Queen Victoria reigned as monarch of Great Britain from 1837 until her death at the age of eighty-two in 1901. Although the people who lived during her reign had no special name for themselves, historians have termed them "Victorians," and the period itself the Victorian age. Nineteenth-century Great Britain and the United States shared a common language, some political institutions, and a similar culture, and thus the Victorian period is taken to encompass America as well. Victorian America is generally seen to denominate the period stretching from the outbreak of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I.
The later nineteenth century saw the United States become a world power. This political development was accompanied, and in part caused, by the emergence of a newly self-confident society, itself propelled by the twin engines of wealth and progress. Marked by a newly ascendant Anglo-Saxon middle class, increased bureaucratization, a consumer revolution aided by new communication technologies, and a growing consensus that power should be achieved through education and expertise rather than solely through wealth, Victorian America emerged from the crucible of the Civil War and Reconstruction a self-conscious and vibrant society. Alongside this confidence existed anxieties that America represented perhaps the "last best hope for mankind." Victorian America endured a fratricidal struggle, as well as periodic concerns that the great rush to modernization brought with it the onset of moral decay. Victorian culture, with its attendant worldview, was a central component of this new society, and indeed served to mark the Gilded Age in America.
The Importance of Being Earnest
The term "Victorianism" denotes no specific movement or ideology, but rather encompasses the varied and sometimes conflicting moral, cultural, social, and material components of American society during this period. If Victorianism has any central or defining characteristic, it would be the primacy of virtues, what in modern usage we term "values." Above all, Victorian Americans viewed life as a serious proposition, imbued with moral purpose. This view was derived in the main from religion, of which Evangelical Protestantism and Methodism were the most influential. Since earthly existence was a preparation for the afterlife, one should adhere to moral laws, with the Bible the guiding force. Every task served this moral purpose, and thus reading, work, and even leisure bore significance above and beyond their daily utility. Consequently, self-control was a highly prized trait. More broadly, Victorianism embodied attention to proper "character" and the maintenance of "respectability," the public display of one's inner morality. Practices such as covering furniture legs with pantaloons were largely myth, the stock-in-trade of the Victorian satirist, and the prudery of Thomas Bowdler (whose sanitized Family Shakespeare, appearing in ten volumes between 1804 and 1818, has given us the word "bowdlerized" to denote partial censorship) was less predominant as the century wore on. But Victorians paid great heed to propriety and appearances. Victorianism connoted absolute notions of right and wrong, and individuals were judged accordingly. This view was also applied to the world more generally. Victorians measured the success of their civilization according to its adherence to moral law, and judged other cultures accordingly. Here, Victorian values intertwined with nineteenth-century ideas of race, a social Darwinian outlook that conceived of a racial hierarchy, atop which were the Anglo-Saxon peoples.
Victorianism was not entirely as harsh as this sketch implies. Indeed, the Victorians employed a lighter view of life as well. If a strict adherence to moral law was the ideal, it was nonetheless recognized that men and women were very human creatures. Thus, lapses in moral judgment—a man's recourse to soliciting a prostitute, or a woman's purchase of an expensive dress—are not seen by historians as signs of hypocrisy, but rather examples of the ideological dissonance at the heart of daily life. Victorians also valued humor and leisure. Works of literature such as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which highlighted the sense of adventure and play central to life in Victorian America, proved vastly more popular than the work of more serious writers, such as Herman Melville, who sought to deconstruct such realist celebrations of American life.
The valuation of moral law and respectability also had a positive influence. Victorians' devotion to self-control and the development of proper "character" led them to pursue laudable humanitarian and charitable goals. While self-reliance may have been the ultimate goal—see, for example, the incredible popularity of the novelist Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick (1867) and From Canal Boy to President (1881), which championed the theme of poor-boy-makes-good—many Victorians devoted themselves to working with the downtrodden of society and supporting charities. Often such work was religious in organization, such as the Young Men's Christian Association. Still, the motive behind Victorian charitable work was to offer a "hand up," not a "handout." Other Victorian social causes included the abolition of slavery, though here of course were marked regional divides. Indeed, Victorianism was stronger in the northern states, where economic opportunities were more plentiful, and a stronger cultural Anglophilia was present. While Victorianism was closely linked with middle-class values, it was not intrinsically tied to social class. The wealthy man who hoarded his profits was no more respectable than the poor man who refused to improve himself.
The aspect of Victorianism that is perhaps most familiar is the divide between the private and public spheres. The Victorians cherished the home and the family as cornerstones of respectability, physical and social environments where the individual found solace from the vicissitudes of daily life. Women had a special role in maintaining home and family, and thus assumed a position as moral guardian. In this sense, Victorian women enjoyed a degree of influence. Women also assumed influence in the wider role through their work for various humanitarian and reform causes. That said, Victorianism dictated strict gender roles. Individuals, and especially women, were generally ignorant of their sexuality, and women furthermore were divorced from power because they had few legally recognized ownership rights. The "cult of domesticity" was as much a hindrance as a source of self-pride.
Victorianism was also embodied in the various manifestations of the visual arts. Victorian culture was intensely visual and demonstrative, from architecture and furniture to the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Aesthetics and function were given equal weight. Although not as prevalent as in England, Pre-Raphaelitism and the arts and crafts movement were influential in America during the Victorian era. Special attention must also be paid to the importance of the decorative arts in the Victorian world. As the place where the private and the public coincided, the material culture of the Victorian parlor displayed the tenets and concerns of Victorianism.
Victorianism After the Victorians
Victorianism has generated widely variant interpretations in the century since the death of its eponymous patron. Originally used simply as a broad designation for the previous century, early-twentieth-century commentators quickly called the term into rebuke, charging the Victorians with emotional aridity, a crass and ugly visual culture, and an arrogant self-confidence that encouraged racial and patriarchal hierarchies. Critics such as H. L. Mencken asserted that Victorian culture was the epitome of philistinism, valuing popularity over merit, and watering down great works of art so as to make them palatable to an uncultured mass. The Bible was praised not because of its message, but because it was a "best-seller." The rise of modernism in the arts in the wake of World War I further delegitimized Victorianism by calling into question the Victorian notion of representational, or mimetic, art and the belief that the arts were imbued with moral teachings. Victorian individualism, and the importance of self-reliance, fell into disrepute with the development of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and the rise of the welfare state.
By the second half of the twentieth century, however, Victorianism enjoyed something of a revival. Critics such as Walter Houghton and the socialist Raymond Williams pointed to the critical trends present in Victorian culture, with Williams in particular revealing an organic and consensual strain in Victorian thought that served as the impetus for positive reform. Victorian visual culture has also received a more sympathetic examination by American historians of architecture, including Henry Russell Hitchcock, who see in it the precursor to contemporary design movements. On a separate front, commentators such as the conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb point with favor to the Victorians' moral code, which in her view was a force for good in that it encouraged personal responsibility and rejected state patronage, a more effective recipe for dealing with social problems such as poverty.
Whether it is viewed as a mental and cultural world that championed progress, morality, and self-worth, or as a social code that promoted stultifying hierarchies and a base philistinism, Victorianism has proved of central significance in explaining the formative decades of the emergence of the United States as a dynamic cultural and political power.
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Howe, Daniel Walker. "Victorian Culture in America." In Victorian America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976.
Ickingrill, Steve, and Stephan Mills, eds. Victorianism in the United States: Its Era and Its Legacy. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1992.
Schlereth, Thomas J. Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876–1915. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Stevenson, Louise L. The Victorian Homefront: American Thought and Culture, 1860–1880. New York: Twayne, 1991.
Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.