The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Victorian Period (in English literature)
Victorian Period (in English literature): An era in English literary history generally said to span Queen Victoria’s reign (1837—1901) but sometimes dated back to the Reform Act of 1832, the first of three major electoral reform bills. The period is often divided into two parts: early Victorian, ending around 1870, and late Victorian. Major literary movements during the Victorian Period included realism, Pre-Raphaelitism, and Aestheticism.
During the Victorian Period, England reached the height of its power and influence, as reflected by the phrase “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” The period was marked by rapid political, socioeconomic, and technological change stemming from industrialization and urbanization and spawned pressure for reform on issues ranging from class divisions to Irish autonomy to women’s rights. Science became a discipline, and new ideas, such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, set forth in On the Origin of Species (1859), posed a challenge to long-standing religious ideas and institutions.
The literature of the Victorian Period comes in virtually all forms and genres and was written in styles ranging from the romantic to the realistic, the satirical to the decadent. Noted nonfiction prose writers included essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle, utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, religious thinker and writer John Henry (Cardinal) Newman, and art critic John Ruskin. Among the major novelists and short story writers were Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope. Noted playwrights included Arthur Wing Pinero, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde. In poetry, leading figures included Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose elegy for Arthur Henry Hallam, entitled “In Memoriam A. H. H.” (1850), is sometimes singled out as the quintessential Victorian poem, perhaps because the theme most common in Victorian poetry is that of loss with its attendant uncertainty. This is not to say that Victorian poets never celebrated life or the present; Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra” (1864) begins “Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be, / The last of life, for which the first was made.” But Arnold’s characterization, in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” (1867), of a generation “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born” better conveys the generally wistful, elegiac mood of Victorian poetry.
The common conception we now have of the Victorians as prudish, hypocritical, stuffy, narrow-minded, and complacent is not entirely accurate, although it is true that: (1) segments of English society, particularly the growing middle class, did espouse many moralistic views that led to this conception; and (2) many Victorian writers euphemistically dance around certain subjects (notably sex) that are dealt with more directly in previous as well as subsequent periods. Still, the stereotype of Victorianism — bound up as it is with the identity of a pious, proper queen who allegedly advised her daughter to “Lie back and think of England” on her wedding night — disregards the richness of the period, which also produced a number of outlandishly comic writers, such as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, both practitioners of nonsense verse, and W. S. Gilbert, a whimsical humorist, poet, and playwright best known for the comic operas he wrote with Sir Arthur Sullivan. Moreover, many Victorians condemned the unattractive characteristics of Victorian thinking and behavior, rebelling against the “spirit” of the era or engaging in critical self-examination.