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Queen Victoria - The Victorian age

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Economy and society

The Victorian age took its name from Queen Victoria, whose reign (1837 - 1901) was the longest in the history of England. It was a period of economical and territorial expansion. The modern urban economy of manufacturing industry and international trade took over from the old agricultural economy. "Free trade" became the dominant economic ethos without changes in the political and social structure. Britain was the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. This was the result of material exploitation of its growing number of colonies. With the revival of revolutionary activity in continental Europe, the unsettled masses of the urban poor were perceived as a potential danger to the existing order of things and gradually over the century steps were taken to incorporate portions of the working classes into society through a series of reforms and progressive policies.

The pressure for reform

After the French Revolution, Britain had turned politically conservative. Industrial regions of

the country were not so well represented, votes had to be declared publicly, was often subject to

bribery or intimidation. These factors gave rise to the working class Chartist movement. The Chartists' demands contained six points: votes for all males; annually elected parliaments; payment of Members of Parliament; secret voting; abolition of the property qualification for candidates seeking election; the establishment of electoral districts equal in population. The People's Charter was rejected three times over a period of 10 years. The third petition was rejected in 1848, the year that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote their Communist Manifesto denouncing the alienation of labour under capitalist organisation, and revolution was erupting again across Europe. In Britain however, there was no such risk of a mass uprising. The Chartists were poorly organised and split by internal differences. All their demands, except that for an annually elected parliament became law between 1860 and 1914. A series of reform bills in the second half of the century gradually extended the vote to members of the working classes until the first demand of the Chartists, that of giving all men the right to vote, was granted in 1918. Women, however, had to wait until 1928 before they too were all able to vote.

Technological innovation

The mid 19th century was also a time of great technological innovation: the invention of steam-powered machinery, the development of railways, became faster and more efficient, leading to the rapid expansion of urban centres. The Great Exhibition (1851) held in Crystal Palace (London), became a symbol for Britain's dominant position as an industrial and imperial trading power. Communications were also greatly improved thanks to a more efficient mail service and the invention of the telephone. Printing became cheaper, which led to a proliferation of literary production of all types. The age was characterised by a general feeling of optimism.

The cost of living

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Britain's home economy mostly revolved around agriculture and the textile industry. Mechanisation meant increased competition. The prices of finished products fell, although profits stayed high thanks to increased sales. But high production costs decreased the manufacturers' profit margin. The only solution was to cut production costs, which was most easily done by the direct cutting of wages. The cost of living, however, was kept artificially high by the Corn Laws which maintained the price of corn in Britain at an unrealistically high level. As a result there was widespread starvation. It was the combination of these factors that sent masses of people to the cities to look for work in factories.

Poverty and the Poor Laws

The price of corn was kept artificially high by the Corn Laws, paupers risked starvation and could not feed their children. In order to solve this problem, the children were declared destitute and, forced to separate from their families, were sent to work in parish-run workhouses, in return for which they received barely enough food to survive. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that poverty was to be widely recognised as a social problem.

The Victorian compromise

The urban workers continued to live in conditions of abject poverty while being systematically exploited by their rich employers. To confront the appalling conditions of the urban environment, the government promoted a campaign to clean up towns devastated by epidemics, and built modern-hospitals. The police helped to safeguard the law but at the same time had the function of controlling the masses of the urban poor, since the law was invariably on the side of property owners. In the minds of many wealthy Victorians, the poor were not victims of circumstance but a

dirty, dangerous and immoral species. However, the Victorian ideal represented by such values as church, family, the home and the sanctity of childhood applied only to those happy few who could afford them. Middle-class women were expected to conform to a submissive and pious domestic role - the so-called angel in the home. By stepping outside of this role, a respectable woman could ruin her reputation. Similarly, the idea of childhood as a paradisal golden age, proated by the children's literature of the time, masked the fact that the children of the poor were forced into labour at an extremely early age and often separated from their families.


In the first part of Darwin's theory was not new: this was the idea that all forms of life on the et had gradually derived over hundreds of millions of years from a common ancestry, and were not, as religion had always taught, preconceived, fixed species designed by some divine being. The second part of Darwin's theory concerned the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. Before Darwin, biology and natural history had been the last refuge for the belief in a creation ordered by divine providence. It was Darwin who showed that all existing species had undergone considerable mutation, and that their adaptive characteristics had evolved through an extremely long process of

natural selection. In a given environment, members of the same species compete for survival, and

it is those best adapted to the environment who will survive. The characteristics which help them to survive are biologically selected and copied so that they are inherited by their descendants, who by this measure become even better adapted.

Uses and abuses of Darwin

In Darwin's mind, his theory applied strictly to the domain of biology and natural history, but unfortunately like many other scientific ideas, it was soon being abused for social and political ends. Social Darwinism was likewise used to support the theory that the underclasses were less evolved, genetically degenerate and thus had a natural vocation to vice and crime. Simplified, popularised versions of Darwin, along with anti-Semitism and nationalism, undoubtedly played a part in shaping the mind of the young Adolf Hitler.


Hardy has been from time to time defined as a regionalist, a pessimist, as well as a realist, a romantic and a naturalist. Romanticism: the total immersion in nature and his belief that only in rustic life men can express their passions to the full, make Hardy a romantic. But, while for the Romantics Nature usually meant joy and consolation, for Hardy it came to mean something else, that is an hostile power, indifferent to men's destiny. Love, which is the basis of all his novels, and which is another romantic content, quite often ends in disillusion and failure, destroyed by institutions like marriage or by society and by Fate. Pessimism: the influence of the latter scientific discoveries and the reading of philosophers such as Darwin led him to work out a pessimistic theory, according to which man is an insignificant insect in an indifferent universe. Man is therefore the victim of an obscure fate; this led Hardy to work out the idea of a kind of predestination. The Wessex, which is the land of much of his novels is presented as a world in decline, in fact mechanization is destroyng isolation and rhythmos of country life. Tess is mainly a rich portrait of country dile disruped by the economic and social changes brought by the industrial revolution. The downfall of country life is not only a historical consequence of industrialisation, but embodies a deeper vision of the negative forces shaping human life and destiny. Tess's fall is simbolically linked with disappearence of the idealized country life. Tess is the victim male-dominated society with unjust moral code. Tess is the victim both of Alec and of Angel, in fact Alec blakmails and seduces her without thought of marrying her. On the other hand Angel, whom Tess truly loves, abandons her, overcome by traditional values and ordinary prejudices. A web of symbols envelopes the whole novel (she is often described in terms of ts, ed to a small defenceless bird to suggest her grace and the association with a serpent simbolizes her corruption by Alec). The recurrence of white and red in the novel emphasizes Tess's innocence and passion, besides red is the colour, together with black, of the mechanical world. But Tess is also the victim of fate and a disordered world. Tess is as relic from the past who is unable to find her own place in the evolution of modern civilization. She is split between two contrasting worlds: the old aristocratic order and the new bourgeoisie; the agricoltural world and the new world of money and commerce. The final words 'justice was done' ironically epitomize the fatalistic concept present in all the book. Plot it tells the story of a young girl of a poor Wessex family, who finds out of being th descendant of a famous ancient family, the D'Ubervilles. Then Tess goes for help to a rich supposed relative, Alec, who seduces and gets her pregnant. Some years later, while working as a milkmaid, Tess falls in love with Angel and accepts his proposal of marriage. After their marriage on the wedding night, she confesses her past experience to him. Angel, shocket and disillusioned, abandons her and goes to Brazil. Alone and poor, she becomes a field worker, always hoping for his returne. But one day she meets Alec and becomes his mistress. When Angel returns she murders Alec, later she is finally arrested ( while simbolically sleeping on the stone of sacrifice at Stonehenge).


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