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The Victorian Age (1837-1901)

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The Victorian Age (1837-l901)

historical background

The Victorian Age, so called after the long reign of Queen Victoria, is a very complex period.

It was an age full of contradiction: it was a time of prosperity, of progress and expansion, but also of social and ec­onomic inequality.

Literature, concerning itself more and more with political and social problems (reflects the various and contrasting aspects of the time).

This long period was dominated by the personality of Queen Victoria

The Victorian age spans through a longer period than Queen Victoria's reign

In fact, some events which took place before her coming to the throne had a great influence on the social history of the period. Among them of paramount impor­tance was the passing of the Reform Bill, which ex­tended the franchise to larger part of the middle-class and the repeal of the Corn Law which, making corn cheaper, enabled the enterprises to pay lesser wages. Never before had England known such economic devel­opment.

All these changes implied deep social transformation.

The merchant class and the working classes started to acquire a new consciousness. Victorian England was the scene of various radical and social movements as Chartism and Fabian Society.

Economic prosperity had changed the general conditions of life, but there was still much social injustice.

In mines and fac­tories there was a cruel reality (even women and children), only partly assuaged by the regula­tions stated in the Factory Acts. The Great Exhibition (1851), which took place in the enormous Crystal Palace, that became a symbol of the new age.

On the other hand, the progress of science created deep controversies.

Darwin's theory of evolution ("The Origin of Species") and the diffusion of Positivism completely revolutionized man's conception and created a conflict between science and religion.

Even cultural life developed

The abundance of newspapers and magazines, the diffusion of books, certainly contributed to the diffusion of edu­cation.

- the victorian novel

Novelists were encouraged and stimulated by the contact with the public (novels were often published serially in magazines and newspapers) and the novel became a powerful for conveying the new social, political and intellectual problems.

In the Victorian period there were some of the major English nov­elists such as Charles Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot.

- the victorian compromise

The Victorian compromise is the particulary situation which saw prosperity and progress on the one hand, and poverty and injusty on the other. This particular situation opposed ethical conformism to corruption, moralism and philantropy to capitalistic greedness.

Charles Dickens (1812-l870)

Charles Dickens is considered one of the greatest novelist of he English literature. Dickens  

was a man of his age, but, at the same time, he has also some distinctive characteristics, as a

great sense of humour and an inexhaustible fertility.

Early life

Charles Dickens was born at Portsmouth. When Charles was ten the family moved to London, in 1824 his father was sent to prison for debt. At the age of twelve Charles was forced to go to work in a factory.The experience was traumatic, and it influenced his novels.

First jobs

Charles was taken from the factory and attended school, then he went to work in a legal office. He then became a parlia­mentary reporter.

The journalist

He also wrote for the comic newspapers and en­tered serious journalism. He adopted the pen name of 'Boz' and in 1836 two series of "Sketches by Boz" (short articles describing London people and scenes), where published.

The apprentice writer

This success led to "The Pickwick Pa­pers", his first novel (relating the adventures of a group of eccentric people travelling on the English roads), where the comic and picaresque elements are mixed.

His social concern

His personal life was less happy. He married Catherine Hogarth in 1836, and they had ten children. During the same period he became to be conscious of social injustice, political incom­petence, the poverty and suffering of the great mass of the people, and the class conflicts of Victo­rian England. The result was a critical against contemporary society.

Social novels

An example is Oliver Twist, which describs the sufferings of an orphan lived in a

workhouse, who then runs away to London and joins a gang of

"bad childrens".

- In Martin Chuzzlewit he attacks cruelty in boarding schools,

while in Hard Times he deals with the sufferings of the facfory system and the harm don   

by the Utilitarian philosophy.

Mature works

In the 1840s, Dickens wrote a series of novels which were more carefully plotted: for example Dombey and Son and Bleak House.

Novels of 'growing up'

In this period Dickens also turned to semiautobio­graphical themes (David Copperfield).

Later life

Some of the wealth he acquired from his activities-novel writing, lectures, public readings-he used to found charities to help the poor, especially children, for them he founded schools. He died in 1870.

Settings of his novels

Dicken's novels present a variety of settings, from the countryside of The Pickwick Papers through the provincial towns in Hard Times. However, Dickens' most typical scen­eries are those of London.

In the vast city dif­ferent social classes live without communicate. When working on a novel, he would walk the streets of London, often at night, and draw inspiration from it.

Dickens' art and humour

Dickens created a vast range of char­acters: eccentrics, ogres, waifs, and rogues. Like Shakespeare, he was a great master of the Eng­lish language. Create dialogue is unmatched by any other English novelist.

The most important character of Dickens' style is his hu­mour.

He was a master of all tricks of the comic style: - caricature of physical or mental defects, 

- irony,

- humorous dialogue,

- dialect.


Dickens' characters represented a vivid picture of Victo­rian England. They derived from the lower and middle class.

His characters are too easily divided - particularly in his early novels - into good and bad.


As for the plots of his novels, they are all complex. They involve many characters, many parallel stories - plot and sub-plots - intrigue, often mystery, and incredible coincidences.

The novelist's reputation

Critics tended to regard him as a great comic writer, whose plots were implausibie and whose characterisa­tion was superficial, contemporary critics tend to see his works as com­bining social realism (with metaphor and symbolism).

Oliver Twist (1837-38

A metà del secolo scorso Oliver, un trovatello inglese, si affaccia fiducioso alla vita, ma questa gli riserva

un'accoglienza molto dura: prima un collegio che è una vera prigione, poi un lavoro miserabile con gente che

lo maltratta, poi l'incontro con una banda di ragazzi sbandati addestrati al furto da un vecchio farabutto . Un

raggio di sole arriva quando un vecchio, paterno signore si interessa a lui, lo accoglie con affetto. Ma non è

finita: i loschi interessi della banda richiedono, la presenza di Oliver, che viene rapito al suo benefattore e

rischia di ripiombare nel mondo della malavita. Ma c'è una ragazza che, nonostante tutto, trova un pò dì pietà

per quel bambino indifeso e lo salva, permettendogli a costo della vita, di tornare a un'esistenza serena.

Science and Evolution

Scientific discoveries marked the beginning of rationalism and positivism.Victorian writers were particularly interested in the ethical problems raised by science.

Charles Darwin's "Origin of species" stated the evolution of man from apes.

Charles Darwin became interested in geology and biology at Cambridge. He made along voyage to the South Seas aboard The Beagle, as a Naturalist.

The 'Woman Question'

'Woman Question' was invented by the Victorians. The Victorian women were the first to

speak about a "feminist movement". Now, infact, they could take a degree, even if, they weren't allowed to go to Oxford and Cambridge. Some women rebelled against this state of things. The most famous was Florence Nightingale who, against her parents began a career in nursing and hospital administration.

The Late Victorian Novel

New features of the Victorian Novel

The novels published in the second half of the nineteenth century are different from those of the Victorian period.

In this period, infact, were more interesting the study of characters' psychology.

A general realistic trend

The late Victorian novel based on realism, already visible in George Eliot's "Adan Bede". George Eliot was interested in people's jobs, and to use dialect as a means of characterisation.

The writers of "the late Victorian Age" used to write in a realistic way, because of the influence of Darwinism and Positivism.


The extreme, or most rigorous, form of realism was called Naturalism and came from France.

The major characters are rebellious and uncon­ventional.

Ghost and detective stories

There were two genres:

The ghost story not Italian castles, but Vic­torian houses.

- The detective story.

Aestheticism (*D'Annunzio)

A definition

The term Aestheticism, or_the Aesthetic Move­ment, is used to refer to a movement in the visual and literary arts. Sensual pleasures and the cult of beauty were important for the Aesthetic movements. Its major representatives was Oscar Wilde.

The theory of Aestheticism: Walter Pater

Walter Pater was an Aesthetic Poetry.He saw that to ht the Brevity of human life the writers had to devote himself to pleasure (PIACERI

Pleasure as the aesthetic basis of art

"Art for Art's sake" was the slogan of Aestheticism; and for this art had not any moral basis.

The Decadents

They were called Decadents be­cause of their life-style and 'immoral' writings.

The Decadents gradually moved away from simple natural things, and preferred the artificial and the exotic. They theorised infact the use of drugs to find (TROVARE ) forbidden pleausures.

Oscar Wilde

Early life and education

Wilde was born in Dublin, in a very important family. He studied at the Trinity College.

The Oxford influence

At Oxford he was immediately attracted to the Aesthetic Movement, particularly as elaborated in Walter Pater's The Renaissance, which remained his favourite book. Wilde had a reputation as a brilliant conversationalist.

A dandy in London

After, Wi1de moved to London where he established his reputation as the most refined of the 'aesthetic young men'.

He assumed extravagant habits against the middle class of his time.

His brillant wit (INTELLIGENZA) was succeful in the upper class represented in his comedies.

Marriage and first works

In 1883 he married Constance Lloyd, and they had two children. His first important works were written a series of fables, and some short sto­ries.

Litterary success

Wilde's first literary success came in 1890 with a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was an exhibition of extreme decadentism and a mys­tery story. Then he produced Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The importance of Being Earnest, still re­garded as the perfect comedy of its type.

The scandal and prison

Wilde's social and literary success changed in 1895, when he was arrested and sent to prison with hard labour in Reading for his homosexual re­lationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queens­bury (homosexuality was a serious criminal offence).

His period in prison gave him the inspiration for two of his greatest works, which inevitably re­flect a new more somber view of life: The Ballad of Reading Gaol, on the way prison chang­es a man, and De Profundis, a long autobiographi­cal letter reflecting on his change of fortunes and the ironies of life and art.

The final years in exile

Then he went to France under the name of Sebastian Melmoth. In Paris, Wilde lived a miserable exis­tence as social exile, supported by money from his friends, and died in a small hotel.


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