The Victorian era was principally a time of change, of transience: the translocation of a people, challenged morally, socially and in their religious beliefs, as never before. Standing majestically above all this was the image of stability which Queen Victoria symbolised. The shift from the rural life of the eighteenth century and the Romantic Movement in the Arts which accompanied it was displaced and the population in the industrial towns and cities swelled to the point of overflowing, producing slums and sweatshops rather than the wealth and security that had been sought, with ‘the Age of the Novel’ involved with social issues as well as establishing a new literary genre. In 1837, when Victoria came to the throne, these changes had already begun and by the time her reign ended, in 1901, more was ahead particularly if one considers the ‘long nineteenth century’ which encompasses the pre-war years up to 1914. How far her people were in a ‘better condition’ by the end of Victoria’s reign will be the subject of this essay, looking at the idea via the different media of change evidenced in religion, literature, politics and related social issues as well as the Imperialism which the establishment of the British monarch as the first Empress of India established.
In many ways, it is true to say that Victoria presided over a Renaissance which had not been seen since her antecedent, Elizabeth, had been on the throne. The coincidence that a female monarch should have been in place at both times of regeneration does not, however, imply a connective: conditions were very different during Elizabeth’s reign, particularly in the area of social mobility and religious imperatives. The Victorian era saw the greatest challenges to both of these that had ever been seen.
The movement of the peasantry to the towns saw an enormous shift in both the physical location of the population and its imperatives. Much was lost, in terms of tradition and permanence when the move to the cities occurred because most of those who did relocate in the hope of increasing their meagre incomes had never been farther than the next village before they moved and this had been the case for generations. Indeed, as early as the mid-nineteenth century novelists were using the idea of the rural idyll to exemplify an ideal existence now lost. This is evident in novels such as George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859) which was set some fifty years before it was written:
As he reached the foot of the slope, an elderly horseman, with his portmanteau strapped behind him, stopped his horse when Adam had passed him, and turned round to have another long look at the stalwart workman in paper cap, leather breeches, and dark-blue worsted stockings.
The mounted, unidentified and detached observer (a connective with the contemporary reader) takes a ‘long look at the ‘stalwart workman’ in an elegiac emblem of the author’s intent within the novel to show a time now lost and the changes that were about to take place. Adam as a type of workman has been displaced and is no longer to be found and which represents a longing for a return to old times and old days associated with the countryside which can be traced to the present day and certainly becomes a primary informative, present in works such as Flora Thompson’s enduringly popular Larkrise to Candleford (1945) and further evidenced even in the work of such ‘scientific’ novelists as H.G. Wells in his novel, The History of Mr Polly, and the character of Leonard Bast as well as the evocative, mystical rural setting in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, both written in 1910.