A New Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture
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A New Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture

Herbert F. Tucker, Herbert F. Tucker

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eBook - ePub

A New Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture

Herbert F. Tucker, Herbert F. Tucker

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The Victorian period was a time of rapid cultural change, which resulted in a huge and varied literary output. A New Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture offers experienced guidance to the literature of nineteenth-century Britain and its social and historical context. This revised and expanded edition comprises contributions from over 30 leading scholars who, approaching the Victorian epoch from different positions and traditions, delve into the unruly complexities of the Victorian imagination.

Divided into five parts, this new Companion surveys seven decades of history before examining the key phases in a Victorian life, the leading professions and walks of life, the major literary genres, the way Victorians defined their persons, homes, and national identity, and how recent "neo-Victorian" developments in contemporary culture reconfigure the sense we make of the past today. Important topics such as sexuality, denominational faith, social class, and global empire inform each chapter's approach. Each chapter provides a comprehensive bibliography of established and emerging scholarship.

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Part One
History in Focus
Lawrence Poston

Finding the Beginning

When did the Victorian age begin? While the senescence of Victorian England has been located anywhere from the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 1887 to the Battle of the Somme in 1916, its beginning – the “Victorian prelude” (Quinlan) – has been placed at least as far back as the 1780s, which saw the moral reaction in English manners portended by the Wesleyans and the Evangelical revival. Here “Victorianism” is simplistically equated with a social conservatism that both antedates and postdates the queen herself; Mrs Grundy, it seems, was on the throne longer still. A literal reading of the term implies that the Victorian era begins with the accession of Victoria to the throne in 1837 and ends with her own demise in 1901. Yet the first generation of authors we now know as “Victorian” was born at the end of the eighteenth century and in the first two decades of the nineteenth. Carlyle, Mill, Macaulay, Newman were all publishing in the 1820s; Tennyson and Browning in the early 1830s. Strict adherence to the dates of reign ignores these larger continuities.
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals has canonized another date: 1824, the year of Byron's death and of the founding of the Westminster Review as a party organ for the Benthamites, designed to add a Radical voice to the select upper-middle-class reading scene dominated by the Tory Quarterly Review and the Whig Edinburgh Review. More recently, Richard Cronin has chosen the year 1824 to identify a generation of “Romantic Victorians” like George Darley, whose careers fall mostly outside what has generally been taken to be mid- or “high” Victorianism. Byron's own contemporaries saw his death in symbolically charged terms. As Edward Bulwer (later the much-maligned Bulwer-Lytton) put it in his study of English society, politics, arts, and manners, England and the English (1833), “When Byron passed away, the feeling he had represented craved utterance no more. With a sigh we turned to the actual and practical career of life; we awoke from the morbid, the passionate, the dreaming” (286). For Bulwer, the utilitarian Bentham had succeeded the romantic egoist Byron as the cultural symbol of his day. The very strength of the recoil from Byron was a tribute to the sway his passionate and sometimes morbid nature had exercised over the reading public. Yet even Byron had prepared the way for Bentham, to the extent that the poet's own assaults on national prejudices had engendered a more skeptical climate receptive to Bentham's interrogation of national institutions.
Byron and Bentham as twin cultural symbols have a powerful resonance for the student of the period. But between them they do not begin to account either for the multitude of voices counseling different things in the years immediately preceding Victoria, or for a rapidly changing political climate. While it may be more suspicious than auspicious to proclaim the emergence of a distinctive self-awareness at a particular moment in history, most of us do so at the beginning of a new decade; we use the terms “sixties,” “seventies,” “eighties” to encode a cluster of political and cultural assumptions; and if we keep diaries and watch our own biological clock the onset of a new decade is likely to breed still more self-examination than a new year. One can make a case for 1830 as one of those possible Victorian beginnings. Two diarists in January 1830 saw that something was afoot, and they did not like what they saw. One of them was Charles Greville, the diarist of the reigns of George IV, William IV, and Victoria, whose sheltered position as clerk to the Privy Council gave him unparalleled access to politicians of all factions. On January 7 he wrote, “The revenue has fallen off one million and more. The accounts of distress from the country grow worse and more desponding” (Greville I, 224). Ten days later finds him in a more perturbed vein: “The country gentlemen are beginning to arrive, and they all tell the same story as to the universally prevailing distress and the certainty of things becoming much worse; of the failure of rents all over England, and the necessity of some decisive measures or the prospect of general ruin” (226). The other is one of those country gentlemen, General William Dyott, a Staffordshire magnate then 68 years old, writing on New Year's Day 1830: “I believe a year never opened with less cheering prospects to a country than the present for old England; distress attending all classes of the community … Meetings held in various parts of the kingdom to represent the distress of the country” (Darwin I, 248). For such disturbed but insular observers, the question was whether the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel between them could produce any program capable of alleviating the widespread economic distress of the countryside, and thus a threat to the old order.
More shocks, some of them not altogether unwelcome, like the death of the widely discredited old rake George IV on June 26, followed throughout the year. At home, talk of reform, the antislavery agitation which Greville attributed to the bothersome Methodists, and a new Parliament in his words “full of boys and all sorts of strange men” all seemed to herald transition. So, abroad, did the overthrow of the French monarchy, in the three days of July, which in England revived radical hopes and fears; for the first time since the 1790s, the tricolor was hoisted in several English cities, and even the cautious Whigs were viewed by some of their more conservative colleagues as contemplating a doctrinaire reform in the French style. It was, again, Bulwer who sensed the impending change and embraced it openly:
Just at the time when with George the Fourth an old era expired, the excitement of a popular election concurred with the three days of July in France, to give a decisive tone to the new. The question of Reform came on, and, to the astonishment of the nation itself, it was hailed at once by the national heart. From that moment, the intellectual spirit hitherto partially directed to, became wholly absorbed in, politics; and whatever lighter works have since obtained a warm and general hearing, have either developed the errors of the social system, or the vices of the legislative. (288–9)
The Reform currents given new life in England by events on the Continent had, by the time England and the English was published, found expression in the First Reform Act of 1832. That date itself is indeed the most convenient point around which to gather the various reforming clusters of the decade preceding Victoria's accession, and to mark an evolution from older paternalist to newer entrepreneurial ideas of the social order. Yet the latter part of Bulwer's statement suggests another aspect of the 1830s which is particularly striking to the student of literature: the displacement of works of the imagination by the all-consuming task of Reform, or their subordination to the political agendas which so preoccupied the larger public.
The paradox of the 1830s has often been described in terms of the striking contrast between the richness of their political history – Reform, the growth of political and labor unions and at the end of the decade the movement for the redress of working-class grievances, Chartism, the first stirrings of the Anti-Corn Law League, the beginning of systematic government intervention in prison conditions, education, welfare, working hours, and public order – and the apparent barrenness of the cultural scene. That prodigiously diligent later Victorian woman of letters, Margaret Oliphant, trying to account for the strange hiatus in poetry and fiction between about 1825 and 1840, wrote that “the period which witnessed Her Majesty's happy accession was not in itself a very glorious one, at least as far as literature is concerned. It was a season of lull, of silence and emptiness, such as must naturally come after the exhausting brilliance of the days just gone by” (I, 1). But Bulwer's post-Byronic characterization of a shift in sensibility from the dreaming to the practical suggests a more productive approach. It echoes in the attempt of more recent scholars to isolate a distinctive “public voice” in English literature of the 1830s and 1840s, a voice intended to “transcend the doubt which by 1830 had fatally touched the fundamental Romantic faith, while the self-consciousness of this effort found expression in the ‘private’ voice which qualified the work of the best writers” (Madden 97). But those writers must first of all be seen in the context of an age which itself was coming to greater self-consciousness about its aims and purposes.

Georgian or Victorian? The Political Scene

The man who succeeded George IV as king in 1830 was hardly of the stuff to give his name to an age. The choleric, well-intentioned Duke of Clarence had earlier discarded a mistress in the interests of respectability and in the hope that one of his legitimate children, should there be any, might inherit his throne. Known as Sailor Bill because of his navy career, he was also, on account of his fondness for making intemperate and embarrassing public utterances, referred to by the even less dignified sobriquet of Silly Billy. Harriet Martineau described him as “a sovereign who could not help agreeing with the last speaker, and who was always impetuous on behalf of his latest impression” (III, 42). Or, as one of Greville's colleagues observed, “What can you expect of a man with a head shaped like a pineapple?” Yet William IV, irresolute and capricious though he sometimes was, warrants some credit for restoring an aura of respectability to the monarchy after the reign of his dissolute brother. He was not, however, the best-equipped of men to preside over an age of Reform.
Reform has its origin in the 1820s, with the repeal of Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and Catholic Emancipation in 1829, both of them measures aimed at easing the political disabilities that had hemmed in the rights of Protestant dissenters on the one hand and Roman Catholics on the other. These measures deeply divided the governing Tory party, factions of which participated in the overthrow of Wellington's Tory government in 1830. Tories were disgusted by the duke's willingness to move in the direction of free trade and by his about-face on Catholic Emancipation, and they paved the way for the Whig government of Earl Grey, whom the king summoned to office at the end of 1830 following Wellington's refusal to countenance any further change in the British constitution.
The calls for Reform were spurred on by those riots among farm laborers and that manufacturing unrest which echo in the diaries of Dyott and Greville. In March 1831 Lord John Russell introduced a bill in the House of Commons that removed parliamentary representation from many small electoral boroughs and gave such representation to the nation's growing industrial centers. The bill also attempted to regularize inconsistencies in the relationship between property-holding and the right to the franchise. It passed by a majority of only one at 3:00 a.m. on March 22, but still required a clause-by-clause reading and the approval of a hostile House of Lords. The defeat of one of the clauses led Grey to advise the king to dissolve Parliament and ask for new elections. The result was a referendum on a single issue: “the bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill” (Arnstein 12). Many elections in England at this time were uncontested, but in those boroughs where there was a contest, it was the reformers who were returned to power. Russell's second version of the bill commanded a substantial majority on its second reading in Commons, but ran aground in the House of Lords, where it was defeated after a five-day debate.
The opposition of the Lords seemed to call into question the very viability of the constitution. The cities were outraged; arsonists destroyed Nottingham Castle; Bristol succumbed for a few days to mob rule. That December, Grey's government went back to work and produced a third reform bill much like the second. With the bill threatened once again by a hostile House of Lords, Grey called on the king to create 50 new peers to override the opposition. William IV thought 50 a bit much; Grey found the counter-offer of 20 too few, and resigned. The Duke of Wellington, however, whom the king called back to power, was incapable of meeting the rising storm of discontent. At that juncture the king turned to Grey and reluctantly acceded to the demand to create new peers, but the House of Lords, reading the tea leaves, acquiesced in the bill rather than permit itself to be swamped with new appointees. The bill became law on June 7, 1832.
The first Reform Act is itself a transition piece, much like William's reign; it looks different from different angles. Along with the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, the 1832 bill may well have saved England from revolution, and it certainly moved the country peacefully and without Continental-style convulsions toward democracy. Those Whigs who orchestrated Reform in the difficult first months of the decade saw the bill quite differently, as an end rather than a beginning. As one historian puts it, “the Bill had been like the legitimate heir of a loveless marriage, the child rather of necessity than of desire” (Kitson Clark 64). Though prodded by Radical colleagues on their left, with whom the Whigs had an uneasy relationship, the drafters of the bill viewed traditional social groups as providing the essential frame of reference. Grey's charge to the Committee of Four which he appointed to draft the bill is revealing. The legislation, he wrote, should be “of such a scope and description as to satisfy all reasonable demands, and remove at once, and for ever, all rational grounds for complaint from the minds of the intelligent and independent portion of the community.” This in essence was Macaulay's famous advice to Parliament in his speech of 1831: “Reform, that you may preserve.” Though Peel had opposed Reform, after its passage he accepted it in his Tamworth manifesto to the electors as “a final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question,” and his Whig opponent Lord John Russell earned the nickname “Finality Jack” for the emphasis with which he insisted, both on the floor of the House and in writing, that the authors of the bill were “peculiarly committed to finality” and that to tolerate further Reform measures “would be to confess that [the reformers] had deceived the people or themselves” (Southgate 99).
Viewed in this way, the bill looks more like Georgian farewell than Victorian halloo, just as the England of that year to many of its citizens probably seemed not so very different from the latter years of the eighteenth century. In 1833, writes a leading administrative historian, England “was not orderly, it was not planned, it was not centralized, it was not efficient, and it did little for the well-being of the citizens.” Education, health, and poor relief lay beyond the purview of the national government, and the last was administered erratically by 15,000 parishes also in charge of public order (Roberts 195). Hindsight makes clearer the beginnings of slow, almost glacial changes beneath the surface of daily events. Contemporaries feel the shocks but not the trends; the earthquakes, not the subtle erosions or the drawn-out process of sedimentation. The England that James Fenimore Cooper visited in the late winter and early spring of 1828 was still the England of the great Whig houses and the breakfasts of the poet Samuel Rogers, one of the last of the Augustans, where Cooper met Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Campbell, John Gibson Lockhart, Thomas Moore, Earl Grey, and Lord John Russell. Cows still grazed in the heart of London. Gree...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture
  3. Title page
  4. Copyright page
  5. Notes on Contributors
  6. Introduction
  7. Part One: History in Focus
  8. Part Two: Passages of Life
  9. Part Three: Walks of Life
  10. Part Four: Kinds of Writing
  11. Part Five: Borders
  12. Index of Works Cited
  13. General Subject Index