English Literature. A Short History
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English Literature. A Short History

Paolo Bertinetti

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eBook - ePub

English Literature. A Short History

Paolo Bertinetti

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Gli studenti analizzano le opere degli autori inglesi in lingua originale; diventa allora opportuno che anche le informazioni su di essi, un loro rapido profilo, l'essenziale valutazione della loro figura letteraria e del contesto storico-culturale delle varie epoche siano forniti in inglese. In questo libro si presenta un panorama, sintetico ma completo, di ciò che di piú bello è stato scritto nella lingua di Shakespeare nel corso del tempo: gli autori fondamentali della letteratura inglese, dunque, e le loro opere piú importanti, evitando elenchi di nomi e di testi che poco aggiungono al quadro d'insieme. Un'attenzione particolare viene invece data, in proporzione, al ricco contributo offerto dagli scrittori di origine africana, australiana e neozelandese, canadese, caraibica e indiana.

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Chapter 8

The Victorian Age

1. The Long Century.
The reign of Queen Victoria lasted from her accession in 1837 to her death in January 1901 and covered the period of greatest expansion of British economic, industrial, colonial and military power. After the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, based mainly on textiles, there followed a phase based on coal, iron and steel – heavy industry – whose achievements were celebrated in the Great Exhibition of 1851 with the erection in Hyde Park of a sort of temple of trade and industry, the Crystal Palace, whose remarkable iron and glass construction displayed the miracles of technology, and which housed on its miles of display tables thousands of exhibits, from Great Britain and the entire advanced developed world.
This grandiose industrial growth was however accompanied by labouring and living conditions which were often nothing short of horrendous, a fact to which the novels of the period bear witness and which is minutely chronicled in the young Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. The first years of Victoria’s reign also saw the emergence of a powerful and extensive working-class movement, Chartism, protesting against the injustices of the industrial system and demanding a radical reform of Parliament. The movement took its name from its call for a new “People’s Charter” based in particular on universal manhood suffrage and equal electoral constituencies. The Chartist petition was rejected in Parliament in 1839 and again in 1842, although by then it had assembled more than three million signatures. In 1848, the year of great revolutionary events throughout continental Europe and of bad harvests in Britain, a new petition was prepared and again it was ignored by Parliament. The Chartist movement dissolved, but its demands remained very much alive in English political culture and most of them were in due course adopted. Social, as well as parliamentary, reforms were however pressed for by the Trade Unions, which were legally recognised by the 1871 Trade Union Act and which, together with the Fabian Society (a grouping of reformist socialist intellectuals), were to give birth in 1893 to the Labour Party.
During the Victorian period, English political life was marked on the one side by widespread social struggles, peaceful protest and harsh repression, and on the other side by a fundamental stability, with a regular alternation of Tory and Whig governments. Both parties, at least in the last third of the century, took the opportunity to bring in legislation to improve working conditions, which introduced a measure of elementary education (1871 Education Act), and gradually enlarged the electorate. After the limited Reform Bill of 1832, in 1867 the government approved a second Reform Bill which nearly doubled the number eligible to vote, and the Gladstone government extended it further in 1884. Women, however, remained excluded. As the century wore on, the movement for female emancipation achieved many significant results on the social and economic plane thanks to its vigorous protest and propaganda activities, but it did not succeed in getting women the vote. Nor did the Suffrage Movement at the end of the century, and universal suffrage for women as well as men did not become a reality until after the end of the First World War.
In this connection it is worth stressing that Victorian bourgeois society relegated women to the role of “angel of the hearth” and promoted an idea of “decorum” which rigorously excluded any reference whatsoever to sexuality. Pruderie was not just an attitude: it was a norm which nobody could violate in public. The other face of Victorian moralism is illustrated, rather than by words, by figures, and the constant and massive increase in the number of prostitutes to satisfy the demands not only of the displaced males caught up in the process of industrialisation, but also, above all in the more or less elegant brothels, the demands of the respectable husbands of the “angels of the hearth”.
Victoria’s reign, finally, coincides with the phase of maximum colonial expansion. After the acquisition of almost all the Indian sub-continent, the Empire expanded into Afghanistan and the South China Sea (Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1876) and then into more parts of Africa: Sudan and much of East Africa were conquered towards the end of the century, and South Africa was made part of the Empire in 1902. Nor should one forget the fate of the first British colony, Ireland. In 1829 the emancipation movement led by Daniel O’Connell had acquired political rights for the Catholic population, but the situation was dramatically worsened by the great famine of 1845-46 which led to the death from starvation of thousands of Irish people and the massive emigration of the survivors to the British mainland or to the USA. In the second half of the century, however, the revolutionary activities of the independence movement regained their strength, resulting in 1881 in a Land Act passed by the British Parliament which changed the law of property in favour of the Irish peasantry; but a further step, the proposal for Home Rule put forward by Gladstone in 1885, was defeated in Parliament and led to the fall of his administration. Ireland was to remain a colony until 1921.
English culture was often marked by an oscillation between nostalgia for the past and impulses towards the future, and between celebrating the present and denouncing its injustices. The more alert intellectuals, however, saw clearly what lay behind the impressive façade of Victorian society and began to pose the question of the measures that needed to be taken to prevent the collapse of the entire edifice (or to construct an alternative). Some of them, in their thinking about the future, proposed solutions that looked to the past. Such a one was Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who moved from putting forward a cult of (past) heroes to the idea that a proper governance of society could be guaranteed only by the leadership of a strong man of genius. On the one hand he refused to grant any dignity whatsoever to mass movements and their demands; and on the other he idealised the rural England of the past, where the idea of democracy clearly did not appear at all.
John Ruskin (1819-1900) too, while having very different ideas from Carlyle, looked to the past, affirming the importance of the role of the artisan to fight the dehumanising effects of the Industrial Revolution. This paved the way for William Morris (1834-96), who promoted a revival of decorative arts and crafts in which he was involved not only as artist and theoretician but also as entrepreneur. But his promotion of artisanal labour did not lead Morris to look backward into the past; on the contrary, it led him to envisage a better future which had room for the needs and demands of the labouring masses.
The most important contribution made by the Victorian intellectuals, however, was that of Matthew Arnold (1822-88), poet, critic and educational reformer, most notably in his essay Culture and Anarchy (1869). His programme, which included a statement of the necessity of universal state education, was based on an advocacy of the humanistic disciplines, whose values were threatened by the aggression of the “philistines” (the materialistic bourgeoisie), the “barbarians” (the aristocracy) and the “populace” (the uneducated and undisciplined proletariat). He was the first to realise that the British “clerisy” (a term he had borrowed from Coleridge) was not listened to, being in large part formed of intellectuals “wandering between two worlds, / One dead, the other powerless to be born”. His thought has been for many decades a precious tool for those in the British cultural world and its institutions who have affirmed the importance and utility of culture (“the great help out of our difficulties”) against the destructive materialism of the “philistines”.
We should also mention Charles Darwin (1809-82), the great naturalist, whose observations, derived from his long voyage round the world (from 1831 to 1836), formed the basis for his theory of natural selection and human origins. His essay On the Origin of Species, on which he worked for twenty years, contains his revolutionary theory of the evolution of the species achieved through the competition of individuals of the same species and the survival of the fittest. The essay was published in 1859 and went through a number of editions by 1872. In the previous year, 1871, Darwin had published The Descent of Man, in which he tackled the issue of human evolution, to which he had barely referred in the Origin.
His theory was soon accepted throughout much of the British scientific world but was strongly opposed by the clergy. In Darwin’s world, God is, so to speak, absent, and the evolution of man follows the same laws as regulate the world of nature, with no divine intervention. In Italy, and throughout the Catholic world in general, the cultural and ideological power of the Church prevented the emergence of debate about Darwin’s theories outside the narrow scientific circles to which it found itself confined. In Britain, however, the debate was hugely extensive and embraced every sector of cultural life, provoking a crisis in convictions and certainties which had subsisted for centuries. Darwin (who in his notebook refers to the “persecution of early astronomers”) was the Copernicus and Galileo of the 19th century; fortunately for him, however, the Inquisition no longer existed.
2. The Victorian Novel.
The Victorian novel is the critical voice of 19th-century British society. Its major authors are never the loyal servants of power but give expression to the forces of changes present in society. The novelist, in dialogue directly with the reader and indirectly with the institutions, lays claim to a social role corresponding to the moral function which the novel purports to possess. The novelistic technique generally in use in the period is the logical consequence of this attitude. The novelist has recourse to an omniscient narrator, who moves and guides his or her characters with the authority of a creator God, judges them, rewards them or punishes them, enters into their souls and stands away from the narration to directly address the reader with observations of a philosophical, moral or simply commonsensical type.
Over the years as the century progressed, the number of readers multiplied and the novelist’s audience grew considerably, thanks in part to the innovations in the printing and publishing industries. Advances in paper-making and in printing (the steam-powered press) brought down the cost of book production, making books more affordable for middle-class readers. But they remained expensive products to buy. Victorian novels tended to be long and in three volumes and their price made them inaccessible to the average middle-class, let alone lower-middle-class, reader. To overcome this obstacle an important novelty took place in the form of the development of circulating libraries, private libraries which provided the publisher with a guaranteed market of a certain number of copies which were then loaned to readers at a modest price. The advantage of this extension of the market was however partly negated by the implicit censorship operated by the libraries, whose conservative attitudes affected their choice of purchases and thereby what novelists were able to do. (Among other demands made by the libraries, the crucial one was that for books which could be read aloud in the evenings by the pater familias and listened to by his daughters without any danger of stumbling upon any expressions which might threaten their innocence).
Another important novelty was the widespread practice of serial publication, which also posed difficulties for the novelist’s creative freedom. In general, the novel was published in twenty monthly episodes, which allowed the author to make changes to the plot and characters in the light of public response (thus creating a risk of yielding to “commercial” demands) and which also encouraged a form of plot construction such as to leave the reader in suspense at the end of each episode and eagerly awaiting the next one. With this technique mediocre writers could obtain instant short-term success, while great writers (such as Dickens, who often published his novels in weekly instalments) could adapt the system to the needs of the architecture of the novel.
The relationship with the public was also decisive when the book came to be published in volume (or more often three-volume) form. The novelist was a professional, an artist who, like an actor, needed to win public approval. If he was a mediocre writer he could be like a ham actor, content to amuse the public with the tricks of the trade; but if he was a great writer he would address himself to the public, like a great actor, to entertain it and enchant it with the beauty of his artistic creation. This was basically the case even before the mass-circulation novel and has certainly become the case today. Whatever the sophisticated critics may say, a great novelist is a novelist who also has great success with the public. The exceptions (for example Beckett) only serve to prove the rule.
2.1. Dickens.
The young Charles Dickens (1812-70) began his literary career in the early 1830s. As a child he had been put to work in a blacking factory at the age of 12 after his father’s imprisonment for debt. As an office boy in a firm of attorneys he mastered shorthand and became a parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle. It was then that he began to write sketches, particularly about urban life, for a variety of journals. These were eventually collected under the title Sketches by Boz (a pseudonym based on his infant pronunciation of Moses as Boses – hence Boz) and published as a volume in 1836. In the same year Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, the eldest daughter of his publisher, and began writing the first of the twenty monthly episodes of what was to become The Pickwick Papers, which is perhaps his true masterpiece.
At the outset The Pickwick Papers was not planned to be a novel. The single episodes were designed above all to be an occasion for illustrations by the famous draughtsman George Cruikshank. The turning point came with the introduction of the sharp-witted cockney servant Sam Weller in the fifth issue. Its success was enormous, and Dickens took advantage by transforming the figures he had created for the first few issues, the innocent Mr Pickwick and the three members of the Pickwick Club he had founded, into the characters of a somewhat irregular novel, which develops as a series of episodes. It only really acquires the properties of a novel from the moment when Pickwick’s landlady, Mrs Bardell, sues him for breach of promise of marriage (she had imagined that he wished to marry her, a thought which had not even crossed his mind). His subsequent experiences in prison (he had refused to pay the damages of her lawsuit) provided Dickens with the occasion to denounce the iniquities of a legal system which was the emblem of the social injustices of the period. Similarly, the episodes concerning two parliamentary candidates in a provincial constituency represent not only a comical unmasking of corrupt electioneering practices, but a critique of the entire electoral system which the Reform Bill of 1832 had begun – but only begun – to change.
The story takes place in a recent past, in an England which, as revealed in the journeys of Pickwick and his friends, is still the England of the stagecoaches, the inns and a countryside as yet unaffected by the radical transformations that the Industrial Revolution had already effected and that a second Industrial Revolution, with its railways and trains, was to transform yet further. London, on the other hand, is already the cruel metropolis that Dickens was to portray in his later novels. Thanks to his early work as a journalist, he knew well the streets, courtyards and alleys of London and the contrast between the squares and avenues inhabited by the rich and the mean streets of the slums where the poor lived in miserable housing and sanitary conditions. In The Pickwick Papers, however, the characters and London scenes contain little more than a hint anticipating the indignation that Dickens would later unleash against social injustices. The tone of the book (apart from the melodramatic episodes inserted into the narrative) is given by its sheer humour and the ironic attitude with which Dickens portrays the major characters and the crowd of minor ones, the amused eye with which the weaknesses of the positive figures are observed and the satirical touch applied to the negative ones.
Though never so central as in The Pickwick Papers, comedy and humour were to remain present as important components of Dickens’s later work as an ideal means with which to unmask appearances and denounce the injustices and hypocrisy of institutions such as evangelical religion in The Pickwick Papers or the workhouse in Oliver Twist. This novel, published in monthly instalments between February 1837 and April 1839, was hugely successful. It tells the story of its young hero in a mode characterised by coincidences, unexpected revelations and in general all the devices and overall tone of melodrama, and is the prototype of the narrative formula which Dickens was to use throughout his career. It is also one of the novels in which Dickens’s critique of British society and its institutions is most overt and radical. Oliver’s adventures and misadventures in the workhouse, as apprentice to an undertaker, and as a member of a gang of boys taught to steal by the odious Fagin, are designed to move the reader to tears and, within the plot, to persuade Mrs Maylie and her adopted daughter (who turns out to be Oliver’s aunt) to take him in and look after him; but at the same time they give the author the opportunity to mount a powerful attack on the Poor Law of 1834. Melodrama, in Dickens, is a formidable political weapon.
In his novels of the 1840s, Dickens exploited every sort of novelistic sub-genre. With Barnaby Rudge (1841) he tried his hand at the historical novel; then in A Christmas Carol (1843) there was a Christmas fairytale; and in the travel book Pictures from Italy he provided a portrait of Italian life remarkable for its warmth (and the relatively little space devoted to Italian art). On the other hand his attitude to the American way of life was distinctly critical, and the misadventures of the hero of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) in the USA (where Dickens had been on an extensive tour in 1842) created more than a little resentment among his American readership.
But it was the novels from the late 1840s and beyond that definitely sealed his reputation as a writer. It is here that he masters the art of constructing a story around a central theme, maintaining the variety of subjects, the digressions, the subsidiary episodes and the curious details (product of his exuberance as a storyteller) but linking them more tightly to the narrative nucleus which contains the meaning of the tale. In two of these novels, David Copperfield (1849-1850) and Great Expectations (1860-61), both of which can count as examples of a Bildungsroman, Dickens abandons the use of the omniscient narrator. In each case the narration is in the first person; the story is told from a subjective point of view, without the presence of a superior narrative standpoint. The “lesson” is entrusted to the succession of events and the reflections of the narrating “I”. It is then up to the reader, if he or she so wishes, to draw any conclusions suggested by the formative experiences of David in the former novel or those of Pip in the latter.
Pip in Great Expectations is a less than heroic character, whose destiny is forged for him by a set of circumstances typical of melodrama but also not that far removed from those of the Gothic romance. Indeed the realist Dickens is also a subtle manipulator of the dimension of mystery – and even of the supernatural, as admirers of The Signal-Man, one of the finest English short stories of all time, can attest. Initially Dickens did not intend to furnish Great Expectations with a conventional happy ending, but was persuaded to do so by the novelist Bulwer-Lytton, who felt that reader...

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