The Victorian Era
An Essay Covering Several Aspects of the Victorian Period of 1837-1901
By Raven Silvers
The Victorian era was from 1837-1901, from the ascension of Alexndrina Victoria of Saxe-Coburg, later to become Her Majesty Queen Victoria, to her death. It is now most associated with corsets, colonial expansion, romance and the revival of old styles, especially in architecture.
Queen Victoria was born in 1819 to Edward, Duke of Kent, and Princess Viktoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield. Edward was the fourth son of King George III; he and his brothers married in a rush after the death of Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, the only child of the Prince of Wales (later King George IV).
Victoria had a half-sister and half-brother. Charles and Feodora were the children from her mother's previous marriage, which had left her a widow. Feodora married early in Victoria's life.
She grew up in Kensington Palace, London, isolated from her uncles and family. Her mother relied heavily on Sir John Conroy, who had been in her husband's service. In October 1830 that Victoria observed some inappropriate 'familiarity' in Conroy's treatment of her mother. The matter resulted in the dismissal of the Baroness de Spaeth, her mother's lady-in-waiting. No-one knows what exactly happened, but this incident probably only served to increase Victoria's hatred of John Conroy.
Victoria's upbringing was isolated. She was taught by the Reverend John Davys, and her governess was the Baroness Louise Lehzen. Because her surviving parent was German, she was taught only German until age three, when she began to learn English. At the time of her death, she would be able to speak Italian, Greek, Latin and French.
At age eleven, her uncle (King George IV) died and left the throne to King William IV. Because he was childless, Victoria then became heiress-presumptive which made her second-in-line to the throne of British Empire, unless he bore children during his reign.
At the time, there was no law to appoint a regent in the case of her uncle's death. As such, if he had died the following year, Victoria would have had to rule as an adult. Of course, this was out of the question, so to prevent such a situation, Parliament passed the Regency Act of 1831, which appointed Victoria's mother as a regent if the throne was passed to her before her eighteenth birthday.
Victoria's uncles loved her very much, but did not like her mother, probably because of Conroy's strong influence on her. King William IV swore that he would not give the throne to Viktoria; his words would become strangely prophetic.
He died a month after Victoria's eighteenth birthday. In June 1837, Victoria was informed that she was now the Queen of England.
Thanks to her upbringing, Victoria was a stubborn and strong-willed person who knew what she wanted. In 1840, she married Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, her first cousin. Theirs was a very happy marriage, having nine children before his death from typhoid in 1861.
Notable names during Victoria's reign include Lord Melbourne and Benjamin Disraeli, who were strong influences to Victoria during her rule.
After Victoria's death in 1901, her oldest son Alfred ascended to the throne as King Edward VII. Her reign of sixty-three years is the longest in British history, and, with the Elizabethan era, her era is considered one of the greatest.
Romance and Family
The Victorians are most associated with romance. During the Victorian period, much emphasis was placed on family and love. Prince Albert's introduction of the German tradition of having a decorated tree in the house during Christmas would become a worldwide tradition.
The Victorian era saw complicated rules of romance. Fan signals used by women could manipulate the men they married, and the common advice given to girls by their mothers about sex with their husbands would be to "lie back and think of England". Childbearing was seen as an act of patriotism.
Fan signals and meanings assigned to different flowers were complicated, but every man and woman was expected to know them. For example, a woman fanning herself quickly is saying to men that "I am independent"; holding a fan with her right hand in front of her face meant "Leave me". Flowers meant different things, and a man had to take care about which he chose to send to a woman he was courting.
During the Season, typically April to July, the upper classes would have their social events, ranging from low-key to extravagant. At these events, some rules of conduct for a proper single female would be to never address a gentleman without an introduction, never to approach a person of higher rank unless introduced by a mutual friend; even then, the higher-ranking person had to give his or her permission first.
Victorian marriages are notorious for being much like business negotiations. Wives came with a generous dowry; the bigger the better. To protect a heiress, a family could set up a trust that would be minded by Chancery Court. The heiress would have access to her estate if she applied for it, but her husband could not touch it.
Without a trust, however, a married woman's estate reverted to her husband. She could not even will her property to her children, while her husband could will it to any illegitimate children he had, if any. As such, marriage — while a woman's main goal in life — had to be very carefully contemplated.
There was much emphasis on the family unit. Parents were encouraged to spend time with their children. The father was the head of the house and his word was never questioned. A mother was the "angel of the house" and being a good wife and mother was expected of her.
Late in Queen Victoria's reign, there was what was known as the Queen Anne Revival in architecture. It was part of the 'Domestic Revival'; because the middle class was gaining power in social circles, they became assertive and architects delved into revivalist forms, such as Elizabethan, Jacobean and Queen Anne. It was Queen Anne forms that became the predominant form of the revivals, because it could range from economical to extravagant. Those who resented the Domestic Revival continued creating Gothic buildings.
Red brick was favored by the Queen Anne form; it is now iconic of Victorian construction. Terracotta was also a popular choice, especially molded in flower shapes.
Color schemes also changed greatly from the early- and mid-Victorian times, because of the introduction of gas lighting revealed how garish the colors previously used were. The late-Victorian color schemes came in threes (i.e. lilac/cream/peacock blue or Prussian blue/white/crimson) which made everything look brighter, unlike previously. Even though bight and warm colors were favored, the way they were used made interiors look dark.
Opium is the best-known of the substance abuse practiced by the Victorians. Absinthe, cocaine, chloral and alcohol are also substances of note that were abused.
Absinthe is also known as the Green Fairy, thanks to its distinctive green color. It was a very strong drink — about or over 180 proof — and relatively expensive, which made it limited to the middle and upper classes. Absinthe can be described as liquid cocaine as it produced effects similar to the drug.
It was popular with writers and artists, who believed in the 'green muse'. It was reportedly much appreciated, or at least its hallucinatory were. Oscar Wilde was a fan of the drink.
Opium dens sprung up all over London. The Opium Wars with China occurred when the Chinese tried to stop traders from bringing in the harmful drug onto their shores.
The Victorian era was a time for flourishing arts; Victoria took lessons from nonsense painter and writer Edward Lear. Albert and Victoria gave each other frequent gifts of art pieces. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London is named after them. Romanticism was prevalent in the arts and literature.
The Victorian era is considered by some to be the second Golden Age of literature, after the Renaissance.
Most of the classics that have survived to this day are from the Late Victorian period, particularly the 1890s. Dracula (1895) redefined the horror genre and the vampire myth. Zalma (1894) would prove to be eerily prophetic about bio-terrorists and revolutions. Works like HG Wells' War of the Worlds would make him the father of modern science-fiction.
Literature of the Victorian era cover a variety of topics relevant to that time and now. They also reflect the thinking of the age; in Dracula, the elderly Doctor Abraham Van Helsing kills Dracula's three brides because they are seductive and go against every Victorian moral. As they are wanton and have unbridled sexual tendencies, they are evil and must be destroyed.
The Victorians, despite their preaching about morals, piety and chastity, had more brothels per square inch than any other English era. They had skeletons in their closet that would have ruined many if revealed.
London's East End was the red-light era of the city. Anyone who writes historical fiction would know that Whitechapel was the site of most of the vice. Bondage was also quite prevalent behind closed doors.
This can be seen in works such as the Fanny Hill stories, which are good examples of Victorian porn, and can also be seen in some parts of Zalma.
The introduction of cheap printing created the penny dreadfuls, which would redefine the whole reading audience. True to their word, penny dreadful cost a penny. Some of the penny dreadful stories that are true Victorian classics are works like The Old Detective's Pupil; or, The Mysterious Crime of Madison Square first by John Russell Coryell and Ormond G. Smith, then by the dozen or so writers Coryell and Smith gave the Nick Carter character to; The Missing Millionaire, by "Hal Meredith", who gave us the detective Sexton Blake; and the Sherlock Holmes stories, whose main character would become a true immortal.
Penny dreadfuls appealed to Victorian boys of the upper-lower and middle classes, who could not afford books. These penny dreadfuls came with names like Punch, The Rival, and The Boys' First-Rate Pocket Library.
The impact of Victorian literature on modern-day fiction cannot be underestimated. It was during this time that the archetypes of the evil Asian (usually Chinese) character, the "man with the machine", and strong independent woman and the aging adventurer, among others, were created.
There are many works written during this time that redefined genres. Shelley's Frankenstein, Stoker's Dracula, Wells' The Invisible Man and other less-known writers like H. Ryder Haggard, Guy Boothby and Anthony Hope Hawkins — and also famous author's "lost works" (i.e. Verne's Robur the Conqueror and its sequel, Master of the World) — influence writers that followed them. Even Oscar Wilde's controversial work and Poe's dark stories would last in the next century.
The Victorian Legacy
It is undeniable that the Victorians left behind a legacy that is still felt today; the emphasis on family, literature and the arts are evident in modern life.
Its literature redefined genres; its arts forms encourage Romanticism; its architecture brought back old styles. Its definition of beauty and the romance became legendary.
While not quite the Golden Age of the British, the Victoria era nevertheless stands as a very influential period on its own.