The Victorian Era

The Victorian Era: Not the Conservative Period You Think it Was

Okay, here’s a little experiment in word association. I’m going to say a word and you’re going to make some mental connections. Ready? Here goes: Victorian.
Let me take a guess on what kind of mental connections you made. Sherlock Holmes. Charles Dickens. Gas lamps. Debtors prison. Jack the Ripper. Child labor. Sexual repression. Prudery. How’d I do?

The Victorian Era from different angle

The Victorian Era is almost single-handedly responsible for the success of Masterpiece Theatre and the careers of the Merchant-Ivory filmmaking team. The Victorian Era also makes us picture women running around in long dresses and men going off on fox hunts and an utter lack of sexual promiscuity. The Victorian Age is so-called because the woman who presided over it was the diminuitive Queen who spoke in the third person when referring to herself. Isn’t it interesting that the long reign of Queen Elizabeth give rise to the adjective Elizabethan and the long reign of Queen Victoria gave rise to the adjective Victorian but the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I has given rise to no adjectives? Well, none that I’m comfortable writing, anyway.

The Victorian period is looked upon generally as one that was utterly conservative in social perspectives. The term Victorian by definition harkens to the social views of its namesake and there is no doubt that Queen Victoria was, indeed, a prudish sort given to conservatism. But that conservatism is a big misleading; she really had little interest in many of the duties commonly undertaken by the British monarch. Victorianism as an idea is representative of the unique ideological perspective of a British queen who effectively rejected most of the official duties associated with her position. As such, it is interesting in that ironic sort of way that a period of time in which the most powerful person in the country was a woman was actually the last gasp of purely patriarchal control.

Traditional ways of 19th century England

The Victorian Era was in reality an attempt to desperately hold onto a system in which women had historically been subordinate to men in all aspect of life. The 19th century witnessed one revolution after another, from the industrial revolution to the suffrage movement, and England as the center of power in the western world was ill-equipped to handle the massive changes taking place.

What about an Industrial revolution?

It was the Industrial Revolution that would be the foundation upon which all society would be forever reshaped during the Victorian Era. Those images that immediately sprang to mind of men in waistcoats and women in long gowns are not misplaced, but underneath that conservative image beats a thriving, pulsing beat of radical change. The fact is that the Victorian Era, far from being the most conservative period in British history, was actually the most revolutionary period in centuries. Those who desperately held to what are the traditional views of the age of Queen Victoria are also those who gained the most from the aristocratic ideals that fostered it, and they also rightly feared losing what had become theirs mostly as a result of fortune of birthright. Those opposed to this view of the Victorian Era were the lower classes who rightly were sensing a moment of opportunity for change had arrived. As a result, the Victorian Era witnessed the growth of radical movements urging for more rights for women, workers and children.

One very concrete illustration of how the Victorian era can be said to defy its reputation for conservative clinging to past traditions is the fact that it was during the reign of Queen Victoria that corruption the civil service corps was finally addressed by doing away with longstanding patronage and instituting open examinations. This entry into the political process by formerly disenfranchised members of society paved the way for future legislation that was more democratically attuned that the previous aristocratic lawmaking process. The Victorian Era was a clash between traditional values and progressive thought and there can be very little doubt that it was progressive thought that won.