That the literature of a particular era is intimately and even organically connected with its social background is too patent a truism to need reiteration. A history of English literature, according to Compton-Rickett, “needs to be limned on a background of its social activities, in order to be clearly seen and nicely appraised.”
It is particularly true of the Victorian age. Almost all the writers of the age show in their creative activity a keen awareness of their social environment, and many of them come forward as social critics. Compton- Rickert observes: “The closer approximation of literature to social life is very marked in the Victorian era. Kingsley writes passionate social tracts in the guise of a story; cheap bread inspires the muse of Ebenezer Eliot; Elizabeth Barrett voices The Cry of the Children and Thomas Hood immortalises the weary sempstress and the despairing unfortunate, Carlyle, after excursions into German literature and European history plunges into the political problems of the day. Ruskin, starting as critic of the art of painting, turns in the new century to the more complex art of life, and no man of letters has tackled industrial problems with greater insight and more brilliant suggestiveness.”
A Complex Age:
The Victorian era was an age of rapid flux and baffling complexity. Moody and Lovett aver: “Never before, not even in the troubled seventeenth century had there been such rapid and sweeping changes in the social fabric of England: and never before had literature been so closely in league or so openly at war, with the forces of social life.” It is hazardous to sum up an age in a formula; and it is particularly hazardous to sum up in this fashion the Victorian age. Two features make such a thing particularly difficult:
(i) The very rapid and sweeping changes which the age witnessed and
(ii) The complexity of social forces operating in the age at any given moment.
The words of A. C. Ward are very apt here: “One of the irritating characteristics of the Victorian age is its refusal to be covered by any of the commendatory or derogatory labels from time to time attached to it. It was an Age of Faith and an Age of Doubt; an Age of Morality and of Hypocrisy, of Prosperity and Poverty, of Idealism and Materialism, of Progress and Decline, of Splendour and Squalor. It was a solemn age yet it produced more humorous writers than any other single period: it was advanced in intellect yet immature in emotion. And though as an historical period it lasted for more than sixty years, disintegrating forces were pecking at its foundations forty years or more in advance of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901.” The literature of the age reflects this complexity and is also influenced by it.
The Development of Science:
The two most important features of the Victorian Age were
(i) the development of science; and
(ii) the progress of democracy.
We now propose to discuss at some length these features in all their important ramifications and, of course, their impact on contemporary literature. Now, for the development of experimental science.
The rapid development of physical science in the Victorian age transformed the material environment of the people and both directly as well as indirectly made it self felt in the literature of the age. The age witnessed a great outpouring of scientific literature. Such epoch-making works as Darwin’s Origin of the Species came out in this age. But more important than such direct influence was the indirect and almost ubiquitous influence which the rapid development of physical science exerted on Victorian literature. “The advancement of science”, says Compton-Rickett “has transformed man’s outlook upon life and has affected every channel of intellectual activity.” In what respects did this transformation come about? First, it encouraged a materialist outlook. The “other-worldliness” gave place to “this-worldliness.” Commercialisation of all human activity soon followed accompanied by a marked shift in the values of life. Materialism and commercialism inevitably lead men to restlessness as much as hectic activity. The “busy hum of men” was alien to all spiritual repose. Well could have another Wordsworth lamented:
The world is too much with us; lot? and soon;
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
No doubt, Victorian scientists started “seeing” much in Nature, but not in the Wordsworthian sense. To them Nature was non-human as a spider or a weed which is so nonchalantly cut up and read lectures upon.
Secondly, the development of science was instrumental in nurturing even among the literary writers, the peculiar scientific temper. Some of them even had a recourse to “scientific” methods in their literary works. Tennyson, for instance, followed as a poet the scientific method of description which puts a premium on the accuracy of detail. His nature poetry is, according to Compton-Rickett, “like the work of an inspired scientist.” In the historical literature of the age also the scientific temper seems to be at work. Carlyle, who was bitterly opposed to science in other ways, Buckle and many others adopted as historians the scientific method of discovering and orientating accurate facts and relating them to the psyche of an age. The method of induction and rigorous research was essentially scientific. In the realm of fiction, too, the invisible hand of science was definitely at work. About this aspect Compton-Rickett maintains: “In fiction, the scientific spirit is no less discernible: the problems of heredity and environment preoccupying the attention of the novelists. The social problem [sic] of the earlier Victorians, of Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, Kingsley and Reade, give place to points in biology, psychology, pathology. The influence of Herbert Spencer and of Comte meets us in the pages of George Eliot: while the analytical methods of science are even more subtly followed in the fiction of George Eliot, the early writings of Mrs. Humphrey Ward, and the intimate Wessex studies of Thomas Hardy.”
Thirdly, the development of science caused a marked spiritual disturb?’ “which often took the shape of scepticism and, sometimes, of patent agonisticism. Mid-Victorian poetry is particularly shot with the tincture of this spiritual disturbance caused by the sudden crumbling of the age-old edifice of Christian values. Illustrating this point Compton-Rickett observes: “The questioning note in Clough, the pessimism of James Thomson, the wistful melancholy of Matthew Arnold, the fatalism of Fitzgerald, all testify to the sceptical tendencies evoked by scientific research. It did not kill poetry, but it stifled for a while the lyric impulse and overweighted verse with speculative thought.” The last sentence is over-true, and should with advantage be considered with respect to the poetry of the Victorian age to see the striking difference which the development of science brought about in the general complexion of poetry. Only a handful of writers such as Browning remained undisturbed. Browning could write:
God’s in His Heaven-
All’s right with the world
But that opinion is very unrepresentative, being limited only to such incorrigible optimists as Browning who are rare not only in the Victorian age but in any other age. Arnold with his plaintive doubtfulness and Tennyson with his inquisitive note (In Memoriam) are much more typical in this respect.
Fourthly, the development of science led England to the Industrial Revolution which started, no doubt, about 1760, but found its real climax only during the Victorian age. This Revolution brought in the economic and social changes arising out of the replacement of industries carried on in the home with simple machines by industries in factories with power-driven machinery. On account of the excessive significance of the Industrial Revolution we will discuss it under a separate subhead.
The Industrial Revolution:
The Industrial Revolution ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity. But on the side of debit, it converted the “merry England” into a sooty and squalid England and it also gave rise to a number of social problems which are the inevitable bane of industrialisation. With the conversion of the agrarian economy into industrial economy was created, on the one hand, a new class of privileged millowners and big industrialists and, on the other, a huge horde of ill-clothed and ill-fed labourers whose rights were yet to be protected over the years by a long succession of legislative measures. There was a virtual exodus of people from the country to the numerous towns which had started resounding with the grind and buzz of heavy machinery. The policy of laissezfairs as expounded first by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations was seized upon by the Victorian political economists like Mill, Malthus and Ricardo. and applied to the working of the new industrial system. This application was tantamount to the denial of all rights to the labour except perhaps the right to starve. Mayhew in his work London Poor paints a harrowing picture of the miserable life of the working classes of Victorian London. The intransigent political economists for a number of years succeeded in preventing the government from saving the poor from the merciless exploitation of the capitalists. Thus the Industrial Revolution proved much less than an unalloyed blessing.
The so-called political economy and the pontifical utterances of its champions did not go unattacked. Carlyle and Ruskin did their best to strike at the foundations of this “science” which Ruskin called “nescience.” Whereas Carlyle spoke as an inspired prophet, Ruskin combined the inspiration of a prophet with the hard core of a dialectical skill that he displayed effectively in Unto This Last which he called the greatest work of his life and which, incidentally, influenced Gandhi a great deal by helping him to form many opinions of his own. Most of Ruskin’s later works are imbued with the spirit of social reform. Dickens also displays in his novels a soft corner for the miserable poor, their wretched dwelling-places and their poor and squalid lives. His novel Oliver Twist, for instance, contains some very realistic pictures of London slums, and Hard Times is an unveiled and calculated attack on the contemporary political economy of the school of Gradgrind who figures among the chief protagonists of the novel. Dickens is nothing if not a social satirist. As Compton-Rickett puts it, “for the motley multitude that pour through the streets, for the hole-and-corner places of the City, for London as an incomprehensible terrifying, fascinating, delightful personality-every brick and stone alive with tragic humour-Dickens remains unrivalled.” Dickens was not only a realist, however, but a satirist, and a very brilliant satirist at that. We cannot entirely agree with Cross who opines: “The attacks of Dickens on science and political economy are hysterical curiosities.” If we remove the elements of fantasy we will get at a very small but a very genuine core of hard common sense.
The Progress of Democracy:
Basically, the whole progress of English political history is the movement from uncompromising royalism to uncompromising democracy. In the Victorian age this shift was considerably accelerated under the impact of various operating factors. Starting with the year 1832, several Reform Bills were enacted which progressively granted voting rights to more and more people, ultimately ending in universal adult suffrage. As a result the House of Common remained, in Compton-Rickett’s words, “no longer an oligarchy.” It was only then that the expectations raised by the French Revolution (1789) came to be fulfilled. The impact of democracy on the literature of the age is evident. One of its important manifestation is the keen interest which the writers of the age evinced in the hopes and fears of the poor people and in “low life” as a whole. Most Victorians, it is true, believed in a kind of caste system and what Thackeray called snobbery, and sniffed at each other like dogs when two of them met. But almost all writers stood for the demolition of these artificial social barriers and the recognition of the inalienable humanity of the underdog. No writer worthy of note seems to be unaware of the process of rapid democratisation of the political system. The common man comes and stays as the hero of most works of literature. This process brought in its wake increased educational opportunities for the poor. There was thus a rapid expansion of the reading public who became the new patron;; of literature. The writer was thus compelled to cater for these new classes of readers. The democratic spirit of Victorian literature has thus to be studied with reference to the readers also. The unprecedented expansion of journalistic activity is also to be considered likewise. The serialised novels of Thackeray, Dickens and others are a peculiar product of their age.
Sex and Domestic life:
As regards sex, the Victorians were extremely prudish. Even a trivial impropriety of dress (not to speak of the modern “topless” and the “mini skirt” which, in the opinion of the house in the annual debate of the Oxford Union held in 1966, “does not go far enough”) would send the Victorian martinets into paroxysms of rage. They were indeed very touchy about sex which they treated with a hush-hush incommodiousness. Even Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot and others who were stark realists in everything else, did not lift the lid off the animality of their characters. They approached the beast of sex very gingerly, and with gloves on. Thackeray, who gives in Vanity Fair the interesting career of a smart little meretrix (Becky Sharp), does not show even by suggestion the little animal that is in her. All this is done to avoid shocking the susceptibilities of the readers. Victorian parents were quite domineering. Even now-a-days, when a teenager finds her father not very forward in letting her have her own way with her “dates”, she can be heard complaining: “Oh, I have a Victorian sort of papa!” Mr. Murdstone’s cruelty to David Copperfield is an instance of the authority which a Victorian father exercised.
Even too much of drinking was held culpable in the Victorian era. Gone were the days of coffee-house boozing so rampant in the eighteenth century which produced such lovers of wine as Addison, Steele, and Dr. Johnson. The last named wrote (it seems in earnest): “He who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” And Walter Scott wrote in 1825 : “Sots are excluded from the best company.” Dickens eyes drunkards with sinister fascination. In his early novels he indeed deals with intemperance in his usual light-hearted vein, but in later works he treats the subject with grim and didactic purposiveness. Dickens is, in fact, reflecting the marked shift in public opinion and taste.