The Victorian age was a time of great change in England. The rural dwellers were moving into newly developed cities housing new industries and decrepit mill towns. The “Victorian period [is] a richly complex example of a society struggling with issues and problems we identify with modernism” (Abrams 893). The literature of the time deals with the human strive associated with this modernization. Because it was such a transitional time, the literature of the period is divided into several periods. The attitudes of the writers during these different phases are expressed through their works dealing with social issues. A reminiscent poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and an anti-Utilitarianism, Charles Dickens are included in the Mid-Victorian period. The Mid-Victorian period has been described as “The Age of Improvement” by Asa Briggs, a historian, but the writers focused on its shortcomings. The Late Victorian period distinguishes itself from the rest of the period. The nineties gave way to the decadence of Oscar Wilde whose attitude was a deliberate different than that of Tennyson or Dickens.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote poetry during the turbuletion of the Mid-Victorian age. A great English Critic, George Eliot said that Tennyson “while belonging emphatically to his own age, while giving a voice to the struggles and the far-reaching thoughts of this nineteenth century, has those supreme artistic qualities which must make him a poet for all ages” (Kalasky 354). The poetry of Tennyson usually centers about the theme, like Mariana, of love, strong human emotions and melancholy isolation. For example, Marina’s life is lonely and jaded as she endlessly repeats “The night is dreary,/ He cometh not,” and “I an aweary, aweary,/ I would that I were dead!” (Abrams 1057-1058).
Tennyson only had partial enthusiasm about the industrialism of the period. “Much of the time he felt instead that leadership in commerce and industry was being paid for at a terrible price in human happiness. . . progress had only been gained by abandoning the traditional rhythms of life. . . and relationships that had sustained us for centuries” (Abrams 892). Tennyson social vision was a “concern with medieval ideals of social community, heroism, and courtly love and whose despairing sense of the cycles of historical change typifies much social thought of the age” (Abrams 1054). Loss and exile are recurring themes in his poetry that express this attitude.
Inspired by humankind and history, Tennyson often returned to the rural life and the past that preceded the Victorian age (Abrams 1056). As in Lockley Hall where Tennyson relates his hatred of greed and social values, ” . . . Cursed be the social wants. . . Cursed be the social lies. . . Cursed be the gold that gilds the straited forehead of the fool” (Abram 1073-1079).
The age of Queen Victoria became a remarkable time of social unrest (Williams 165). Tennyson is expressively sympathetic to the blight of England. “Relatively few of his poems exclusively focus upon the theme, but the reader feels that the problem is constantly in Tennyson’s mind” (Williams, 168). It is possible that Tennyson wrote about classical settings, The Lotos-Eaters and The Lady of Shalott, and mythical themes, Ulysses and Tithonus, as a tool for turning to the past for direction and comfort in an era of change and uncertainty.
The mid-century brought a surge in industrialism and poverty. The problems began in the early Victorian age and consequences of them advanced to reveal a miserable society. Writers like Charles Dickens saw the effects of this modernization and used his craft to bring it to the attention of the larger society. He imagined that the worse was to come. “Dickens continued to make critical attacks on the shortcomings of the Victorian social scene” even though it was the age of improvement (Abrams 895). Dickens gave a loud and strong voice to the unheard mill workers of Hard Times. He used heavy symbolism in his novel to portray the real, the dark, side of the school, industry, and class systems. Dickens used exaggerated characterization in order to express he point.
Much like Tennyson, Dickens was sympathetic to the struggles of mankind. Dickens saw the dehumanization in the mills and in the schools and he voiced the anguish of the lower classes. Hard Times, like much of Dickens’s work, was effective because he spoke the cruel language of reality, unlike Tennyson who masked this with setting. Dickens not only spoke for the lower class, he lived the lower class and his passion was with them, not the past.
For Tennyson and Dickens, sincerity and thoughtfulness saturated their attitudes about what society should adhere to. “In Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) the hero affirms ‘I have always been thoroughly in earnest.’ . . . Wilde’s play. . . [is] a comic spectacle of earlier Victorian values being turned upside down” (Abram 900).
The last part of the century contains the decadent writers of the late Victorian period. The attitude of this era is considerably deferent from that of Tennyson or Dickens. The literature of Oscar Wilde shows the change from the nostalgia of the past and the dire concern of the middle period into the apathy and disrespect of the late period.
The concerns of Dickens had become punch lines in the jokes of the late Victorians. The concerns shown in Wilde’s drama “The Importance of Being Earnest”, poked fun at the idea of being sincere and dedicated to social problems that the earlier writers held dear in their writing. The message was no longer geared to the social unrest of the era but to enjoy the day for what it was regardless of what state society was in. Oscar Wilde claimed there was no such thing as moral or immoral art. To him, it was purely surface and symbol and useless.
Tennyson and Dickens “were not merely accepted but idolized” by the public while Wilde was seen as an “intolerable threat to the home, church, and the state” (Hicks, 217). Wilde’s play uses setting and amazing detail to provide the sense of shallow mindedness of his time. Jack, after loosing a cigarette case, is ready to take the matters to the hands of the Scotland Yard. This trivial example is only magnified when we find Lady Bracknell attentively keeping strenuous notes on the men Cecily may grace with her hand in marriage. They play does not take anything of any importance seriously, and the only topic of any lengthy discussion is the lying and false lives led by the two main characters. Wilde satirizes the straitlaced and over-moral Victorians and they usefulness of art.
The play mentions several forms of records in writing, like the girls’ diaries, Lady Bracknell’s novel, the Army Lists, all the way down to the cigarette case inscription. Here, the novel is the only technically creative form of writing. And it is treated as worthless as Jack was as a child. The diaries, on the other hand, would normally become significant records of ones life. But here we find that they too are full of fictions. And as Wilde would have it, sometimes humans are just as fictional. This is displayed when Miss Prism “confuses document with person” when she mistakes the baby Jack for the novel (Sammells, 380). Wilde, as a Formalist asserts “art as a lie” in “The Importance of Being Earnest” (Sammells 380).
The changes seen in the art and attitudes of the Victorian ages are extreme. The morals, values and high reverence for art during the Mid-Victorian age is dumped by authors like Wilde who find no use for art and termed it useless. Art was only admired for beauty and cultivation. The purpose of art was not to discuss society but to celebrate individual experiences and sensual feeling. These were things the late Victorians felt that one should live for, decadence.