The Victorian Era Influence on Modern Times

When one looks at the history of the world as a whole, it is amazing that in the short years during Queen Victoria’s reign in England, we have come further then all the years the earth has been in existence. Throughout her reign of 64 years, from 1837, when she came to the throne, till her death in 1901, the world saw changes that were incomparable to what had been seen throughout the history of the world. It was during her successful reign in England that incomprehensible things took place that changed the history of the world forever within such fields and specialties as art, literature, music, philosophy, sciences, and modern inventions during this time period. It is because of this time period, known as the Victorian Era, we have many of the modern conveniences, ideas, philosophies, and knowledge that we enjoy, and take for granted, on a daily basis. This period bridged the gap from the dark and medieval ages to our present and productive day. It would not have come about without the influence of the ideas and works of several people from Britain, living under Queen Victoria’s reign.

Queen Victoria was born in 1819, and took the throne at a young age of 18 years, in 1837. It was not long after that she married Prince Albert, her cousin. They were wedded in the year 1840, when Victoria was 21 years of age. There is a reason why this famous and industries period of time was named after Victoria, and it is because of what she did within her reign, and what transpired during her reign. She is known in modern times to carry the name of prudery, yet some would argue that it was, in fact, her husband Albert who made a point of “straitlaced behavior” (Drew 1). Although Albert and Victoria had 9 children, three of whom would later become kings, Albert died at a fairly young age of 42, leaving Victoria to fill the throne for another 40 years until she died in 1901. She did so successfully though, in that she took her responsibilities seriously. “She had a whim of iron, reflective of the certainties of the age” (Drew 1). She was iron. She led her kingdom with wisdom as well as grace. Victoria reflected every part of this prestigious and well-recognized period. She was inventive, she was creative, and she was new and different. She is the mother of feminism in this particular era. This is obvious from her successful 40-year period of influence on the throne, while seated alone on the throne.

It was in this time period that several important things transpired and came about that the world had never seen before. Art, literature and music were flourishing and increasing in their value and immensity. Philosophers were for the first time questioning the church and challenging people to think for themselves and to find the truth for themselves. Scientists were discovering more amazing things then were comprehendible to the human mind at this time; perhaps the reason why their “ideas” were not widely accepted by many, especially the clergy at this time. There was also a great influx of incredibly useful inventions. And, of course, there were social issues and boundaries that were crossed and defied like never before. People finally had a place in society, because they were finally given an opportunity to make more money then just enough to live on. Women were liberated and given more choices and opportunities. Social classes were challenged and rebelled against. This was a great age of opportunity and all were given the chance to have a bit for themselves. This was also a time that displayed and rang true Charles Dickens famous words, “they were the best of times, and they were the worst of times.” With all the good, also came the bad. With flourishing, also came degradation.

Many remember the Victorian Era for its high values. Probably because this is the very era where “values” actually started. The idea of Victorian values is very comprehensible and useable compared to say the American Family values, because it incorporates the family as well as “hard work, thrift, cleanliness, self-reliance, self-respect, neighborliness, and patriotism” (Himmelfarb 5). Giving credit to the Victorians for strong values is a relatively new idea, founded by Margaret Thatcher. In an address, she referred to her background as strong Victorian values, learned from her Victorian grandmother.

Thatcher states:

“You were taught to work jolly hard. We were taught to prove yourself; we were taught self-reliance; we were taught to live within our income. You were taught that cleanliness is next to godliness. You were taught self-respect. You were taught always to give a hand to your neighbor. You were taught tremendous pride in your country. All of these things are Victorian values. They are also perennial values” (Hummelfarb 4).

Thatcher clearly shows a bias attitude toward this productive era, but she doesn’t tell the whole truth in this statement. It is because of this biased view that one may consider and realize the truth of Dickens statement about the best and worst of times. We all know of the troubles that were faced throughout the Victorian era. They were not living in a utopia. People were treated badly throughout the whole world. We were not free from segregation, or prejudices or famine, or hunger. This is when labor laws were introduced for the first time, and there was a reason why one would need labor laws, because the laborers were being abused. This was not a perfect time, yet it was a unique time because of all the things that did happen in these short 64 years. Although the values of this time period were not universal, they can be looked up to in today’s world, where values are still valued, but not always practiced, and definitely not practiced like they were years ago. The Victorians worst day of values is probably better then our best. That is a sad realization of reality of today’s world.

Probably the first thing that one thinks of when they hear “Victorian,” would be society, fashion and style. This time produced some of the most lasting and impressionable fashions and styles of the modern era. Although it was over 150 years ago, the effects are lasting. With the modern inventions of photographs, and the rapid production of newspapers, fashion in clothing was becoming much more a part of upper class society. People found great importance in the way they dressed and it was especially significant to one in a higher society. Although the fashion capital for women’s fashion was still to be found in Paris, France, it was altogether different for men’s fashions; their headquarters were located in London, England. This was a time for new styles and fashions that produced a look as well as practicality. Men were given functional clothing, but more importantly, women were given functional and practical clothing. This was at the beginning, the age of the bustle, corset, parasol, and bonnet, which were completely uncomfortable and only submitted to fashions seeking eye, yet, as the women’s movement increased, the practicality and comfort of women’s clothing did as well. Women became much more active as they would go swimming, play tennis or go for a bike ride. This forced designers to change their clothing. This was a big part in the women’s movement, although it may not always be considered in the traditional sense of women’s movement.

“The Victorians were extremely status-conscious” (Taylor). To the wealthy Victorians, large amounts of time were spent socializing. It was not uncommon for them to host 2-5 parties a week. “Victorian dinners were formal and long, consisting of many courses served over as much as three hours” (Taylor). This point was made in reference to how important Victorians found their homes to be, as they were the places where the people they socialized with would be the most. This required them to have an impressive home to live in. We have reaped the rewards of their unique and beautiful architecture, as Victorian homes are some of the most beautiful and pleasing to look at today. This also goes for the furniture of the time period. “The architecture and furnishings are a statement of the society” (Who 1). All versions of Victorian architecture and furniture were beautiful as well as distinct to the time period. It is a style that is repeatedly copied even today. People are enthralled by the elegant and sophisticated look of the Victorians.

The socializing of this time period was clearly defined and constant. When watching movies set in this time period or reading a book from this time, one can easily get a sense of what life was like in an upper class home and lifestyle. My mind is quickly referred to a somewhat recently released movie, Ideal Husband. This form of modern media clearly defines upper class life in London in this prestigious time period.

Another of Victorians successes must be the inventions that were developed by so many. They entered the Victorian era with little in the way of modern inventions, and they left the era with wide doors opening to the prospect of an bright future, made much more convenient and easy due to some very fundamental and today, daily used inventions. The inventors and inventions from this time period include the following: Brunel built a railway from London to Bristol, as well as a paddle steamer to cross the Atlantic in less then 15 days. He also built the S.S. Britain, the first propeller driven steamship ever, and he also built the Great Eastern, the biggest steamship of its time. He would later die in 1859 due to overwork and worry. The first telephone became available in 1877, invented by Scottish scientist, Alexander Graham Bell (Victorian).

Landmark inventions were noticed throughout the world. Thomas Edison, a U.S. inventor, invented the phonograph as well as the light bulb, within two years of each other. In Germany, Karl Benz invented the first automobile.

Inventions weren’t the only things flourishing and making our lives easier today. Scientists were also very busy at work discovering new theories and bringing them to the world. Not all of their work was believed or welcomed. This was the era in which Charles Darwin formed his evolution theory. “The theories of science seemed for once to become comprehensible to the great mass of people” (Batho 30). Although several before Darwin had formed somewhat of a theory to parallel evolution, he was the first to come out with a full study on it. In 1859, he published Origin of Species, explaining his theory. Although it was a very controversial issue, the book sold out in one day. The theory is still very controversial, yet his theory has endured and several scientists since have supported his ideas.

“George Boole developed the rigorous logic on which modern computers are based. Lord Rayleigh created modern theories of light and sound. Lord Kelvin laid the foundations for thermodynamics. Michael Faraday elucidated connections between electricity and chemistry. J.J. Thompson discovered the electron. And Ernest Rutherford demonstrated that atoms possess an internal structure” (Drew 2). This is, I am sure a very small list comparatively speaking to all that was discovered and theorized in this time period.

We also heard of breakthroughs in the medical field. The most famous person in the medical field of this time period was Florence Nightingale, who changed nursing and the medical field forever. She organized nursing during the Crimean war and in 1860 she published the first ever-definitive textbooks on nursing (Victorian). She was solely responsible for the discovery of the importance of hygienic medical care.

Literature also had several great contributors to this time period. There were poets such as: Elizabeth Barrett, Robert Browning, George Byron, Thomas Hardy, Algernon Swinburne, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and William Wordsworth. This list doesn’t include authors such as: Charlotte Bronte, Samuel Butler, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. We also had painters like: Benjamin Disraeli, and William Gladstone. Just as any other period in time, this period had its fair share of talent, but this period seems to be overloading on the talent. It is overflowing with it.

One of the most important and effective issues of the Victorian era that has impacted us is that of the invention of the middle class. It was through the ideas of Karl Marx and socialism that this came about. This was the theory behind it. The act was the formation of factories, as well as the birth of the industrial revolution. This was another form of liberalization for the woman. Before this, she had little chance for employment other then an occupation as domestic servant. The contrasts between the two worlds are drastic. Domestic servants would often work 12-hour days, compared to 10 hours in factories. They would also serve 80 hours a week compared to the few 56. Factories provided social opportunities, not only with other women, but also with men. They had a higher chance of being courted and married. They also were allowed more freedom in time and spending money. Finally they had the “Royal Commissions, parliamentary committees, social activists, and unions. . . ” to take up their cause and defend them, whereas domestic servants had no one to fight their cause (Burnett). It is mostly because of the industrial revolution that we have middle classes today. This bridged the gap between the few rich, high class and the majority of poor. This provided a way that the average working man or woman could raise to a higher status and make something of their lives, even without the help of an education.

The final important issue that we see the seeds of in this period belongs to the cause for women’s rights. This is the first time that women were allowed any kind of say or lack of restrictions in their opinions and rights. It was in the year 1893 that the first country, New Zealand, allows women the right to vote. This opened many doors for women in a dominant man’s world. It wasn’t until long after the Victorian period was over that women received full rights, but the seeds were started here. Many were sympathetic to the women’s rights movement. Ironically, the most influential feminist was in fact a man, as well as a famous philosopher: John Stuart Mill. He was “.. .not the first to propose that women be granted [rights], . . .but he was the first to provide a serious, sustained rationale for it” (Himmelfarb 89). He published The Subjection of Women in 1869. His approach to the matter is quite a different one then we hear of today though. Instead of giving women rights on the grounds of gender, he proposes that women receive them on the same grounds men receive them. “What is wanted for women is equal rights, equal admission to all social privileges; not a position apart” (Hummelfarb 90). Many men were surprisingly sympathetic to the feminist movement, although they were so with ulterior motives. On the issue of educating women, George Gissing states: “My demand for female ‘equality’ simply means that I am convinced there will be no social peace until women are intellectually trained very much as men are. More then half the misery of life is due to the ignorance and childishness of women” (Hummelfarb 94). This view was of course not welcome, and was clearly defied. This is shown by example after example of intelligent women resisting the conformity that man has tried to place her in. With the example of a leader of a strong nation being a woman, this was very friendly to the women’s movement.

We also have such women as Clara Collett who worked directly with the parliament on women’s labour. Her work greatly improved the conditions in the field of women’s work. She did numerous surveys and investigations into women’s labours all around the country. She was definitely a support to liberating women, although her approach was somewhat different, and very appreciated. “She did not believe that the methods employed by the more radical feminists were the way to improve the situation for women. She was far subtler; for how could she fail to advance the cause of women when those in power perceived her as such a capable, intelligent person’ (McDonald). Throughout her career, she helped to improve the working conditions and wages of women, and most importantly, she helped to give women the opportunity to prove that they are as capable as men in the workplace (McDonald).

Each of the points covered above briefly tell the story of the Victorian period. The influence is strongly felt in our everyday lives. Whether it is through fashion, religion, education, or philosophy, the Victorian period is one of great influence. It bridges the gap between the slow moving and progressing past and the fast paced future world that we live in today. More was discovered in that short period of time then in the whole history of the world. That is a very impressive thing for such a diminutive period of time, yet its influence is great and will continually be felt for generations to come.

Bibliography

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Burrow, J.W. Evolution & Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory. Cambridge
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Drew, Philip. The Enigmatic Victorians. Source: Online. 24 March 2000
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Sichel, Marion. Costume Reference 6: The Victorians. Plays: Boston, 1978.
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__,__. Victorian Timeline. Source: Online. 24 March 2000.
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