The Correlation between Science and Literature during the Victorian Age
The Victorian era was a period of soaring industrialism and innovative commercial enterprise, of great advances within the natural sciences and the development of the social sciences. It was a time of both prosperity and social inequality, causing an upheaval of the established social order, which in turn led to extensive political reform. This vibrant, dynamic environment gave nourish to some of the greatest thinkers and writers the world has known.
The theories of Karl Marx and Charles Darwin must be seen as part of a social and scientific development. Ideas of common ownership, evolution and atheism were not new to this era – but people like Marx and Darwin developed upon these ideas to create scientifically based theories.
Alongside the scientific development of the period, fictional writers were also protesting against the social and economic injustices suffered by the working class, against gender inequality, moral conventions, organized religion and more. In 1848, Elizabeth Gaskell, a minister’s wife in Manchester, published her first novel; Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life. In it, she wrote about the poverty and hardships of the men working in the mines and the women working in the mills of Manchester. Her work was greatly admired by many of her contemporary writers, among them Elizabeth Barratt Browning and Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) was one of the most prolific of the Victorian authors. Through his massive authorship, he attacked the injustices of the English industrial society. He knew first-hand about the social evils of his age; his family had to spend some time in debtor’s prison and he, himself, had to work in a factory under appalling conditions for a period of his childhood. He was deeply influenced by the works of Karl Marx and wrote hundreds of essays with severe social criticism. Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Dombey and Son and David Copperfield are examples of his most popular novels dealing with issues like social and economic inequality and the vulnerability of both women and children in society.
The great poets of the day also gave voice to their thoughts on society. Elizabeth Barrett Browning became famous for poetry that took up issues like slavery, child labour and the oppression of women. Her poem, The Cry of the Children, describes the suffering of children forced to work in the mines and factories. The early poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837 – 1909) often revolted against the moral conventions of the era, through quite explicit sexual themes. Although these poems met massive criticism, many Victorians received them with a mixture of shock and delight. Dolores and Faustine became particularly popular. Matthew Arnold wrote about the difficult transition from the world that he knew to a new world full of uncertainty in Dover Beach; lamenting the decline of tradition and religion.
Now, more than a century after the Victorian Era ended, we have the advantage of being able to look back and see it as a whole. We see how the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution led to demographic, social and economic changes. These changes led to deep societal problems. Some of the greatest thinkers of the times worked to shed light upon these problems and to seek solutions to them. Whether they were scientists, sociologists, economists, poets or novelist, they all contributed in their own way towards improving their society.