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The Victorian Age and the British Empire

Queen Victoria, with her 63 years on the throne, is one of the longest reigning British monarchs. In 1877 she was also proclaimed as Empress of India. Her reign from 1837 to 1901 is named the Victorian Era or Victorian Period. This period coincides with the peak years of the British Empire.

The Howard Vincent map of the British Empire
The Howard Vincent map of the British Empire

Colonisation – the Empire

Throughout the Middle Ages, England was a medium-sized, moderately wealthy country. When the New World was discovered, Britain used its naval advantage to establish colonies and assist trading companies wherever they sought foothold.They became the number one world power. Whole groups of citizens were exported to populate foreign parts of the world. North America, Australia, South Africa and Ireland are examples of settler colonies. In addition, trader colonies such as India, Nigeria and Jamaica were established. One trading company of great importance to the Empire was the East India Company. It was founded in 1599 and secured India as a colony, actually governing there until 1858. During the industrialisation of Britain, the trading colonies developed into providers of cheap raw materials for her industries.

The Empire peaked around 1900. Britain ruled about a quarter of the world, in both land and population. It was the biggest empire the world had ever seen, and it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire.

Victoria - Empress of India
Victoria – Empress of India

Britain was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution which started in the late 1700s. Queen Victoria reigned during a time when industrialisation made the country the richest in the world. Britain had an advantage since they were first off the mark. Countries like the USA and Germany, however, soon caught up.

Victoria’s reign can be seen as the Golden Age of Empire although there were conflicts in many of the colonies. The new industries at home demanded huge amounts of raw material much of which was taken from Britain's colonies around the world, without the local people seeing much of the riches that accumulated at the centre of the Empire.


Victorian Society - a Divided Society

British society, just as other industrial societies, changed markedly in this period.

Working Class

Child labour
Child labour was common in Victorian England

A working class emerged and urbanisation increased as people moved from farms to cities to work in factories. In the cities they faced poor and overcrowded accommodation with no sanitary facilities and unregulated and often dangerous working conditions in factories and mills.
Crime and prostitution flourished in the growing underworld of the cities.

Middle Class

Victorian ideals
The Happy Mother - a Victorian ideal

At the same time another group emerged in increasing numbers, the middle class; factory owners, proprietors and business men. Many were hardworking, thrifty and frugal family men with high moral standards, living in moderate luxury according to the standards of the age. Queen Victoria and her dear Albert coined the virtous morality and values which applied for all aspects of Victorian living.The Victorians were, like their Queen, in favour of strict morals, hard work and correct behaviour. Perhaps this is why the English have a reputation for being uptight, always keeping a stiff upper lip?

The middle class could read and write and also afford to buy newspapers, magazines and novels. In the current media and elsewhere they increasingly challenged the leadership of the aristocracy / upper class in setting the political and economic agenda.


At the Bottom

Front Cover of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Front Cover of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

At the bottom of the system there were the unemployed and destitute people in the city slums, who either ended up in the workhouse or on the street trying to make a living in the so-called criminal classes; thieves, pick-pockets and prostitutes. Writers like Charles Dickens stirred the social conscience of the Victorians by attacking the injustices of the industrial society. The orphans Oliver Twist and David Copperfield first appeared in monthly publications which were bought and read by the middle class.

One could say that the Victorian period definitely defined and cemented the class system that has characterised English society since then. However, like Dickens, many Victorian writers intended to give the bourgeoisie a bad conscience about how poor workers were treated by mean factory owners and how orphans were neglected and abused in workhouses.

Queen Victoria - the First Media Monarch

When her husband, Prince Albert died in 1861, Victoria isolated herself for a couple of years in mourning. She attended few public appearances and spent most of the time on the Isle of Wight and in the Scottish Highlands, where her closest companion was a Scottish servant, John Brown. The press saw this as an excellent opportunity for making money off a royal scandal, (sounds familiar?) and the papers started implying that they were “more than friends“ referring to the Queen as “Mrs Brown”, as well as criticising her absence from public view.

Queen Victoria eventually reappeared on the public scene, but she continued wearing black to mourn her Albert for the remaining part of her life.

Tasks

Animation

Watch and listen to this animation about the Victorian period. It also brings up how the Victorian period influenced American literature.

  • On the basis of this presentation and the text above, make a brief survey of the Victorian Period. You may just provide key words.
  • Why do you think this period was named after Queen Victoria?
The Victorian Period

Update: This animation about the Victorian Age states that Victoria reigned from 1834, the correct year should be 1837. She is also no longer the longest reigning monarch in British history as Queen Elisabeth II has ruled for more years.

Film

Watch this 2011 film version of Jane Eyre (2 hrs.), based on Charlotte Brontë's popular novel from 1847 by the same name. The novel soon became Queen Victoria's favourite reading. In the film Jane is portrayed by Mia Wasikowska and Edward Rochester by Michael Fassbender. Jane Eyre is a kind of Cinderella story but without the same happy ending.

Charlotte Brontë and her two sisters, Emily and Anne grew up in a remote house on the windswept Yorkshire moors. By watching the film you will become acquainted with this landscape and Victorian ideals and values.

After watching the film you should list what you consider as Victorian features concerning:

  • Social class issues
  • Gender roles
  • Children
  • Love
  • Courtship
  • Marriage
  • Dress
  • Education
  • Morality
  • Ideals
  • Values

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