Principal Literary Features of Victorian Era

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      The years (1830-1890) roughly comprised what is called the Victorian era and the literature produced in this period presents many dissimilar features. From 1830 onwards a new transition began to develop and in the decade that followed these new tendencies became well marked, so as to stamp the new literature with a definite character. The most marked feature of this literature is that it reflects very faithfully the life of the times in its various aspects social, religious, political and economic. Literature was drawn so closer to life, that Arnold saw in it nothing but a 'criticism of life'.


      Thus, the main characteristic of this literature is its rich human interest. The Romanticism of the age just gone by had its peculiar limitations, like all literary movements. One of these was that English poets had not yet flung themselves upon the world of man in its concrete richness and variety. As Prof. Herford had beautifully put it: "Wordsworth's aspirations to tell of 'men barricaded evermore within the walls of cities remained an unfulfilled item in the programme of a recluse; and Shelley's saviour of humanity (Prometheus) hung far aloof among the caverns and precipices of cancasus." Literature descended from its heights into the common level of humanity.


From 1830 onwards a new transition began to develop and in the decade that followed these new tendencies became well marked upto 1890, so as to stamp the new literature with a definite character.
Victorian Era

      The social history that is reflected in the literature reveals two things that stand out distinctly - the steady progress of democratic ideals and the progress of scientific thoughts. The passing of the Reform Acts set at rest the political disturbances that came in the wake of the French Revolution. It satisfied the demands of the middle classes particularly the. lower ones who now assumed increasing power, yearned for peace, stability and order in all matters. Rules of conduct and religious beliefs had been rudely shaken in the storm of the Revolution; the Romanticism had championed the claims of passion and upheld the rights of the individual.


      The unbridled laxity in morals during the reigns of the Georges called for a large measure of self control. Thus with the advance of democracy and the rise into power by the middle class, the need of an accepted standard of stricter morality sincere or conventional was felt and it was imposed by common consent. "There was a wide-spread and willing submission to the rule of the expert; the voice of authority was accepted in religion, politics, in literature, in family life." Not that the acceptance of a single body of doctrine distinguished the age but this spirit of acceptance, the innate desire to affirm and conform rather than to question and reject marked the intellectual temper of the age.


      This was the Victorian attitude of compromise, which suffered such onslaughts from the new generation at the beginning of the present century. Allied with this mental attitude was a feeling of complacency that whatever they had achieved was permanent and unshakable. As Prof. Ward has said "A further characteristic of the Victorian age was a firm belief in the permanence of nineteenth century institution, both temporal and spiritual. The Home, the Constitution, the empire, the Christian religion each in its own form and degree was taken as a final revelation. It was not allowable even to hint that in course of natural progress of change, any or all oft these institutions might be displaced or superseded." Tennyson is the best exponent of this temper of the age.


      But there is another side of the picture. At first life flowed on a smoothly and gallantly but towards the middle of the reign of the Queen "a protest against the deadening effects of the conventions" was voiced by many among the thoughtful writers of the age. And it is echoed through the whole of the literature of the mid-Victorian age. The growing materialism of the period became a suspect to the finer spirits of the age. The new scientific discoveries of Darwin, Huxley etc. rudely shocked the 'complacency' and led to its fierce denunciation. Herein comes into prominence the influence of science on the literature of the age. The advance of science transformed man's outlook on life and affected every channel of intellectual activity. And it has done this mainly in two ways. First it has fostered a spirit of restlessness; for by increasing material resources, it has commercialised modern life. Ruskin cast his fling on this materialism of the age. But this is only an accidental aspect of the scientific movement.

 

      In a deeper manner the effects of the geological and biological discovery of Darwin shook the foundations of conventional faiths and a knowledge of life and the universe. And this general spiritual unrest is reflected most remarkably in Mid-Victorian poetry. "The questioning note in Clough, the pessimism of James Thomson, the wistful melancholy of Matthew Arnold, the fatalism of FitzGerald, testify to the sceptical tendencies evoked by scientific research. It did not like poetry but it stifled for a while the lyric impulse and over-weighted verse with speculative elements." But the second and far more important way that it invaded the literary art of the age. The minuteness of the observation of nature and accuracy of details in Tennyson's nature descriptions and the thought-contents of 'In Memoriam' owe much to the scientific spirit.


      The principle of induction - the essential scientific method, is exhibited in Carlyle's biographical works and the works of the modern school of history. In fiction, the scientific spirit is no less discernible, the problems of heredity and environment preoccupy the attention of the novelists. The social problem of the earlier Victorian novelists like Dickens, Kingsley give place to points in biology, psychology, pathology. The analytical methods of science are more subtly followed in the fiction of George Eliot, early works of Mrs. Humphry Ward and the intimate Wessex studies of Thomas Hardy. Even in religion and ethics new advances came as a result of this scientific spirit of questioning. The Oxford Movement, led by Newman was the result of a widespread discontent with existing beliefs of the Church of England.


      Lastly, romanticism was not altogether dead. It coloured the thoughts and methods of Tennyson, Browning Thackeray Arnold, etc. from the beginning of the period and at last burst out into a new life in the years (1875-1880). The new idealism of the time is also called Neo-romanticism. The Pre-Raphaelite movement, which is a reaction against the philosophic and scientific preoccupation of the earlier Victorians is but a logical development of the Romantic revival. Its mediaevalism Hellenism, idealism and love of beauty derive from Keats and Shelley. Rossetti, Morris and Swinburne are essentially romantic. Even Newman's Oxford movement with its swing back to mediaeval faith is due to this Romantic impulse.

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