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th century: The Victorian AGE

The Victorian Age, from the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 until her death in 1901, was an era of great economic, social, and political changes. The British Empire reached its height and covered about a fourth of the world's land. Industry and trade expanded rapidly, and railroads and canals crisscrossed the country. Science and technology made great advances, new scientific theories, including Charles Darwin's evolution theory challenged many religious beliefs. The middle class grew enormously. By the 1850's, more people were getting an education. In addition, the government introduced democratic reforms. e.g. an increasing number of people received the right to vote. But in spite of the prosperity of the Victorian Age, factory and farmworkers lived in terrible poverty. All these changes forced writers to take positions on the issues concerning the society, such as the contrast between the poor and the rich, the loss of faith in traditional values, and the effects of the industrial revolution.

The complacency of the English middle classes over their new prosperity and growing political power, the relationship between society and the individual, the materialism and skepticism of the age were the concerns of the art critic John Ruskin and the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, who attacked the greed and hypocrisy he saw in society in "Sartor Resartus" (1833-1834).

The novel was the dominant form in literature during the Victorian age as romanticism yielded to literary realism. Early Victorian literature includes some of the greatest and most popular novels ever written. Most novelists of the period wrote long works with numerous characters, including actual events of the day in their tales. In novels by Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray the new spirit of realism came to the fore.

Charles Dickens wrote novels about of contemporary life and exposed social evils, while his powers of caricature and humor and colourful characters won him a vast readership. In "Oliver Twist" (1837-1839) and "David Copperfield" (1849-1850), Dickens described the lives of children made miserable by cruel or thoughtless adults. He pictured the grim side of Victorian life in "Bleak House" (1852-1853) and criticized the courts, the clergy, and the neglect of the poor.

William Makepeace Thackeray created a masterpiece of Victorian fiction in "Vanity Fair" (1847-1848). The story follows the lives of many characters at different levels of English society during the early 1800's.

The novels of the three Bronte sisters -- Emily, Charlotte, and Anne -- have many romantic elements. The novels are known especially for their psychologically tormented heroes and heroines. Critics rank Emily's "Wuthering Heights" (1847) and Charlotte's "Jane Eyre" (1847) among the greatest works of Victorian fiction.

The leading late Victorian novelists were George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans); George Meredith; Anthony Trollope; and Thomas Hardy. Eliot's stories deal with social and moral problems. Her masterpiece is "Middlemarch" (1871-1872). Meredith's novels, as well as his poems, are noted for their sophisticated psychological treatment of character. His major works include the novels "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel" (1859) and "The Egoist" (1879). The six "Barsetshire Novels" of Trollope are gentle satires of life in rural England. They often tell of conflicts within the Church of England, always in a humorous way. One of them, "Barchester Towers" (1857), captures the tone and spirit of a mid-Victorian cathedral town.

Hardy's novels dominated English literature during the late 1800's. Hardy wrote realistic stories in which the characters are defeated by a hostile fate. He used the landscape of the imaginary county of Wessex to help create the brooding atmosphere of such novels as "The Mayor of Casterbridge" (1886) and "Jude the Obscure" (1895).

A second and younger group of novelists, many of whom continued their important work into the 20th century, included Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad.

English drama was reborn near the end of the Victorian Age. From the late 1700's to the late 1800's, almost no important dramas were produced in England. But by 1900, a number of playwrights had revived the English theater both with witty comedies and with realistic dramas about social problems of the time.

Oscar Wilde recalled the glittering Restoration comedy of manners in "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1895). The spirit of social criticism inspired the plays of the Irish-born George Bernard Shaw. In a series of powerful satirical plays, he exposed the problems of individuals and societies in England and the modern world, but also wrote witty plays, like the bestselling "Pygmalion." Sir Arthur Wing Pinero wrote a number of comedies and melodramas.

During the late 1800's, a pessimistic tone appeared in much of the best Victorian poetry and prose. Three notable poets of the age became interested in social issues. After beginning as a poet of romantic escapism in his "Idylls of the King", Alfred, Lord Tennyson, moved on to problems of religious faith, social change, and political power in his long poem "In Memoriam" (1850).

Tennyson's style stands in contrast to the intellectuality and bracing harshness of the poetry of Robert Browning, one of the leading Victorian poets. He created finely drawn character studies in poems called dramatic monologues, where a real or imaginary character narrates the story. Browning's best-known work is "The Ring and the Book" (1868-1869), based on an Italian murder case of 1698. Twelve characters discuss the case, each from his or her own point of view. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Browning's wife, wrote a famous sequence of love poems called "Sonnets from the Portuguese" (1850).

Matthew Arnold, the third of these mid-Victorian poets, stands apart from them as a more subtle, balanced, and pessimistic thinker. He described his doubts about modern life in such short poems as "The Scholar-Gypsy" (1853) and "Dover Beach" (1867). Arnold's most important literary achievements are his critical essays on culture, literature, religion, and society, many collected in "Culture and Anarchy" (1869).

Poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and poet, artist, and socialist reformer William Morris were associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, who hoped to inaugurate a period of honest craft and spiritual truth in poetry and painting.

Thus English literature continued till the end of the 19th century, which coincided with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. This event ended the long Victorian Age and brought about new values, aspirations, and apprehensions to be considered in the 20th century English literature.

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