Answer: The Victorian era is generally agreed to stretch through the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). It was a tremendously exciting period when many artistic styles, literary schools, as well as, social, political and religious movements flourished. It was a time of prosperity, broad imperial expansion, and great political reform. It was also a time, which today we associate with “prudishness” and “repression”. Without a doubt, it was an extraordinarily complex age that has sometimes been called the Second English Renaissance. It is, however, also the beginning of Modern Times.
The social classes of England were newly reforming, and fomenting. There was a churning upheaval of the old hierarchical order, and the middle classes were steadily growing. Added to that, the upper classes’ composition was changing from simply hereditary aristocracy to a combination of nobility and an emerging wealthy commercial class. The definition of what made someone a gentleman or a lady was, therefore, changing at what some thought was an alarming rate. By the end of the century, it was silently agreed that a gentleman was someone who had a liberal public (private) school education (preferably at Eton, Rugby, or Harrow), no matter what his antecedents might be. There continued to be a large and generally disgruntled working class, wanting and slowly getting reform and change.
Conditions of the working class were still bad, though, through the century, three reform bills gradually gave the vote to most males over the age of twenty-one. Contrasting to that was the horrible reality of child labor which persisted throughout the period. When a bill was passed stipulating that children under nine could not work in the textile industry, this in no way did not apply to other industries, nor did it in any way curb rampant teenaged prostitution.
Families relying on an income from casual work could only afford basic accommodation. Builders knew that they would never be able to charge the poor high rents. They built their houses quickly and cheaply, often without facilities such as bathrooms and toilets. Sometimes houses were divided in half to accommodate two families. This often meant that one family had to make do without an easily accessible supply of drinking water.
Few who will read these pages have any conception of what these pestilential human rookeries are, where tens of thousands are crowded together amidst horrors which call to mind what we have heard of the middle passage of the slave ship.
To get into them you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions and often flowing beneath your feet; courts, many of them which the sun never penetrates, which are never visited by a breath of fresh air, and which rarely know the virtues of a drop of cleansing water. You have to ascend rotten staircases, which threaten to give waybeneath every step….You have to grope your way along dark and filthy passages swarming with vermin.
The 1890 Housing Act made it the responsibility of local councils to provide decent accommodation for local people. Things gradually improved, but conditions remained bad well into the 20th century.
The Dress of the early Victorian era was similar to the Georgian age. Women wore corsets, Balloonish sleeves and crinolines in the middle 1840’s. The crinoline thrived, and expanded during the 50’s and 60’s, and into the 70’s, until, at last, it gave way to the bustle. The bustle held its own until the 1890’s, and became much smaller, going out altogether by the dawning of the twentieth century. For men, following Beau Brummell’s example, stove-pipe pants were the fashion at the beginning of the century. Their ties, known then as cravats, and the various ways they might be tied could change, the styles of shirts, jackets, and hats also, but trousers have remained. Throughout the century, it was stylish for men to wear facial hair of all sizes and descriptions. The clean shaven look of the Regency was out, and mustaches, mutton-chop sideburns, Piccadilly Weepers, full beards, and Van Dykes (worn by Napoleon III) were the order of the day.
As the 19th century progressed journalists and social reformers carried out surveys in the East End. These revealed the full extent of the plight of thepoor. The studies were part of a new emphasis given to social investigation into the extent and causes of poverty in large industrial cities. They also examined solutions to the problems.
The “prudishness” and “repressiveness” that we associate with this era is, I believe, a somewhat erroneous association. Though, people referred to arms and legs as limbs and extremities, and many other things that make us titter, it is, in my opinion, because they had a degree of modesty and a sense of propriety that we hardly understand today. The latest biographies of Queen Victoria describe her and her husband, Albert, of enjoying erotic art, and certainly we know enough about the Queen from the segment on her issue, to know that she did not in any way shy away from the marriage bed. The name sake of this period was hardly a prude, but having said that, it is necessary to understand that the strictures and laws for 19th Century Society were so much more narrow and defined that they are today, that we must see this era as very codified and strict. Naturally, to an era that takes more liberties, this would seem harsh and unnatural.
As stated in the beginning, the Victorian Age was an extremely diverse and complex period. It was, indeed, the precursor of the modern era. If one wishes to understand the world today in terms of society, culture, science, and ideas, it is imperative to study this era.