Culture in Mid-Victorian Britain

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Religious Concerns of the Victorians

Religion played an important part in the lives of middle and upper class Victorians. The virtues of respectability, morality in public life and at home, and regular attendance at formal worship were recognised without question by most members of these classes. They accepted that God had ordered the estates of both the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. However within the Christian community there were numerous differences of opinion about the correct form of Christian ritual that should be observed, and many of the greatest thinkers of the age challenged the basic Christian faith and its dogmas, and even sometimes questioned the very existence of God. To examine these concerns further it might be constructive to examine three particular texts in some depth. The texts are: Chapter 6 of Book 3 of Hard Times by Charles Dickens, part of Charles Darwin's Autobiography, and The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Charles Dickens was a devout believer, and there is no suggestion of any doubt in his novels. However he considered that in 1854, when Hard Times was published, the Church was in a parlous state, and he had nothing good to say for any of its members or their missionary endeavours.

Chapter 6 of Book 3 of Hard Times, entitled "The Starlight", deals with the discovery, rescue and subsequent death of Stephen Blackpool, one of the few members of the labouring classes that Dickens created that was not a comic character or caricature. In an earlier chapter Dickens had already made clear that the labourers found nothing for them in any of the established churches or chapels in Coketown.

"If the members of a religious persuasion built a chapel there - as the members of eighteen religious persuasions had done - they made it a pious warehouse of red brick..... The perplexing mystery of the place was, Who belonged to the eighteen denominations? Because, whoever did, the labouring people did not. It was very strange to walk through the streets on a Sunday morning, and note how few of them the barbarous jangling of bells, that was driving the sick and nervous mad, called away from their own quarter....." (p 30).
Dickens' religious feelings possibly had little to do with this kind of church or chapel.

"The Starlight" begins with Rachael and Sissy, two wholly good and virtuous characters, escaping the foul air of Coketown for a walk in the countryside. There are early hints that the chapter will have some religious significance. It is a Sunday, and Coketown casts ashes "not only on its own head but on the neighbourhood's too - after the manner of those pious persons who do penance for their own sins by putting other people into sackcloth" (p 352). The larks are singing "though it was Sunday" (p 352). After the discovery of the chasm where Stephen has presumably fallen, Rachael calls upon "my good Lord", and Sissy, having failed to quieten Rachael "by any prayers", exhorts her "for the love of Heaven, not these dreadful cries" (p 354). And then it transpires that the name of the disused mine is Old Hell Shaft.

The plot now moves along in a straightforward manner as the rescue team is gathered and Stephen is located and hauled to the surface. Perhaps there is an inference that by self-help a group of labourers can rescue a soul from Hell. The last scene is to modern eyes over-sentimental and embarrassingly awkward. Dickens frequently resorts to pathos, usually with children such as Little Nell or Oliver Twist, but here it is with the barely credible character of Stephen. Stephen cries that it is "aw a muddle! Fro' first to last, a muddle!" (p 362). He seems to be content about it, or at least resigned to his fate. He offers no very practical solution to the ills of society, except the hope that "aw th' world may on'y coom toogether more, an' get a better unnerstan'in' o' one another" (p 363). The reason for his peace of mind is that when down the pit he saw a star that shined upon him, and "thowt it were the star as guided to Our Saviour's home" (p 364). It is with this strong religious imagery that Dickens invokes the sympathy of his readers for Stephen's fate - a readership which would be more ready to accept the sentimentality than today's. As Stephen dies, "the star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through humility, and sorrow, and forgiveness, he had gone to his Redeemer's rest" (p 365).

This accent on the achievement of Redemption through personal virtues, without any assistance from formal church worship, was typical of Dickens. There were many other members of the Victorian intelligentsia who queried the practices and dogmas of the established churches. William Allingham, a minor poet who was a personal friend of several major figures, kept a diary of his day-to-day conversations. He records Tennyson as saying "I can't call myself orthodox. Two things however I have always been firmly convinced of - God - and that death will not end my existence" (Allingham, p 289). Carlyle, to whom Hard Times was dedicated, said, speaking of his college days, "I read Gibbon, and then first clearly saw that Christianity was not true" (p 206). He hated Church ritual, "Mumbo-Jumbo" as he called it (p 193), and dogma. He grumbled:

"There's far too much dogmatism going, English funeral service, for example.... People write to me to try to bring me to Christ - ah me! If the Universe grinds me to nothing, I will hold that to be best and say "Not my will but thine be done." I don't pretend to understand the Universe - it's a great deal bigger than I am. The Darwinian Theory tried to meddle with things that are out of man's reach: and besides - I don't care a straw about all that! People ought to be modester" (p 176).

Darwin himself, as his Autobiography shows, changed gradually over the years from a firm belief to distinct Agnosticism. His was no sudden conversion, but came about through careful and painstaking philosophical thought. The Autobiography was written privately and never published, and is therefore a reasonably good primary source for the understanding of Darwin's true feelings. As one would expect from an eminent scientist with several published books behind him, he sets out his arguments in a plain, logical and easily followed way.

In the paragraphs about his religion he starts by commenting on his early orthodoxy, and then describes his weakening of faith, not attributable to any of his particular scientific theories, but rather to his gradual realisation that the Old Testament picture of God as a revengeful tyrant, as well as it's obviously untrue stories, was unacceptable as the basis for his religion. He draws the interesting comparison with the Hindoo religion, and speculates about a possible divine revelation to the Hindoos being based upon the ancient Indian Gods, some of whom, as his readers would know, were ferociously cruel and vicious. The scientist in him could not accept miracles, and the fact that there was no proof that the Gospels were eye-witness accounts and hence reliable as primary sources, made him gradually disbelieve in Christianity.

He was reluctant to come to this conclusion, but having done so never regretted it or doubted its correctness. This is similar to the feelings of George Eliot who, following her complete loss of faith, was delighted to be able to "ruminate on possibilities without dread" and the fear of damnation. Obviously Darwin found the doctrine of damnation for unbelievers as one of the most unacceptable of all. He makes a separate paragraph of the one sentence "And this is a damnable doctrine."

To people like Darwin, belief in Christianity was one thing, but belief in the existence of God was another thing altogether. Here his law of natural selection did prove a hindrance to his belief - he had earlier questioned how a beneficent God could design a wasp that lays eggs inside living caterpillars. However, like many scientists, he admits to being in awe of the immensity and wondrous nature of the universe and for a long time he remained a Theist. Eventually even that belief began to waver, and he finally confesses the insolubility of the mystery of creation, and remains a contented Agnostic.

We must not create the impression that all Victorian writers questioned the form or substance of the Christian religion. Far from it. A prime example is Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Roman Catholic priest, who was a true and devout believer, albeit a depressed one at times, right up to his early death at the age of 45.

In many of Hopkins' poems, and The Windhover in particular, he sees the hand of God in Nature. In this he did not differ from many Victorian writers such as Tennyson, although Carlyle disagreed. When Allingham remarked that he thought Nature a powerful help to religious feeling, Carlyle replied: "Ho! there's not much in that. A great deal of sham and affectation is in the raptures people express about Nature; ecstasies over mountains and waterfalls etcetera" (Allingham p 192).

The Windhover works well on two levels. The first is the sheer beauty and magnificence of the use of the English Language, which to Hopkins' mind would be an integral part of his praise of the glory of God. His poetry should always be read aloud, so that the full effect can be experienced by the hearer. It is worth quoting the poem in full.

To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,-the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

His constantly repeated use of alliteration, assonance and internal rhymes, the strange and unexpected beat of his sprung rhythms, and his deliberate choice of unusual words, are all fascinating to modern ears and produce an effect unlike any other poetry until, perhaps, that of Dylan Thomas writing nearly a century later.

It is well nigh impossible to single out examples of this language, the whole poem is ablaze with it. "I caught this morning morning's minion", "off, off forth on swing", "As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend", "my heart in hiding stirred for a bird", "sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine" and so on throughout. There are no less than ten words ending "-ing" in the first eight lines, a sound that perfectly expresses the swooping and gliding flight of the falcon. The sprung rhythms, Hopkins' own invention, are greatly effective in lines like "Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!" It is almost impossible to read this line aloud without nine stresses followed by the tenth and strongest on "Buckle." Although the sounds convey the impression of a bird in flight in the wind, the meaning of the words can be different, in this case the fact that all these things are combined in the one living experience. Hopkins often chooses words as much for their actual sound as for their meaning, subtle though some of those meanings are. The very title of the poem, "The Windhover", sounds more like a bird of prey in flight than would "The Kestrel", and a "wimpling" wing sounds more expressive than a twisting or rippling one.

On the second, deeper, level the poet expresses deep religious feelings. The poem is dedicated "to Christ our Lord", and is heavily laden with religious overtones. It starts by describing the falcon as the King's dauphin, or favourite: the minion of God, or daylight. The poet is profoundly moved by the masterly Creation of bird, wind, hover and flight. In depicting the movement of the bird, and the buckling of beauty and action, the implication is that courageous action is far more brilliant than just beauty. We are then brought literally down to earth, with the ploughman's horse plodding through the earth and making it shine. The last lines suggest the analogy of Christian self-sacrifice with the last gash of light in the dying embers.

This heavy use of symbolism is typical of High Church poets and painters of the time, and contrasts with Dickens' more personal Christianity. But neither of these two examples, nor the Darwin autobiography, reflect the pervasive unquestioning religious practice of the Victorian middle class. To examine that, one would have to turn to somebody like Trollope, whose Barchester novels depicting the lives of country clergy began with The Warden, published just one year after Hard Times. But that is another story.


Charles Dickens Hard Times World's Classics (1989)

William Allingham The Diaries Folio Society (1990)

Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley: Autobiographies ed G de Beer (1974)

Gordon S Haight (ed) The George Eliot Letters OUP (1955-78)

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How Victorian Culture and Society Changed Between 1850 and 1890

The population of Victorian Great Britain grew by over 50% in 40 years, from nearly 21 million in 1851 to more than 33 million by 1891. The large family sizes that brought about this staggering increase reflected the popular belief that England was top nation, that English prosperity was here to stay, and that a large and thriving family would bring increased status to the head of the household. Although the actual birth rate had dropped slightly by the end of the period, it was matched by a decreased death rate, due mainly to improvements in diet, sanitation and health care, and also perhaps by the decrease in employment of young children in factories and mines. By the end of the period the upper classes had started to practise birth control. In 1851 over half this population lived in urban areas, but by the end of the century this had grown to nearly three-quarters. Thus the growth rate of the towns was even more spectacular than the rest of the country, with Bradford for example doubling in population over the period.

To accommodate this growth huge urban developments had to take place. Landowners changed their original plans to build genteel houses with gardens and a little bit of space, and instead crammed as many dwellings as possible into all available space. The growth of the railways brought more and more people into the towns, so that the poorer houses tended to be clustered round the railway termini, with the genteel middle class houses being built further out, and the surrounding hillsides and country being left to the great houses of the seriously wealthy.

Even by the end of the period there were still enormous numbers of poor families living in unbelievable squalor, but for many of the working class the towns represented an opportunity to improve their lot in life, and to pursue that ever-present goal of further respectability in the eyes of their fellow citizens by honest toil. For some years Thomas Carlyle had preached the virtues of hard work, and others followed. Samuel Smiles published his influential treatise on Self-Help in 1859, and sold over a quarter of a million copies. Ford Madox Brown's famous picture on Work appeared in 1865, and there was even a popular evangelical hymn written in 1868 that started: "Work, for the night is coming! Work through the morning hours...". The newly formed Trades Unions glorified the concept of work in their banners and membership certificates. One of the results of this heavy emphasis on the merits of work was that the rich got richer, and also the average wage in most industries went up, giving those members of the working class in regular employment more money to spend. It was not until the end of the period that people like William Morris started to question the nature of the work that people did, in his Useful Work Versus Useless Toil published in 1885, which urged that only work which allowed the worker to use his human faculties was worth doing.

Monuments to the new civic pride of the major towns can be readily seen to this day. A good example is the Manchester Town Hall, which was designed in 1867 and completed in 1877. This enormous structure with its imposing towers and rows of turrets and Gothic windows was deliberately constructed to reflect the grandeur of the Town, as well as form a practical home for all the necessary offices and paraphernalia of local government. The most striking feature is the immense and grand central hall, where the Mayor and Corporation could process with awe-inspiring dignity on grand local occasions.

This coincided with an improvement in the whole machinery of local government. There were those who agreed with R W Dale who said in 1884 that "Municipalities can do more for the people than Parliament". The old amateur landed gentry were gradually replaced by more professional local government officers, and the police and magistrate's courts were better organised and less in the hands of a few old families. Local government stole a march on Parliament by involving women more widely in its processes. They were allowed to stand for election to School boards after the 1870 Education Act, and as Poor Law guardians from 1875. Strenuous efforts were made to improve sanitation, health, rubbish disposal, and all the other things that we now call an urban infrastructure.

Several of the great industrial barons of the Midlands and the North involved themselves in great works of urban improvement, for reasons of both philanthropy and the raising of living standards, and hence effectiveness, of their own workforce. Salt, the worsted king of Bradford, constructed most of the township of Saltaire himself, complete with substantial Congregational church, institute, almshouses and school.

Saturday half-holidays were gradually introduced during this period, starting with the Lancashire textile workers as early as 1850. This meant that the inhabitants of a place such as Saltaire had more time to spend their hard-earned money in recreation and leisure pursuits. The availability of the railways led to the rapid expansion of places like Morecambe Bay and Blackpool. By 1890 Blackpool was welcoming nearly 1.5 million visitors a year, and became the premier working-class seaside resort of the world. Working-class open air entertainments increasingly flourished. There were brass band concerts in many towns, often paid for by the local industrialist, and most spectacularly of all, the start of organised soccer, with the Football Association being formed in 1863. Ten years later Blackburn Olympic were defeating the Old Etonians in the FA Cup final. Right at the end of the period the invention of the Safety-Bicycle started a new craze for the 1890s.

In the London area the major change was probably the sprawling growth of the suburbs. Suburbia became more than just a collection of terraced houses, semi-detacheds and villas, but soon represented a whole way of life dedicated to gentility and respectability. It was here that the lower middle classes, possibly more than any other stratum of society anywhere else, put tremendous effort into aping the manners and behaviour of their slightly more well-to-do neighbours. The Diary of a Nobody by the Grossmiths satirised this phenomenon in Punch from 1890.

Mr Pooter was one of a growing number of clerks that had sprung up to run the administration of Victorian Britain. In 1861 there were about 92,000 clerks, but by 1881 there were nearly 390,000. Senior clerks in Banking or Insurance were quite highly paid, but juniors in other professions on 30 shillings a week ranked with ordinary semi-skilled working men.

Another occupation that grew enormously during the period was that of domestic servant: a growth of more than 60% in the decade between 1850 and 1870. Everybody strove to be able to keep a servant, even if only one poorly paid skivvy. H G Wells recalled his mother in the 1870s and 1880s: "She believed that it was a secret to all the world that she had no servant and did all the household drudgery herself. I was enjoined never to...let it out when I went abroad".

During the period there was a growth in the number of leisure pursuits enjoyed by several levels of society. The appreciation and performance of music is a case in point. The performances of Handel's music at the Crystal Palace started in the 1850s, and by the 1880s had become so successful that at its peak the Handel Festival could boast a chorus of 4,000, a choir of 500 and an audience approaching 90,000. The quality of the performance must have been rather strange, and a far cry from the composer's original intentions, although Shaw writing in The Hornet was remarkably uncritical about the 1877 event. He admits that the aims of the festival were "firstly, commercial; secondly, phenomenal; and, lastly, artistic." However he concedes that "The performance of the Messiah on the first day was excellent in the choral numbers, and generally respectable in the arias" (Hornet, 4 July 1877).

An appreciation of "good" music was considered an essential ingredient to the education of middle-class girls. So much so that the compulsory piano and singing lessons became an almost intolerable burden to the musically ungifted. As early as 1852 the poet Eliza Cook was complaining in her journal: "What a serious waste of hours is given to the mechanical thumping of difficult pieces and the practice of exquisite airs; what a deal of struggling after octaves... is done by most incompetent aspirants to this fine art". But gentility is gentility, and the sale of pianos boomed. By 1871 there were already 400,000 pianos in Britain and a million pianists, and an even bigger increase came in the following twenty years.

Another musical change during the period was the enormous growth of hymn singing and church music, many churches having organs installed for the first time. Some of the non-conformist churches, which grew mightily over this period, laid great emphasis on hymn singing as a means of congregational involvement, and many of the most popular hymns were those written by John Wesley's brother. That classic work, Hymns Ancient and Modern, was published in standard form in 1875 and by the end of the period was used in almost every Anglican church, and several others as well.

Music of a less cultured sort could be heard at the music-hall. In the 1850s the music-hall was little more than a pub with music, and only a place for the working classes. But during the period there were many big reputations made by ballad-writers and performers, and by 1890 the proprietors of such large establishments as the Canterbury Hall in Lambeth or the Alhambra in Leicester Square were making sizeable profits. At the same time the entertainment they provided had moved up-market, and was distinctly more respectable.

Live entertainment was not the only type to see a growth during this period. The three-volume novel became more and more popular, and with the introduction of Mudie's Lending Library had a very wide circulation. Often these novels started life in serial form, being published in weekly parts in such magazines as Dickens' Household Words which he started in 1850. As well as Dickens himself Household Words published the works of other well-known novelists such as Mrs Gaskell and Wilkie Collins. Dickens was a very successful writer, but he was by no means alone. Trollope in his autobiography published in 1883 claimed that his novels up to that date had brought in £70,000, a colossal sum for that time. And it was not just the more "literary" novelists that were successful: the romantic novelist Ouida and others like her were widely read.

Painting had always had a fashionable following, and the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy was a major event in the London social calendar. But the development of the engraver's art during the period meant that reproductions of famous paintings could be available on a much more widespread basis. In 1860 Holman Hunt received £5,500 for the engraving rights of The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, a record at the time, but by 1886 when Bubbles was sold to Pears' Soap, Millais was earning no less than £30,000 a year and had been created a baronet.

There is not enough space here to consider some of the other major changes that took place during the period, such as the change in religious attitudes brought about by advances in scientific knowledge, the effects on the countryside of the mechanisation of farming and the slump in agricultural prices, the increased efforts to alleviate the plight of the very poor, or the gradual realisation after 1873 that laissez-faire economics would not necessarily always bring the greatest prosperity to the greatest number of people. But as a final comment it is worth considering the contrasting models of behaviour presented to society by the two royal princes, Albert and his son Edward. Albert was associated with the start of an era of unequalled prosperity and respectability, whereas Edward with his reputation for wine, women and gambling, was a prime member of that fast set that by the end of the period was challenging the strict moral attitudes of their forebears, and heralding the end of the century and the start of the Edwardian age.


R W Dale "Municipal and Political Duty" from The Laws of Christ for the Common Life (1884)

Eliza Cook "Our Musical Corner", Eliza Cook's Journal, Vol 7 21 Aug 1852

Geoffrey Best Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1875 Fontana (1979)

J.F.C.Harrison Late Victorian Britain Fontana (1990)

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Chapter VIII of Dickens' Hard Times

Chapter VIII is an extremely important chapter in Hard Times. One of the most important themes in the novel is the effect that the teaching of Facts, Facts and Facts, to the total exclusion of all else, has on the lives of children. We can safely assume that this practice was widespread in contemporary schools, and Dickens chooses it as one of his main targets. He even toyed with the idea of calling the novel simply "Fact" or "Two And Two Are Four". Indeed the first words in the book are "Now, what I want is, Facts." The first three chapters are all based upon illustrations of this "Gradgrindery" as it has come to be called, and the third includes the memorable scene where Mr Gradgrind upbraids his two children for wanting to know what Mr Sleary's Horse-riding was like.

Chapter VIII is central to the theme as it shows for the first time two of the principal younger characters, Tom and Louisa, conversing with each other at some length, and we begin to see the stultifying effect that Gradgrindery has had on their development hitherto.

The chapter heading "Never Wonder" gives the clue to its main purpose. The overwhelming effect of the attempts to stifle "Fancy" is not to prevent the young people from wondering, but to make them thoroughly confused and unhappy with their lot in life. "I am sick of my life, Loo" says Tom (p.66), and these are almost the first words we hear him utter.

But before showing us the two in conversation, Dickens decides to "strike the key-note again before pursuing the tune." He then, without any reference to any specific action, steps out of the narrative to point out that "Never Wonder" is "the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections" (p.64). He takes us to one side and tells us that Coketown is full of unlucky infants who have been subjected to this system, and that the one thing those responsible for it agreed upon was that the children were "never to wonder" (p.65). He then describes the Coketown library, which has no part to play in the actual plot, but is a splendid illustration of how the Gradgrinds of the time tormented themselves about readers who were bound to wonder "about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths of common men and women" (p.65). Dickens twice uses Mr Gradgrind himself during this key-note to represent the believers in the system, in the first instance in conversation with Louisa, and in the second in torment about the effect of the Coketown library.

Then suddenly, with hardly a pause for breath, we are into the conversation between Tom and Louisa. This is a clear signal that we are about to witness some "wondering" going on, and to see how it affects the characters in the story.

As far as actual plotting goes, as opposed to characterization, not a lot happens in Chapter VIII, which takes place several months after the few days of the first seven chapters. The crucial point is made that Tom is about to go and live with Mr Bounderby, but the main purpose of the chapter is to delineate the relationship between Tom and Louisa, and to illustrate the iniquities of the Gradgrind system by describing two of its unhappy products.

The general air of gloom and foreboding is heightened by some of the language and imagery the author uses. Louisa is discovered sitting in the darker corner of the room by the fireside, and we are introduced to her habit of staring at the burning fire in the grate. The shadows of the high presses in the room were "all blended together on the wall and on the ceiling, as if the brother and sister were overhung by a dark cavern" (p.68). It is at this latter point that the omniscient narrator puts in the aside that "a fanciful imagination....might have made it out to be the shadow of their subject {Bounderby} and of its lowering association with their future."

We are introduced to some of the key characteristics of the pair which develop further in later chapters. Tom is the least sympathetic of the two, and has few redeeming features. He is "unnatural", speaks "moodily" and has a "sulky face" and even "sulky hands" (p.66). He is thoroughly ashamed of himself, he is "heavy", "a Donkey, that's what I am. I am as obstinate as one, I am more stupid than one, I get as much pleasure as one, and I should like to kick like one" (p.66). Then later on, "it stands to reason, I must be a Mule" (p.67). But he is not so stupid that he cannot see the main reason for his state of mind: "I wish I could collect all the Facts we hear so much about....and all the Figures, and all the people who found them out: and I wish I could put a thousand barrels of gunpowder under them, and blow them all up together!" (p.68). As we have seen, his father is clearly identified with the system, so by implication Tom is including him amongst the party to be blown up. Although his education has allowed him to develop his imagination thus far, when it comes to his planned revenge when he goes off to Mr Bounderby, all he can think of doing is to "enjoy myself a little, and go about and see something, and hear something." It seems fairly clear that Dickens, by making the sudden switch from the general Gradgrindery at the beginning of the chapter to these particular sentiments of the unfortunate Tom, is implying that such thoughts and attitudes are typical of children in society at large.

Louisa is a more sympathetic character, but expresses her feelings aloud a good deal less than Tom. Tom's one redeeming feature is his love for his sister, although it could be argued that he uses Louisa's devotion to him purely selfishly, expecting her to cover up for him and rescue him in trouble. When, at the end, Louisa stands out for truth, he cannot understand it and reproaches her without thought for her position. At all events, his expressed love for Louisa is returned with interest by her. He tells her he is going to use the fact that she can influence Mr Bounderby to the full, and at this point the omniscient narrator hints at what is to come by describing the way Louisa asks her brother if he is looking forward to the change to Mr Bounderby's "slowly, and in a curious tone, as if she were reading what she asked in the fire, and it were not quite plainly written there" (p.69). And then she repeats his words in the same tone "it will be getting away from home. Yes." (p.69).

The conversation ends with Louisa giving a demonstration of the pain she finds in "wondering". "I have been wondering about you and me, grown up.....I have such unmanageable thoughts that they will wonder". And then we have the brilliantly conceived finale to the chapter, with not Mr Gradgrind bursting in, but the idiotic Mrs Gradgrind, who rubs in the utter folly of the system by complaining that she has heard her daughter "going on with your master about combustion, and calcination, and calorification, and I may say every kind of ation that could drive a poor invalid distracted" (p.71). While all that can be said by Louisa, the typical Gradgrinded product, is "It made me think after all, how short my life would be, and how little I could hope to do in it." (p.71).


Charles Dickens Hard Times World's Classics edition (1989)

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The Ideal Of Womanhood Defined By Victorian Art And Literature

The dominant ideology of Victorian times placed women in an inferior and subservient role to men. Men were the members of the family who through hard work and self-help were striving to improve their lot in life and grow ever more respectable, while women's place was definitely in the home. Ruskin, in his lecture Sesame and Lilies, said "Women's intellect is for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision..... Her great function is Praise." She runs the house as a place of Peace, and must be "enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise." (He was of course only referring to the middle and upper classes, the wives of poor working-class men had no such luxury.)

Tennyson in The Princess put it another way:

Man for the field, woman for the hearth,
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart,
Man to command and woman to obey.

The Children's Holiday Victorian artists often represented women in this role. A well-known example of this is Holman Hunt's portrait of Mrs Fairbairn, the wife of one of his patrons, which Hunt entitled The Children's Holiday. It shows Mrs Fairbairn serenely surrounded by her happy children playing and picnicking in the park, displaying some of the trappings of her wealth such as her elaborate tea-set, her expensive-looking clothes and her spaniel. An image of perfect and contented domesticity.

But this role for women is not the stuff from which heroines are made, so it often forms the background rather than the foreground of Victorian literature. One of the most popular, and hence one of the most influential, art forms was the three volume novel, made all the more so by the introduction of lending libraries such as Mudie's. It is interesting that this art form was perhaps the only one where women as producers played as important a role as men. Following the tradition set by Jane Austen and others were the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell and later in the century the immensely popular Ouida. The excitement in the three volume novel arose when the woman as heroine struggled with the dominant behaviour in society by being tempted by, and sometimes succumbing to, illicit love affairs or other similar scandal, and often the story is concerned with her efforts to win back her place in respectable society.

The way in which society regarded women differently to men in this matter of being unfaithful is skilfully presented by George Eliot in the character of Mrs Glasher in Daniel Deronda. As the aftermath of her public fall from grace she is forced to hide away in a new location, whereas the rascally Grandcourt, the cause of her downfall, carries on as though nothing has happened and remains as "seaworthy" as ever.

The Victorian public was also exposed in paintings to many morals on the subject of the "Fallen Woman". This was not new, for centuries the Magdalen had been a central figure along with the Madonna in the art of many countries. However it is probable that the influence that pictures had on the consuming public was higher in the Victorian era than ever before, and with the growth of art galleries and museums and the development of the engraver's art, pictures became much better known.

The Outcast Popular in Victorian times were genre pictures and pictures that told a story. Redgrave's The Outcast is a case in point. This is a large canvas painted for exhibition at the Royal Academy. It shows a major crisis in a contemporary family. Father is showing the door to a pretty young girl who is clutching a tiny baby. A sister pleads with him, a young man rests his head on the table in despair, but the mother, the guardian of the family's morals, looks on with a grim expression. Redgrave was a popular painter at the time, and it is safe to assume that the obvious moral to this picture helped shaped the attitude of the women of the day.

The Awakening Conscience

A variation on the theme of the Fallen Woman was provided by pictures showing the temptation to fall being resisted. The Awakening Conscience by Holman Hunt caused something of a furore when it was first exhibited. This is a picture which like many Pre-raphaelite works is full of symbolism, some obvious and some more obscure. A girl is seated on the lap of her would-be seducer in front of a piano. She has a look of awakening conscience on her face and appears to be about to stand up and walk away. A cat toys with a dying bird on the floor. A glove, a symbol of respectability, lies discarded in front of the girl. The mirror at the back shows that the girl is gazing from the relatively dark room to the bright sunshine outside. And so on - Ruskin even pointed out that the picture above the piano is A Woman Taken in Adultery, and the very birds in the tapestry feeding on the ripening corn are symbolic. Be that as it may, many people will have seen the picture which received much publicity, even correspondence in The Times from Ruskin.

Another kind of temptation, that of the poorer woman, is shown in Millais' pen and ink drawing of the seamstress with the satanic figure sitting on her table tempting her to sin. Probably more influential was the earlier picture of a seamstress by Redgrave, with a striking figure still at work at 2.30 in the morning and her eyes gazing heavenward in despair. In the minds of many of the viewers of the picture would be the knowledge that poorer working women such as seamstresses were often tempted to turn to prostitution out of sheer necessity to keep body and soul alive.

In literature there are many examples of temptation of women, sometimes successfully resisted such as Louisa in Dickens' Hard Times, and sometimes not, as in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbevilles. An example from one of the most widely read poets of her time is Lord Walter's Wife by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Poetry was much more widely read than today, so we can assume that this was another influential medium shaping the Victorian view of the ideal woman. This poem shows a married woman's scorn for an attempted flirtation from a friend of her husband. The first half of the poem has alternate verses from the somewhat reluctant seducer and the mocking reply from the self-contained wife. It ends with a challenging and rather angry outburst from the wife who rails against the man for complaining that he finds her "too fair". But she relents somewhat, remains friends and tries to ask him to dine. Here is an example of the ideal wife, faithful to her husband, but asserting her individuality in a thoroughly modern way. Also in her enormously long poem Aurora Leigh (2,000 lines longer than Paradise Lost), the heroine is not content to live the stereotyped life of woman in the home, but is desperate to acquire an education which will provide her with a more intellectually fulfilling role in society.

Ecce Ancilla Domini!

Coventry Patmore proclaimed the woman as "The Angel of the House". It is no surprise that the Pre-Raphaelites painted the women in their religious pictures with modern faces using their wives or mistresses as models. A famous example is Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini! where the angel is of course angelic, but the Virgin Mary herself departs from earlier tradition and shows a modern face, albeit with a traditional halo.

This theme of the woman as angel was also common in literature. In Dickens' Hard Times Rachael is described many times by Stephen Blackpool as an angel, and is so much without fault as to seem positively unrealistic. At his death Stephen clearly sees her as the angel who will point the way to heaven guided by his personal Star.

Companion of Manhood

Another Victorian concept of ideal womanhood was the wife as companion and uncomplaining slave to the man of the house. An illustration of this is a painting by Hicks the full title of which is Woman's Mission: Companion of Manhood. It shows a man who has clearly received bad news - he clutches a black-bordered letter in his left hand and his forehead with his right, while the wife leans across the table with one hand on his forearm and the other on his shoulder in a loving and companionable way. The moral is clear: woman's mission and duty is to support the husband for better or worse, even as in this case where it is not clear whether or not she even knows what it is that troubles her husband.

The Milkmaid A final example of idealised womanhood will suffice. One of the prevalent myths in Victorian times was the pastoral image of the countryside, with nymphs and shepherds cavorting in the sunshine and living idyllic blameless lives. Typical of this image is the painting of a Milkmaid by Myles Birkett Foster. Here is a milkmaid of angelic face and feature, with her left hand clasped to her bosom and her right hand balancing a wooden milk pail on her head. She faces a fine rural landscape with a shepherd and his flock and rolling hills in the distance. No milkmaid ever had such clean clothes, fine face and delicate hands in reality. She is a far cry from the shepherdess in Hunt's Hireling Shepherd or the hard working rustic women of Hardy's Wessex novels, but this was the image that the Victorians wanted to have of the ideal country woman, and this was the kind of picture that reinforced this view for them.

One of the most passionate challengers of the stereotypical role of women in society was Florence Nightingale. She railed against the frustrating life that Victorian society imposed on women, both as young girls and more particularly after they were married. Marriage was the only escape offered from this death, as she described the spinster's life, and then pointed up the horrors of such a married life to an intelligent and ambitious woman. It was challenges such as this that contributed ultimately to the change for the better that occurred in later years to the lot of women of the middle class.


J. Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, 1865; 1909 edn., pp.72-95

Florence Nightingale, Cassandra, 1852; reprinted in R. Strachey, The Cause, 1978, Appendix I, pp.396-418

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Status and Hierarchy in Victorian Culture

It has been suggested that all Victorian culture was shaped by a rigid framework of status and hierarchy. At first glance a good deal of Victorian culture, "high" culture at any rate, seems to have been shaped in this way. But the ways that Painting, Music and Literature developed were different and presented different challenges to the status quo, and this paper examines all three separate disciplines.

In the 1850s painting in Victorian Britain was very much under the thumb of the Royal Academy. Its president was Sir Charles Eastlake, who was also Director of the National Gallery in which it was housed, and who was himself an influential painter in traditional style.

Alfred Disguised as a Minstrel There was a vogue for grand historical paintings, with painters such as Maclise exhibiting works like the picture of King Alfred disguised as a minstrel visiting the Danes, or of William III visiting Peter the Great working in Chatham shipyard. These paintings, though sometimes criticized quite severely in contemporary reviews, were immensely popular, and large fortunes were made later when the development of engraving meant that more people had access to reproductions of paintings. Biblical subjects were always a popular variant of history paintings, and the subjects chosen by Eastlake and others often supported the high moral values that were part of the dominant ideology at the time. Naturally the success or otherwise of a picture depended very much on the taste and background of the Academy's selection committee, and to the extent that this small group were arbiters of taste, the framework of this form of Art was fairly rigid.

It could be argued that as the Royal Academy admitted for exhibition most of the well-known early works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), they were not closed to new ideas and did not shrink from exhibiting controversial works. And controversy there was: Ruskin wrote letters to The Times about Hunt's Awakening Conscience, and there were sermons preached and sonnets written about the same painter's The Shadow of Death. There were complaints at the time about the way some of the pictures were hung - you would have had to have climbed a ladder to see Hughes' Ophelia at all clearly, and Ford Madox Brown complained that his Pretty Baa-Lambs could not be appreciated properly in the octagonal room. However the other side of the argument is that perhaps the PRB were not that modern and controversial, their subjects were largely biblical, historical or literary, they were commissioned to do portraits of many established figures, they sold their pictures to many of the newly rich industrialists such as Fairbairn and Leathart, and were finally absorbed into the painting establishment itself: Millais became President of the Royal Academy and was knighted.

Towards the end of the Victorian era a new group of painters established themselves round Melbury Road, but with their trends towards historicism and classical paintings they cannot be said to represent any startling challenge to the hierarchy - indeed Frederick Leighton became a baron.

Golden NocturneThe only movement that did somewhat rock the boat of the established hierarchy was perhaps the Aesthetic Movement, who pushed the notion of "Art for Art's sake", in opposition to Ruskin's view that "All great art is Praise" and should have a moral purpose. Whistler's Nocturnes were the subject of a famous libel case when he sued Ruskin for disparaging remarks about his paintings.

Bricklayers Certificate If one takes the definition of culture in a broader sense, encompassing the activities of a wider cross-section of the community than those merely interested in "high" art, one might also consider such things as the art-work contained in Trades Union banners and membership certificates. One might expect these to have no relation to any fixed or rigid hierarchy, and yet they are remarkably similar the one to the other, and whereas one could argue as to whether or not they constitute "good" art, they certainly reflected the images the trade unionists wished to convey of hard work, traditional outlook, welfare of the workers and opportunities for prosperity.

Music was less "controlled" as a culture than painting, although the opportunities for the general public to hear "serious" or classical music were rather limited. Unlike painting, with the growth of engraving and reproduction, or literature with lending libraries and relatively cheap periodicals, there was no reproduction method for music available - the radio and recording ages were yet to come. This meant that the consumers of serious music on the large scale such as symphonies and large orchestral works were relatively few, and confined largely to the London area where sufficient audiences at the Crystal Palace, St James's Hall, and later the Royal Albert Hall, could be gathered. The big exceptions to this were the immense triennial Handel concerts at the Crystal Palace, which boasted as many as 4,000 in the choir alone and 90,000 in the audience at their peak. These attracted audiences of all types, and to that extent the actual music listened to by many people was not at all wide.

In the home, amateur music was much encouraged in the middle classes, and it became the done thing for all young girls at least to learn the piano and take singing lessons, even if they were totally unmusical.

But the popular musical culture was an altogether different thing. The labouring classes often spent what little leisure time and money they had on musical entertainment of one kind or another. Musical entertainments in pubs grew in popularity, and gave rise to the growth in music halls of a new popular culture, with songs and ballads to the fore. For example, the Canterbury Hall made large fortunes for its owners, and performers such as Marie Lloyd made great reputations. So much so that the music halls grew in respectability, and became not just a working-class phenomenon.

Many of the rich industrialists encouraged the growth of brass bands in their places of work, and this led to another and different growth in musical cultural activity.

Religious music became more popular, and the growth in number of organs and increased congregational involvement with hymn-singing meant another musical outlet was opened. Hymns Ancient and Modern provided a framework, but there was plenty outside it with the popularity of revivalist religious activity from the likes of Moody and Sankey from the USA.

Novels were never much part of any rigid hierarchical framework - indeed Charles Dickens was amongst the most popular of his time, and deliberately set out to widen his appeal. He did this in two ways, one by serializing his works in magazines such as Household Words which he started in 1850, and also by giving readings from the more dramatic passages in his novels to public audiences. It is difficult to detect a rigid framework at work when you compare the novels of, say, Dickens, with his satirical and deliberately over-played view of contemporary life, and Trollope, with his pictures of high political and clerical society. Later in the Victorian age Hardy's novels of more basic rural life and society were of another different genre.

So in conclusion, "high" culture, particularly painting, was fairly rigid in framework, but other aspects, particularly music, much less so. And the growth of popular culture was without the benefit of any hierarchy to point the way forward.

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