English Literature Of The 19th Century:
Reviewers, Magazinists And Minor Poets Of The First Period
Women Writers Of The First Period
Summary Of The Pre-victorian Literature
Second Or Early Victorian Period—1837-1870
Earle Lytton Bulwer
Captain Frederick Marryat
Read More Articles About: English Literature Of The 19th Century
Second Or Early Victorian Period—1837-1870
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Students of English history note that the fourth decade of the century (1831-40), in which Victoria came to the throne, marks broadly a definite stage of progress. Let us glance first at the social and political changes during her reign. Parliamentary reform, which had been held back during the Napoleonic wars and the ensuing period of repression, had won its first victory in 1832. The reactionary policy of the Government came to an end, and the people rejoiced in their newly obtained privileges.
Conspicuous in bringing about these changes was Henry (afterward Lord) Brougham. He assisted in founding the University of London, entirely free from sectarian distinctions, and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which published instructive works at low prices. At his suggestion Mechanics' Institutes were formed in all leading towns. A thirst for knowledge seemed suddenly to have seized the Nation. Agitation for the repeal of the corn laws followed, and proved successful in the next decade, when in 1845 England definitely adopted the policy of Free Trade. Social reforms were urged by the Radicals, but did not enlist popular support until 1848, when a tide of revolutionary sentiment again swept over Europe. The Chartists had come forward with demands for manhood suffrage and annual elections to Parliament, but they were suppressed by force. Still, this agitation in behalf of the working classes led to various schemes for the improvement of their condition. The most prominent, under the name of Christian Socialism, was supported by some distinguished clergymen and showed its influence on literature. The coöperative societies for trade and industry which they favored, were generally failures.
The middle of the Century seemed to create a change in the national outlook. The World's Fair in the Crystal Palace, London, in 1851, the first of the international exhibitions, was hailed with enthusiasm, as inaugurating an era of universal peace. This feeling also manifested itself in contemporary literature. Yet within a few years came the futile Crimean War, which Englishmen now find it difficult to justify. It had, however, important reflex action by bringing about an alliance between England and France and promoting their friendly intercourse. In the next decade the secession of the Southern States and formation of the Confederacy found unexpected favor in England, but the Government refrained from active interference, though it did not fully enforce its neutrality laws. Further Parliamentary reform, the disestablishment of the Irish Church and effective promotion of public education brought the seventh decade to a close. The same year (187o) witnessed the downfall of Napoleon III, speedily followed by the establishment of the new German Empire and the French Republic.
Let us turn now to consider the literary movement during the same period. The great impulse which had quickened every department of literature at the opening of the century spent its creative force in three decades. Sir Walter Scott died in 1832, in the same year as Goethe, the revered Jupiter of the German Olympus. Other creative masters had already passed away, or practically rested from their labors, their honors being won, and their fame established. In the fourth decade new stars were beginning to appear above the horizon Macaulay, Carlyle, Hallam, Bulwer and Dickens, soon to be followed by Thackeray. Some of the great poets who had opened new fields still lingered and were yet adding to their work. Tennyson had begun to sing, but the Brownings still remained obscure. In every department of literature there was vast activity, and in some there was unquestioned pre-eminence. Poetry did not so deeply stir the minds of men, who had fallen into contemplative mood. But there was new interest and vigor in history, and men of genius were studying with zeal the records of the past and preparing new works which should soon be accepted as standard. The result of their labors has been in many cases a pulling down of long established views of men and institutions. The prejudiced decisions which had been widely diffused by partisan writers unable or unwilling to examine the original documents relating to controverted points have been rudely shattered by earnest iconoclasts. Credit must be given for some of these alterations to the change which has come over the spirit of governments, even in the most despotic courts. The archives, long jealously guarded, have been opened to students, seeking only to ascertain the exact facts. Floods of light have thus been shed on mysterious events and disputed characters. The genius of new historians and biographers has been employed in formulating new judgments on the leaders of the world and in presenting them for public discussion.
Another change in intellectual activity is seen in the enlarged study of nature, its laws and resources. The great practical applications of physical science which had followed Watt's invention of the steam engine had necessitated a closer examination of the natural world and its elements, New discoveries were made and new theories advanced in chemistry, physics, geology, and other branches of science. Some of these scientists were able to present their labors and conclusions in works attracting general readers by their picturesque and finished style. On the borders of literature proper there were writers who treated philosophical subjects in a popular way. John Stuart Mill was for some years editor of the "Lon-don and Westminster Review," and the chief advocate of Utilitarianism and Radicalism. But the philosophic Radicals did not then so deeply affect the popular mind as did the theological controversy, known as the Oxford movement. It dates from 1833, when Newman, Keble and Pusey began to issue "Tracts for the Times." Intended to rouse the Church of England from its lethargic latitudinarianism, it yet boldly attacked the Evangelicalism which had been taught by the most active and pious of the clergy. It -called for a return to the primitive doctrine of the Church, and this was declared to be pure Catholicism. Newman and other leaders eventually went over to the Church of Rome, but the movement continued and was largely literary as well as religious.
Another ecclesiastical controversy, which affected Scotland only, resulted in the withdrawal of more than four hundred ministers from the Established Church to form the Free Church of Scotland. In the subsidence of these controversies the teachings of Coleridge and his followers gave rise to the Broad Church movement, which had closer relations with literature than the Oxford movement. It was the result of the teachings of Coleridge, but was largely developed by Maurice, Kingsley and Dean Stanley. Being ethical and historical rather than dogmatic, it soon pervaded the literature of the time.
After 1860 the whole world of thought began to be revolutionized with the doctrine of evolution. Though put forth early in the century as a scientific theory, it was not generally accepted and had little practical influence until after the publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species," and the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Gradually the new doctrine spread, and later its results, direct and indirect, were seen in the growth of scepticism and materialism, agnosticism and pessimism.
But the most striking feature of Victorian literature is the rich and overwhelming abundance of prose fiction. The novel has become a necessity of modern society. Its all-pervading power compels genius to yield to its sway, and writers of all kinds seek thus to present their thoughts to the public. The novel no longer deals merely with heroic persons and perilous adventures. It is no longer intended for mere amusement. It finds nourishment and support in the common scenes and daily walks of life. It is concerned with the development of character, the exhibition of the struggles and varieties of ordinary existence. It may also be employed in the inculcation of new theories of education, of religion, or society. It is the most effective means for the teacher of whatever views to reach the public mind.
But back of all these forms of literary activity and affording them substantial support is the immense structure of periodical literature, ever varying in its details, yet permanent in its general effect. The Parliamentary Reform of 1832 led directly to the extension of education by mechanics' institutes and societies for the diffusion of knowledge. Charles Knight in England and the Chambers in Scotland deserve grateful remembrance for their cheap publication of useful knowledge and general literature. Every advance in popular education has brought forth new periodicals and enlisted new writers of ability. While the world must still wait patiently for the divine gift of convincing genius, the general average of expression in poetry and prose has undeniably been improved, rather than lowered, by the magazines.