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the victorian age

Clichès of 19th century social history:
1) Urbanisation;
2) Industrialism:
A new type of economy characterised by high productivity emerged from:
1) Technological innovation that achieved productive efficiency;
2)Transformation in the structure of industry and the organisation of labour;
3)Changes in agriculture, transport and finance;
4)Trading opportunities supplied by Britain’s newly acquired colonies.
BUT the distribution of wealth remained highly unequal.
Although average wages and
living standards did increase and improve a large proportion of the population was still
impoverished at the end of Victoria’s reign;
3) Secularism;
4) Social unrest → British political and legal institutions in suppressing social unrest:
1) Increase in repressive legislation aimed at restricting rights of free assembly and public
2) Legislation aimed at removing social ills and ameliorating inequities.
→ These brought about changes in work-practices and in political and moral life + interest in the
grounds of social life and the nature of social cohesion.
Social theory was absent from early and
mid-Victorian intellectual life; Although there were problems in contemporary society, it was not
until the 1880s that we find attempts to retheorise the basis of social life. Anyway Victorian Britain,
for all its manifest social problems, was in practice a surprisingly stable and well-ordered society.
Social disorder was not violent nor sustained enough to provoke significant unease.
Although 19th-century Britain was in general terms an ordered and peaceful society
Discontents, suffering, voices of protest, anxiety on the part of middle-class intellectuals that were
concerned with the ethical or moral basis of society, its economic basis and its political basis and
had 3 centres of interest:
1) Attempts to define a principle of social cohesion;
2) Operation of the market (social relationships);
3) Debate about power and representation.
Up until the 1860s there was the prevalence of an essentialist view of human nature =
UTILITARIANISM that began with the premise that all human behaviour was governed by a desire
to seek pleasure and avoid pain; the aim of its legislation was to ensure a good society (good was
defined in terms of utility) or the greatest happiness for the greatest number. + Appropriate moral or
social behaviour was a matter of appropriate education.
Up to the 1880s, when socialism became an intellectual force in Britain, the main alternative to
utilitarian conceptions of social life was ORGANICISM according to which if one part is damaged
or at fault then the whole organism suffers.
Political economy was a theory of the market rather than a theory of social life → The market was
self regulating and it operated accordingly to its own internal laws or logic
Association between
political economy and the principles of laissez-faire became visible.
Change of the emphasis of political economy from a concern with wealth creation to that of
wealth distribution because labour had a natural price (although market price might deviate from
natural price): suffering and contraction of the work force → Poverty was an inevitable
consequence of the market. BUT the laws of distribution (unlike the laws of production) were not
The ruthless and competitive individualism of the market was tipically countered by an appeal to
altruism which in turn was based on the notion of a brotherhood of interests.
→ In 1870s emerged 2 critiques of political economy proposed by Marxism and marginal utility
• The exchange value of a commodity was determined not by the amount of labour needed to
produce it, but rather by the demands and wishes of individual consumers;
• The utility or value which an individual obtained from a homogeneous stock of goods was
determined by the usefulness of the last unit.
= Utility in relation with the specificity of wants.
From a concern with production to that of consumption; Beginning of modern theories of
• Rejection of the market as destructive of human relationships. This objection to the market
concerned the division of labour which separated workers from their produce and
concentrated power in the hands of a small group of capitalists who owned the means of
production. The capitalists’ control over land, machinery and currency allowed them to
exploit the work-force in order that they might live in luxury and idleness. The result was
the alienation of the working classes and conflict between classes.
The solution was an
economic system based on communal ownership both of property and of the means of
production → Structures and institutions of socialism and communism;
• Economic activity was the primary determinant of social relationships.
Debate about politics; issue of political representation and parliamentary democracy.
The state should not seek to determine for the individual the nature of his or her own good; the
state was restricted to defining the limits of behaviour considered harmful to others;
+ Freedom of thought and discussion was fundamental → vd. liberal democracy.
# In socialist theory the state is abolished.
The Victorian debates about power, representation, individual liberty and civil society were
Complex set of values attaching to both Victorianism and modernity:
• Excitement and fear engendered by technology;
• Benefit of science weighted against its social cost;
• Anomie associated with the loss of the certainties of religion.
In the 19th century scientific authority meant:
• Rational enquiry;
• Emphasis on empirical research;
• Careful testing of evidence;
• Rigour in argument.
These should be properly codified, regulated and standardised (change in perception).
The Victorian Age is one of unprecedented scientific discovery and technological innovation / the
age of science that brought about the decline of religion.
The gradual displacement of religion by science involved a whole new way of thinking about the
ways in which knowledge was to be made authoritative = scientific method.
Areas of knowledge underwent fundamental and systematic changes that represented great
moments in Victorian science and enormous leaps made in Victorian technology.
One of the
outstanding features of Victorian science and technology was their immediate, largescale and
irreversible impact on everyday life in areas like those of:
• Transport;
• Communications;
• Health;
• Work.
BUT the social benefits of science were felt very unevenly
• Knowledge became specialised and professionalised and it passed into the hands of the
universities and learned societies.
University reforms dissociate academic success from religious orthodoxy;
• Scientific authority became bound up with a scientific estabilishment; intellectual paradigms
estabilished by science became institutionalised;
• Other knowledge came under pressure to adopt scientific methods of proof and scientific
standards of evidence if it wished to be considered authoritative;
• New areas of study were mapped out;
• CRISIS IN FAITH that was the result of:
- Religious controversity;
- Doctrinal disputes within the Anglican Church;
- Debate about the role of an estabilished church;
- Agitation about the political and educational rights of Catholics.
Conflict; these dilemmas problematised religious authority.
Incompatibility between scientific and religious explanations of the natural world and man’s
place in it; the relationship between scientific methodology and religious faith was undermined
because of the growth of evolutionary theories and of the delelopement in geology, natural history
and biology. Evolutionary thinking became divorced from teleology.
1) Lyell’s conservatism over biological change = Saltationist thesis;
2) Chamber’s theory: he accepted the principle of the transformation of organisms, but for him
the variety and complexity of species was explained by divine intervention. = Attempt to
accomodate a theory of development to religious orthodoxy, BUT this attempt to reconcile
science and religion succeeded in alienating both sides;
3) # Lamarck’s transformational theory (# creationism).
= Transformational views.
TRANSFORMATION and SALTATION were both based within traditional patterns of thougt:
transformation implied a teleology and saltation implied an essentialist view; they both saw
metaphysical elements in the history of life: teleology and essentialism were both fundamental in
19th-century Christianity.
# DARWIN’S NOTION OF EVOLUTION in “On the Origin of Species”:
1) It was both anti-essentialist and anti-teleological;
2) At its centre was the principle of natural selection;
3) Its concepts of common descent and geographical isolation implied a branching model of
evolution different from the linear scale which had characterized earlier developmental
4) It inglobes the concept of adaptation / theory of natural selection that posits the existence of
abundant variability.
Social Darwinism asserted that the sufferings of the poor or weak
were an inevitable consequence of the survival of the fittest;
5) Darwin’s view of nature and of man’s origins was opposed to traditional creationist
arguments and to attempted accomodations between creationism and science;
6) It represented a triumph of the intellectual coherence of the scientific method.
Application of the scientific method to the Bible→Biblical criticism
Decline of the
intellectual prestige and political and social influence of the Christian Church in Britain + Growth
of the secular and sceptical mentality.
The period between 1830 and 1901 saw an interest in the fine and applied arts
1) Founding of national art institutions;
2) Explosion of popular publishing;
3) Founding of public libraries;
4) Introduction of the study of literature and art into universities;
5) 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace.
+ Interest in the art of foreign countries and ancient civilisations brought about by new
travel opportunities and colonial expansion.
6) Rise to an art industry as the surplus value permitted new markets for art to develop.
+ Art became part of domestic life and so brought the issue of AESTHETIC VALUE into the
public arena.
The debates were centered on 2 main topics:
1) The question of the NATURE AS AESTHETIC VALUE;
2) The attention given to the SOCIAL FUNCTION OF ART → For the Victorians the primary
function of art was to socialise individual readers or spectators into the moral values of their
culture and for this reason art should be accessible (most consumers of art were middleclass, readers of fiction were principally middle-class women).
Realism was the mode of writing or pictorial art which the Victorians valued most; poetic language
should be clear, simple and direct.
Theatre, fiction-writing and pictorial art were all subject to forms of public or self-censorship
Anxiety about the strenght of the social concensus upon which the moral definition of aesthetic and
artistic value depended.
Sources of unease:
• Resentements and conflicts of interest between different groups in society
• Frequent violent social unrest and political agitation on the Continent
• Issue of social cohesion (political and theoretical problem)
= Problematising of the concept of consensus.
English AESTHETIC MOVEMENT as a response → “Art for Art’s Sake” = appeal to free art
from moral concerns and from any social responsibility; emphasis on the experience of art or beauty
for its own sake that derived from a revival and reinterpretation of Romantic ideologies of
Aesthetism stressed the importance of the uniquess of the individual creative mind;
emphasised the artist’s fidelity to personally felt experience
Good writing was
finding the just transcript of that peculiar phase of soul which the writer alone knew / finding a
language appropriate to inner experience = the language of art that was private, individual, esoteric,
The implications of Aestheticism appeared as a form of social anarchy because of its stress on the
importance of individual judgement.
English DECADENCE → Poets attempted to live their lives as art;
Cultivation of the esoteric and obscure in the poetry of the
Degeneration, morbidity, perversity, inversion in literary and art
Impact of Social Darwinism + Developments in psychology and the scientific study of human
sexualityhad hinted at a patology of artistic creativity.
The notion of cultural decay also drew upon classical scholarship.
Changed nature of debates about the social function of art → Critics were in agreement about
the need to reassert the social nature of art and literature, but they differed on the kind of social role;
Disagreements between the
conservative critic and the socialist polemic.
Morris differed from conservatives: for him the art of the past could not provide the present
with models or precedents.
+ Discrepancies betweeen theories of art and the actual art market.
Commodification of aesthetic value and rejection of high Victorian values in the late 19th century /
Decadence anticipates the formal and ideological iconoclasm.
The double standard in sexual morals
1) exonerated male promiscuity;
2) condemned female sexual appetites;
3) celebrated monogamy;
4) tolerated widescale prostitution;
5) idealised romantic love;
6) repressed sex;
7) refused to aknowledge the existence of unconventional sexualities except in terms of their
In the Victorian period there were
• discrepancies between personal statements and those assembled by government officials or
self-appointed experts who were forced to take their avidence from non-representative
samples of the population;
• differences between ideology and practice.
The Victorian obsession with policing sexuality is not necessarily evidence of a triumph of control
and repression; it can be seen as an expression of fear es. the fear of the association between desire
and disease → this association of unconventional sexuality with national decline made sexual
behaviour a public rather than a private matter.
Increase in the number and variety of discourses
on sexuality and gender that tend to reveal complex and often contradictory attitudes es. trend for
producing manuals of sexual conduct and etiquette books + Contradictions and inconsistencies in
the evidence for sexual and gender norms.
The late 19th century saw the emergence of
polemical literature propagandising illicit or unconventional sexual practices.
Were sexual and
class issues linked for the Victorians?
In a general sense Victorian prescriptions about appropriate male and female behaviour were based
upon assumptions about the giveness of male and female natures; stereotypes were emphasised by
the evangelical religion among the middle classes (es. the virtues of the ‘Angel in the House’ were
idealised as qualities natural to women).
SEXUALITY = Problem which required investigation and treatment, exercise in control and
Although science neither resolved debates about sex and gender, nor produced agreed definitions of
what could be considered to be natural behaviour, it permitted such topics to be discussed in new,
more open, more informed and much less complacent ways.
Anthropological studies of sexual
behaviour; interest in the historical study of sexuality.
+ The extent of the disagreements in the scientific and medical estabilishments led some writers on
sex and gender.
The relationship between ideology, law and actual practice was complex in Victorian Britain.