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Index by Period

The Victorians
(1830 - 1899)

  The current sweeps the Old World,
  The current sweeps the New;
  The wind will blow, the dawn will glow,
  Ere thou hast sailed them through.

                       Kingsley, "A Myth"

Historical Outline

Amid the many changes which make the reign of Victoria the most progressive in English history, one may discover three tendencies which have profoundly affected our present life and literature. The first is political and democratic: it may be said to have begun with the Reform Bill of 1832; it is still in progress, and its evident end is to deliver the government of England into the hands of the common people. In earlier ages we witnessed a government which laid stress on royalty and class privilege, the spirit of which was clarioned by Shakespeare in the lines:

      Not all the water in the rough rude sea
      Can wash the balm from an anointed king.

In the Victorian or modern age the divine right of kings is as obsolete as a suit of armor; the privileges of royalty and nobility are either curbed or abolished, and ordinary men by their representatives in the House of Commons are the real rulers of England.

With a change in government comes a corresponding change in literature. In former ages literature was almost as exclusive as politics; it was largely in the hands of the few; it was supported by princely patrons; it reflected the taste of the upper classes. Now the masses of men begin to be educated, begin to think for themselves, and a host of periodicals appear in answer to their demand for reading matter. Poets, novelists, essayists, historians,--all serious writers feel the inspiration of a great audience, and their works have a thousand readers where formerly they had but one. In a word, English government, society and literature have all become more democratic. This is the most significant feature of modern history.

The Scientific Spirit

The second tendency may be summed up in the word "scientific." At the basis of this tendency is man's desire to know the truth, if possible the whole truth of life; and it sets no limits to the exploring spirit, whether in the heavens above or the earth beneath or the waters under the earth. From star-dust in infinite space (which we hope to measure) to fossils on the bed of an ocean which is no longer unfathomed, nothing is too great or too small to attract man, to fascinate him, to influence his thought, his life, his literature. Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), which laid the foundation for a general theory of evolution, is one of the most famous books of the age, and of the world. Associated with Darwin were Wallace, Lyell, Huxley, Tyndall and many others, whose essays are, in their own way, quite as significant as the poems of Tennyson or the novels of Dickens.

It would be quite as erroneous to allege that modern science began with these men as to assume that it began with the Chinese or with Roger Bacon; the most that can be said truthfully is, that the scientific spirit which they reflected began to dominate our thought, to influence even our poetry and fiction, even as the voyages of Drake and Magellan furnished a mighty and mysterious background for the play of human life on the Elizabethan stage. The Elizabethans looked upon an enlarging visible world, and the wonder of it is reflected in their prose and poetry; the Victorians overran that world almost from pole to pole, then turned their attention to an unexplored world of invisible forces, and their best literature thrills again with the grandeur of the universe in which men live.


A third tendency of the Victorian age in England is expressed by the word "imperialism." In earlier ages the work of planting English colonies had been well done; in the Victorian age the scattered colonies increased mightily in wealth and power, and were closely federated into a world-wide Empire of people speaking the same noble speech, following the same high ideals of justice and liberty.

The literature of the period reflects the wide horizons of the Empire. Among historical writers, Parkman the American was one of the first and best to reflect the imperial spirit. In such works as A Half-Century of Conflict and Montcalm and Wolfe he portrayed the conflict not of one nation against another but rather of two antagonistic types of civilization: the military and feudal system of France against the democratic institutions of the Anglo-Saxons. Among the explorers, Mungo Park had anticipated the Victorians in his Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799), a wonderful book which set England to dreaming great dreams; but not until the heroic Livingstone's Missionary Travels and Research in South Africa, The Zambesi and its Tributaries and Last Journals [Footnote: In connection with Livingstone's works, Stanley's How I Found Livingstone (1872) should also be read. Livingstone died in Africa in 1873, and his Journals were edited by another hand. For a summary of his work and its continuation see Livingstone and the Exploration of Central Africa (London, 1897).] appeared was the veil lifted from the Dark Continent. Beside such works should be placed numerous stirring journals of exploration in Canada, in India, in Australia, in tropical or frozen seas,--wherever in the round world the colonizing genius of England saw opportunity to extend the boundaries and institutions of the Empire. Macaulay's Warren Hastings, Edwin Arnold's Indian Idylls, Kipling's Soldiers Three,--a few such works must be read if we are to appreciate the imperial spirit of modern English history and literature.

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Charles Kingsley
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Abraham (Bram) Stoker
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