In 1897 Mark Twain was visiting London during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations honoring the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria's coming to the throne. "British history is two thousand years old," Twain observed, "and yet in a good many ways the world has moved farther ahead since the Queen was born than it moved in all the rest of the two thousand put together." Twain's comment captures the sense of dizzying change that characterized the Victorian period. Perhaps most important was the shift from a way of life based on ownership of land to a modern urban economy based on trade and manufacturing. By the beginning of the Victorian period, the Industrial Revolution, as this shift was called, had created profound economic and social changes, including a mass migration of workers to industrial towns, where they lived in new urban slums. But the changes arising out of the Industrial Revolution were just one subset of the radical changes taking place in mid- and late-nineteenth-century Britain — among others were the democratization resulting from extension of the franchise; challenges to religious faith, in part based on the advances of scientific knowledge, particularly of evolution; and changes in the role of women.
All of these issues, and the controversies attending them, informed Victorian literature. In part because of the expansion of newspapers and the periodical press, debate about political and social issues played an important role in the experience of the reading public. The Victorian novel, with its emphasis on the realistic portrayal of social life, represented many Victorian issues in the stories of its characters. Moreover, debates about political representation involved in expansion both of the franchise and of the rights of women affected literary representation, as writers gave voice to those who had been voiceless.
The section in The Norton Anthology of English Literature entitled "Victorian Issues" (NAEL 8, 2.1538–1606) contains texts dealing with four controversies that concerned the Victorians: evolution, industrialism, what the Victorians called "The Woman Question", and Great Britain's identity as an imperial power. Norton Topics Online provides further texts on three of these topics: the debate about the benefits and evils of the Industrial Revolution, the debate about the nature and role of women, and the myriad issues that arose as British forces worked to expand their global influence. The debates on both industrialization and women's roles in society reflected profound social change: the formation of a new class of workers — men, women, and children — who had migrated to cities, particularly in the industrial North, in huge numbers, to take jobs in factories, and the growing demand for expanded liberties for women. The changes were related; the hardships that the Industrial Revolution and all its attendant social developments created put women into roles that challenged traditional ideas about women's nature. Moreover, the rate of change the Victorians experienced, caused to a large degree by advances in manufacturing, created new opportunities and challenges for women. They became writers, teachers, and social reformers, and they claimed an expanded set of rights.
In the debates about industrialism and about the Woman Question, voices came into print that had not been heard before. Not only did women writers play a major role in shaping the terms of the debate about the Woman Question, but also women from the working classes found opportunities to describe the conditions of their lives. Similarly, factory workers described their working and living conditions, in reports to parliamentary commissions, in the encyclopedic set of interviews journalist Henry Mayhew later collected as London Labor and the London Poor, and in letters to the editor that workers themselves wrote. The world of print became more inclusive and democratic. At the same time, novelists and even poets sought ways of representing these new voices. The novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her first novel, Mary Barton, in order to give voice to Manchester's poor, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning tried to find ways in poetry of giving voice to the poor and oppressed.
The third section of this Web site, "The Painterly Image in Victorian Poetry," investigates the rich connection in the Victorian period between visual art and literature. Much Victorian aesthetic theory makes the eye the most authoritative sense and the clearest indicator of truth. Victorian poetry and the Victorian novel both value visual description as a way of portraying their subjects. This emphasis on the visual creates a particularly close connection between poetry and painting. Books of fiction and poetry were illustrated, and the illustrations amplified and intensified the effects of the text. The texts, engravings, and paintings collected here provide insight into the connection between the verbal and the visual so central to Victorian aesthetics.
Britain’s identity as an imperial power with considerable global influence is explored more comprehensively in the fourth topic section. For Britain, the Victorian period witnessed a renewed interest in the empire’s overseas holdings. British opinions on the methods and justification of imperialist missions overseas varied, with some like author Joseph Conrad throwing into sharp relief the brutal tactics and cold calculations involved in these missions, while others like politician Joseph Chamberlain considered the British to be the “great governing race” with a moral obligation to expand its influence around the globe. Social evolutionists, such as Benjamin Kidd, likewise supported the British dominion through their beliefs about the inherent developmental inferiority of the subject peoples, thus suggesting that Europeans had a greater capacity for ruling—a suggestion that many took as complete justification of British actions overseas. Regardless of dissenting voices, British expansion pushed forward at an unprecedented rate, ushering in a new era of cultural exchange that irreversibly altered the British worldview.
*From the Norton Anthology of Brtish Literature