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Victorian era (1837 - 1901)

1800s - Industrial Revolution - music halls - sensation novel (literary genre) - UK

Queen Victoria (shown here on the morning of her Accession to the Throne, June 20, 1837) gave her name to the historic era.
image sourced here.

The Crystal Palace (1851) - Joseph Paxton


The Victorian Era of Britain is considered the height of the industrial revolution in Britain and the apex of the British Empire. It is often defined as the years from 1837 to 1901 when Victoria of the United Kingdom reigned.

Notable elements of the Victorian era include:

The Victorian period is now often regarded as one of many contradictions. It is easy for many to see a clash between the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity and restraint, and the widespread presence of many arguably deplorable phenomena. These include prostitution, child labour, and having an economy based largely on what many would now see as the exploitation of colonies through imperialism and of the working classes. The expression Victorian values thus may be two-edged.

The term Victorian has acquired a range of connotations, including that of a particularly strict set of moral standards, often applied hypocritically. (See Victorian morality.)

Comparing the Victorian age to our own, some have observed that whilst the Victorians pretended to be much better than they were, we pretend to be a lot worse than we are. Others disagree. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_era [Jun 2004]

Victorian literature

Whilst many great writers were at work at the time, the large numbers of voracious but uncritical readers meant that poor writers, producing salacious and lurid novels or accounts, found eager audiences. Many of the faults common to much better writers were used abundantly by writers now mostly forgotten: over-sentimentality, unrealistic plots and moralising obscuring the story. Although immensely popular in his day, Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now held up as an example of the very worst of Victorian literature with his sensationalist story-lines and his over-boiled style of prose. Other writers popular at the time but largely forgotten now are: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charlotte Mary Yonge, Charles Kingsley, Charles Kingsley and R. D. Blackmore. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_literature [Nov 2005]

Pornography [...]

For the first time, pornography was produced in a volume capable of satisfying a mass readership.

Oddly, the industry was founded by a gang of political radicals who used sales of erotica to subsidise their campaigning and pamphleteering: when, in the 1840s, the widely-anticipated British revolution failed to materialise, these booksellers and printers found that their former sideline had become too profitable to relinquish. Lubricious stories such as Lady Pokingham, or, They All Do it (1881), and hardcore daguerreotypes, photographs and magic lantern slides, demonstrate the omnivorous nature of Victorian sexuality.

Don't imagine that this material comprised tame pictures of gartered ladies standing in front of cheese plants; any permutation or peccadillo you can conceive is represented in the work that has survived from the period. And it was produced in huge quantities: in 1874, the Pimlico studio of Henry Hayler, one of the most prominent producers of such material was loaded up with 130,248 obscene photographs and five thousand magic lantern slides - which gives some idea of the extent of its appeal. --Matthew Sweet, Sex, Drugs and Music Hall, 01-08-2001, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/society/pleasure_03.shtml [Jun 2004]

Sex, Drugs and Music Hall

By Matthew Sweet

Circus lion tamer, lithograph by Gibson & Co., 1873. Edited digital image from the Library of Congress, reproduction number: LC-USZC4-2994.
image sourced here.
image related to subject via Victorian entertainment

Sex, drugs and hedonism, a summer weekend for today's twenty-somethings or the average Victorian weekend? Matthew Sweet investigates.

You've seen it in a hundred costume dramas. A group of Victorians sitting around the piano. Men in dinner suits, women twitching fans, the daughter of the household bashing out a Mendelsohn standard, polite applause muffled by white kid gloves, and another round of constipated dialogue.

'...it's hard to think of a public pleasure with which they did not engage with intense, breathless enthusiasm.'

If only somebody had thought to check the entertainment listings on the front page of The Times. Instead of suffering this well-mannered torture, they could have telegraphed the Cremorne Gardens and booked a table near the bandstand, scored a few strikes at the American bowling alley, taken in one of the shows or concerts, guzzled down a curry, danced until four in the morning, smoked a few opium-laced cigarettes, then returned home on the tube to negotiate their inevitable hangovers. --http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/society/pleasure_01.shtml [May 2005]

see also: entertainment - music halls

Sex and death in Victorian literature

She, 1965 Lancer Books, Ursula Andress movie cover

Sex and Death in Victorian Literature (1990) - Regina Barreca
[FR] [DE] [UK]

Sex and death or erotic horror

This course is focused on two of the primary – and intertwined – obsessions of Victorian culture: sex and death. We will explore these concepts on dual levels, looking at “sex” in terms of both sexuality and gender and “death” in its literal and figurative manifestations. Since these issues are inextricably linked to larger questions of nineteenth-century ideology, the thematic focus on sex/death will serve as a conduit for a more in-depth interrogation of Victorian culture. Primary texts include poetry (Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”; Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”; poems by Robert Browning), Pre-Raphaelite paintings (“Flaming June,” “The Dreamers,” “Two Women on a Sofa”), popular broadsheets and newspapers, melodrama, works of short fiction (LeFanu’s “Carmilla”) and novels (Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop; Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Ryder Haggard’s She; Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray). The focus of our more historical discussions will move from Queen Victoria’s marriage and widowhood; to the Duke of Wellington’s funeral; to mid-century spiritualism and séances; to Jack the Ripper; and finally, to the Queen’s own death. Through our examination of historical events, ideologies, and cultural texts, students will gain a comprehensive overview of the ideas, genres, and personalities that help to define the Victorian age. --http://www.stanford.edu/%7Esteener/english164H/description.htm [Nov 2006]

Gibson girl

Camille Clifford (1885-1971) aka The Gibson Girl (photo: Bassano, London, 1906)

Camille Clifford as she sang 'Why Do They Call Me a Gibson Girl?' with Leslie Stiles (b.1876) in The Belle of Mayfair, Vaudeville Theatre, London, 1906.

Gibson Girls are attractive yet independent young women as drawn by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson in the Victorian era. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibson_girl [Nov 2004]

1800s [...]

Music halls [...]

Music Hall is a type of British theatre which had its start in the public "song and supper" rooms of the 1850s. It flourished from the 1890s to the Second World War, when other forms of popular music evolved and it began to be replaced by films as the most popular form of entertainment.

British Music Hall was similar to American vaudeville, featuring rousing songs and standard jokes, while in the United Kingdom the term vaudeville referred to more lowbrow entertainment that would have been termed burlesque in the United States. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_Hall


Technology changed leisure in Victorian Britain. Although the railway created steel barriers by increasing separating the classes, it also encouraged the popularity of the excursion. Work holidays also added to the establishment of the seaside resort until the cost of rail travel was increased specifically to restrict the more rowdy elements of the working class from travelling to the seaside. A text about Brighton explains:

The railway company was eventually persuaded in the late 1860s, after pressure from the respectable residents, to effect a discrete revision of the excursion traffic. The price of the day return ticket was raised which together with the growth of attractive alternative destinations on the coast improved greatly the class of people who patronised the town in the summer months.

The demand for seaside resorts after 1850 either increased the size of or developed new coastal towns. Workers in Yorkshire textile industries motivated the development of Blackpool as popular seaside facilities with evident commercial potential .

New technology like the steam press caused an increase in the consumption of pulp fiction, mainly purchased by the working classes, and cheap newspaper further advanced leisure publicity. Similarly, the invention of the bicycle not only enabled excursions and cheap modes of transport, it had a great effect upon women. Their use of the bicycle as an accepted leisure practice freed many women from restrictive clothing. The bicycle also led to calls for the improvement and building of better roads, which in turn affected the Victorian Town.

Commercialisation of leisure by the latter quarter of the nineteenth century became an increasingly influential factor. Music Halls roots in the crude localised "free and easies" were often commented upon by moral reformers (usually in the press), for to them it represented all the worst accesses of leisure -- namely, drunkenness, obscenity and sensuality. George Morgan's Canterbury Hall was the first large-scale music hall, and halls grew in splendour and sought to attract a more prosperous class. With the eventual patronage of a better clientele the music hall invaded the suburbs, and the businessmen Moss and Stoll greatly advanced this trend. Here the press again was used to attract potential customers, the hegemony of acts began to develop and the concept of the star was born. Charles Chaplain and Gracie Fields are both examples of this new star phenomena, soon to be projected to new highest by the cinema, which in turn developed from the music hall. The publication of popular songs became big business, employing many lower-middle-class song writers. By the 1880s the music hall had become so respectable that in many towns it rivaled the town hall and other civic buildings. Another sign of the increasing the respectabilty of music hall and theatre appears in the fact that that churches often built extensions to hold amateur dramatics.

The latter nineteenth century commercialisation and mass production produced many familiar commodities: the post card, fish and chips, ice-cream, cigarettes, mineral water and the teacup. The Victorian town was the mould which contained all these fermenting elements, both reshaping leisure and being reshaped by this process of leisure revolution. -- Stephen Hall Clark '96, University of Sunderland [ca7scl@isis.sunderland.ac.uk] --

Drugs [...]

They were great consumers of recreational drugs, purchased at Boots and knocked back in suburban living rooms all over the country. Most popular was laudanum - a cocktail of opium and alcohol, which is still manufactured for medical use today. This substance wasn't just the tipple of a clique of artsy dopeheads, as it had been in the time of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey (although Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Gladstone, Jane Carlyle and Florence Nightingale all glugged it back with enthusiasm). Opium was the People's Intoxicant, more freely available in the nineteenth century than packets of Lambert and Butler are today. The anti-drug laws by which our society is regulated appeared during the First World War, when the government became nervous that the packets of heroine gel that women were buying from Harrods to send to their sweethearts at the Western Front were having detrimental effects upon discipline. --Matthew Sweet, Sex, Drugs and Music Hall, 01-08-2001, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/society/pleasure_01.shtml [Jun 2004]

Victorian Romance (Books)

Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem in Victorian Popular Fiction

This course will sample several varieties of Victorian romance (sensationalism, adventure, detective fiction, terror, ‘scientific romance') and read these books against the complex cultural background of later nineteenth-century Britain.  With the rise of cultural studies, these books are being reconsidered as complex cultural phenomena; however, in their own time, most were best-sellers and several have had a lasting impact on popular culture, despite having been considered sub-literary by academia.

Thus, we will study the relations between these novels and some or all of the following: constructions of "high" and "low" culture, gender and sexual politics, constructions of class, imperialism, psychology, narrative theory and technique, theatricality.  --http://courses.wcupa.edu/fletcher/mayhem.htm

The Other Victorians, A study of sexuality and pornography in mid-nineteenth-century England (1964) - Steven Marcus

See entry for Steven Marcus.

The Other Victorians, A study of sexuality and pornography in mid-nineteenth-century England (1964) - Steven Marcus [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Diamond Age () - Neal Stephenson

  1. Diamond Age () - Neal Stephenson [Amazon.com]
    Another addition to the thread: Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Readers familiar with the cyberpunk generation of SF writers will know Stephenson's previous Snow Crash, one of the most brilliant, vigorous, picaresque, and influential of the type. In Snow Crash, as in cyberpunk generally, the purpose of networked information technology and all its street-level accoutrements (including the fact that the very notion of "street" culture is altered irrevocably by the insertion into the cultural field of virtual space) is to serve as the allegorical foundation for a near-future world dominated by neo-corporate social structures. Functioning to the exclusion of family, village, nation, and other socialities, such structures of human life are the great "virtual"experience. The Diamond Age is another beautifully rendered and detailed imagination of such a world, though more interested in nanotechnology than cybertechnology and more gentle and erudite in tone than picaresque. The use of the Romantics, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, is clear. But the real heart of the book is the "clave" or "phyle" (corporate clan) of the Vickys--who style their life and ideology after the Victorian age. The plot of the novel places the world view of the Vickys into play against the world of a powerful post-colonial China in ways that make for delicious ironies in the history and meaning of imperialism (including a neo- or retro-Boxer Rebellion). In general, the whole notion of setting Victorian culture in play against the grain of postindustrial and global culture is a delicious one.

Exposed: The Victorian Nude (2002) - Alison Smith (Editor), Robert Upstone (Editor)

Exposed: The Victorian Nude (2002) - Alison Smith (Editor), Robert Upstone (Editor) [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

The epitome of high culture or an assault on public morality? The nude figure was one of the most controversial issues in Victorian art. It was also one of the most conspicuous categories for the visual image at every level, from elite paintings for the Royal Academy to mass-produced photographs and magazine illustrations. Exposed: The Victorian Nude provides a fascinating overview of the nude figure-both male and female-and the intriguing role it played in Victorian art. While it concentrates on painting, sculpture, and drawing, this beautifully illustrated reference also explores the depiction of the naked body in other media-including photography, popular illustration, advertising, and caricature-and discusses the issues of morality, sexuality, and desire that are relevant even today. Since nudes were an important subject for most Victorian artists, Exposed: The Victorian Nude showcases dazzling artwork from such legendary masters as Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Whistler, and Sargent, as well as pivotal figures of early English modernism. Cutting across the conventional categories of style and period, this guide offers a fresh, engrossing vision of Victorian art and culture unmatched anywhere else. --Book Description

Criminal Conversations: Victorian Crimes, Social Panic, And Moral Outrage (2005) - Rowbotham, Stevenson

Criminal Conversations: Victorian Crimes, Social Panic, And Moral Outrage (2005) - Rowbotham, Stevenson [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

In the climate of social panics that characterized so much of the Victorian period, there was keen consciousness of the threats a variety of crimes posed to social stability. Conversations about crime, particularly via the media, were a major feature of Victorian Britain’s daily life, and it was through such conversations that people learned about the nature of crime and criminality, as well as about the individuals who committed crimes or were merely guilty of socially offensive conduct or “bad” behavior.

The essays in this book set out to explore the ways in which Victorians used newspapers to identify the causes of bad behavior and its impacts, and the ways in which they tried to “distance” criminals and those guilty of “bad” behavior from the ordinary members of society, including identification of them as different according to race or sexual orientation. It also explores how threats from within “normal” society were depicted and the panic that issues like “baby-farming” caused.

Victorian alarm was about crimes and bad behavior which they saw as new or unique to their period-but which were not new then and which, in slightly different dress, are still causing panic today. What is striking about the essays in this collection are the ways they echo contemporary concerns about crime and bad behavior, including panics about “new” types of crime. This has implications for modern understandings of how society needs to understand crime, demonstrating that while there are changes over time, there are also important continuities.

Judith Rowbotham is senior lecturer in history, Nottingham Trent University. Kim Stevenson is senior lecturer in law at the University of Plymouth. Rowbotham and Stevenson are founders and directors of SOLON: Promoting Interdisciplinary Studies in Bad Behavior and Crime. --http://www.ohiostatepress.org/index.htm?books/book%20pages/rowbotham%20criminal.html [Jun 2005]

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