The Victorian Age is a two-part video program that introduces the student to a dramatic turning point in English social and literary history and, specifically, to a few of the English poets, critics, essayists, and novelists who recorded their impressions of this turbulent period of change and reform.
Part 1 of the program begins with the birth of the queen whose name would become synonymous with an era of transition. The video shows this period of conflict and change as seen through the eyes of the artists of the time in etchings, original illustration, and paintings from the National Portrait Gallery in London. These pictures are supplemented by original photography taken on location. The accompanying narration draws upon material quoted from the works of such historians and critics as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin; poets Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Matthew Arnold; and novelists Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Each of these writers felt very strongly about the changes taking place and each expressed his feelings in his own way: Thomas Carlyle through essays in strong, eloquent language worthy of the halls of Parliament itself; Alfred Lord Tennyson through poetry in a style one feels should be set to music; Charles Dickens through vivid, descriptive novels. Selections from the works of these writers support and develop the continuing historical narrative.
Part 2 of the program continues the theme of England in transition, but concentrates upon this transition, but concentrates upon this transition as recorded by the best-known novelist of the age, Charles Dickens. While other writers were quite ruthless in their satirical jabs at the pretentious posings of the new rich and no less ruthless in portraying the suffering of the poor; none of them did this more brilliantly than Dickens. Included in the narration for Part 2 are selections from such Dickens works as “Sketches by Boz,” Hard Times, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, and The Pickwick Papers.
• Using the Program
The Victorian Age is designed to stimulate student interest in an important historical and literary period in England. The program is also intended to interest students in reading the work of some of the writers who contributed to the greatness of this period. You may use the video in several different ways depending on your plans for each particular class: as motivation before the class begins studying Victorian literature; as developmental material during the course of study to give deeper understanding of the material being studied; or as a review following class study of the period.
Before using video with your class preview it carefully, just as you would a literature selection. Decide how it can be used most successfully with your students. Note the specific things in each part, which you feel, should be covered in a preliminary discussion. Included in this lesson plan is a glossary of names, words, and phrases with which your students may be unfamiliar. You may wish to review these with your class before showing the program.
• Background Information
The amount of time spent on a preliminary discussion of the program depends upon the time that your particular class has already spent studying the history of the Victorian Age or the literature of this period. If The Victorian Age is used as an introduction to this period, you might wish to give your class some of the following general background before showing the video.
The Victorian Age is a very elastic term used to denote an extremely dynamic period. Although the Victorian Age roughly spans most of the 19th century (from 1832 to 1900), it is not totally confined within these dates. The rumblings of change to come were felt for some time before 1832, and changes did not stop occurring as soon as Queen Victoria died in 1901. However, lifestyles did change more dramatically during this period than ever before in English history. England was suddenly pulled together by the railways, the penny post, and the rest of the newly constructed apparatus of fast, cheap communication. The country became unified in a way never before possible.
Prior to the middle of the 19th century, education had been reserved for the nobility and those who could afford to send their children to exclusive private schools. Even if the poor had been able to enter their children in these schools, they would not have done so. A child of six was expected to start bringing home money to help support his entire family; he would be put to work as soon as possible. In those days work meant twelve to sixteen hours a day of grueling, hard labor in conditions that would today be considered totally unacceptable. There was no time spare for education. However, with the appearance of the modern public school system it became fashionable and necessary for the children of the lower classes to at least learn the rudiments of the 3 R’s. With these assets, they could go on to vocational apprenticeships in one of the trades.
The slow but definite increase in wages for the middle classes was accompanied by more leisure time. Spectator sports began to capture the imagination and interest of the common man. He could even indulge himself with an occasional seat at the music hall where he could weep over such sentimental ballads as the following:
Oh, father, dear father, come home with me now,
The clock in the steeple strikes one.
You promised, dear father, that you would come home,
As soon as your day’s work was done.
The fire has gone out, and we are all cold,
And mother’s been watching since tea—
With your brother Willie so ill in her arms,
And no one to help her but me!
Come home! Come home! Come home!
Oh father, dear father, come home!
Great nationalistic spirit developed during the Victorian Age, and England struggled to place herself at the top of the international scene. At the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, England was influential in many countries. By the end of the Victorian Age, the British Empire had reached the high point of its development.
During this period the extreme poverty of the lower working classes was pointed up by the increasingly congested living conditions of city life. While the nobility still hung onto its money and its social barriers, and an individual’s birthright tended to be the deciding factor of his future, the rapidly expanding middle classes made steady inroads. The middle-class novelist, Charles Dickens, did more than any writer before or since to expose the sufferings of the working class. His books found their way into the drawing rooms of the titled and wealthy, and social consciousness began to rise. Emancipation of women and the rights of children became popular cases for the previously sheltered nobility. They brought their money and influence to bear in demanding better working conditions and broader education for the working class. A kind of feverish sentimentality of guilt gripped everyone. People wept profusely over the sufferings of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and then started to see if something could be done about the causes of such degradation and suffering. It is questionable that these people always recognized themselves in the sharp satire of writers such as Dickens or Thackeray, but they certainly recognized their friends. The debt owed to Charles Dickens for the many reforms of the Victorian Age is certainly not a small one.
While it is not necessary to discuss the biography of each of the writers mentioned in this video, you might wish to enlarge upon the emergence of these novelists as free writers. Seldom before had writers been permitted to be so openly critical of their government and society. The moralists of the period were horrified that such delicate subjects as poverty, child abuse, and disease could be read about in the drawing room. This seemed indicative of the final decay of order in society. What would come next?
• Discussion Questions
Begin the discussion by asking your students to give their general impression of the Victorian Age. You have an excellent opportunity to bring relevance and interest to this period by having them draw comparisons between the Victorian Age and the present. There are striking similarities between the social upheavals of Victoria’s time and those of today.
The questions below are planned to provoke further thought and discussion about the Victorian Age and the poets, historians, and novelists who commented upon and recorded the events which brought about the birth of the modern world. The questions are arranged in three groups. The first group contains questions that apply to Part 1 of the video, the second group questions that apply to Part 2. The last group contains questions about the video as a whole, some of which might be suitable subjects for short compositions or debates.
• Part 1: Change and Conflict
1. What was England like in the middle of the nineteenth century? What words best describe the period of Victoria’s reign?
2. Why were the conservatives against the Reform Bill of 1832? Were their fears justified? Why? Why was this bill called one of the greatest political triumphs of humanity?
3. What does the phrase “symbolically destroyed” mean in reference to the burning of the old houses of Parliament?
4. What significance did the death of Louis XVI have for the English people?
5. What does Carlyle mean in the statement “…Thought must be Doubt and Inquiry, before it can again by Affirmation.” Is this true? Was it true of the Victorian Age? Could it be applied today? Explain your answers.
6. What was Tennyson’s belief about the function of art in society? How did Robert Browning’s viewpoint differ?
7. What was the old way of life referred to in the video? How did it differ from the new way of life developing during this period? What did John Ruskin say about this new world? Which way of life would you have preferred? Why?
8. What was the Great Exhibition of 1851? Where was it held? Why is it significant in English history? What was the general mood of many Englishmen during the period of the Exhibition? How did Matthew Arnold react toward this mood?
9. Names are often applied to political groups in an attempt to categorize them. Words such as conservative, liberal, radical, and reactionary are a few of them. Some complain that these names no longer apply. Do you agree? What do these terms mean today? Are the differences between these groups today as great as they were during the Victorian Age? How would you categorize your own political and social views? Explain.
10. Describe some of the styles of the Victorian Age such as dress, hairstyles, furniture, and housing.
11. As poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson had a responsibility to record in poetry the important events of the Victorian era. Although some of his poetry might be considered sentimental or trite, he often put a universal meaning into words which ring true today as they did one hundred years ago. Consider this selection:
Oh, so, when modern things are thrust
By death below the coffin lid,
Our liberal sons will spurn our dust
And wonder what it was we did.
Explain the meaning or significance of this poem to the Victorian Age, to the present time, to yourself.
• Part 2: The Novel and Charles Dickens
1. Charles Dickens was the most famous and most widely read of all English novelists. Why do you suppose this was so? What qualities do his works have that give them a universal appeal?
2. How would you characterize Dickens’s study of the similarities between people and their door knockers? Could such a study be taken seriously? Why or why not?
3. Have you ever heard anyone described as “Pickwickian”? What type of person would fit this description.
4. What part of Dickens’s experience may have contributed most to his ability to create real characters?
5. Some of the sentimental passages in Dickens made the Victorian reader cry. What reaction might today’s reader have toward this sentiment? Why is this so?
6. Satire has long been one of the sharpest tools an author has to attack social injustices. Charles Dickens is a master in using this tool. Give some examples of his satire.
7. Some people find it difficult to read and enjoy Charles Dickens’s books. They say that the books are dull and that it is necessary to plow through too many pages of complex descriptive passages to get at the story itself. How do you feel about this? Do you think we have become too accustomed today to “telling it like it is” to enjoy the round-about style of storytelling employed by Dickens? Explain
• General Questions
1. Which authors mentioned in this program are familiar to you? Which of their works have you read?
2. Why do you think some of the greatest books ever written were products of the Victorian Age?
3. If you were a Victorian factory worker how would you describe your life? If you were a Victorian factory worker how would you describe your life? If you were a Victorian factory owner how would you describe your attitude toward your employees? How would you describe your life? Your country? Your period in history? Would your employees agree with you? Explain your answers.
4. Can you draw any comparisons between the anger, frustration, turmoil, and rebellion of the Victorian Age and some of the same factors in society today? Are the causes similar? Do you think the results will be the same?
5. Many Victorians resisted the resisted the changes taking place in the old, comfortable order of their lives. Why then did the changes still take place? Does change always meet with resistance? Cite some recent changes in laws that came about only after years of struggle and controversy.
• Glossary of Names, Words, and Phrases
Reform Bill of 1832—A law passed in Parliament which radically changed the life of the common man. The most important part of the bill gave the vote to the ordinary citizen. Previously, only title aristocracy and the rich could vote.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)—A Scottish essayist and historian, his best-known works include Sartor Resartus (1833-34), The French Revolution (1837), and a series of essays, the first of which is “Chartism” (1839), attacking the shams and corruption of his age.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)—Appointed poet laureate in 1850. Included among his many poems are classics such as “The Lady of Shallot” (1832), “Locksley Hall” and “Ulysses” (1842), “In Memoriam” (1850), “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854), and Idylls of the King (1859).
Poet laureate—The Court Poet of England, appointed by the king or queen to write poems, celebrating official occasions or national events.
Public moral commitment—Writers such as Tennyson and Carlyle felt that all forms of art should educate the masses; that it was the artist’s duty to teach and thereby contribute to an orderly society.
Robert Browning—A poet. It is generally agreed that he found his best form in psychological monologues such “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” and “Dramatis Personae” (1864), and his masterpiece, “The Ring and the Book,” (1864-69).
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)—A biologist and naturalist, Darwin shook the Victorian world when he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), and The Descent of Man (1871). These books expounded the theory of evolution, which challenged the Bible’s statement on the origin of man and the universe.
Charles Lyell (1797-1875)—Regarded as the father of modern geology, his book, Principles of Geology (3 vols. 1830-33) refuted the then prevailing theory that catastrophic changes accounted for the layers of the earth.
Literal truths of the Bible—The Bible states that God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh day; and that He made Adam, the first man, from clay, and Eve, the first woman, from Adam’s rib. Darwin’s theory of evolution contradicted these “literal truths of the Bible.”
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)—A poet and critic, his best criticism is found in Essays in Criticism (1865, 1888). “The Forsaken Merman” (1849), “The Scholar Gypsy” (1853), “Thyrsis” (1866), and “Dover Beach” (1867) are a few of his best poems.
John Ruskin (1819-1900)—An art critic and sociological writer. In Stones of Venice (1851-53) he discusses the poetic aspect of architecture. Writings such as Unto This Last (1860), and Time and Tide, by Weare and Tyne (1867) advocated a radical change in attitudes toward art, religion, and economics, and urged social reforms and a national education system.
Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort—As Queen Victoria’s husband, he was called consort and not king, because Victoria was the heir to the throne. It is interesting to note that when a reigning king marries, the wife is called queen, but when a reigning queen marries, her husband is not called king, but rather, consort or prince.
Certitude—Used in the excerpt from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”; it means security or predictability.
“darkling plain” (from “Dover Beach”)—A shadowy, menacing expanse of ground.
• Part 2
sweatshops—A term applied to factories where working conditions were extremely poor.
Chartist Movement (1838-1848)—The movement took its name from the People’s Charter, a bill drafted and published in May 1838. The idea for this bill was conceived by the London Workingmens’ Association as a result of dissatisfaction with the Reform Act of 1832. The People’s Charter asked for six points: equal electoral districts, universal suffrage, payment of Members of Parliament (MPs), no property qualification for MPs, ballot voting, and annual Parliaments. The Charter was a catalyst in the formation of the working-class Chartist Movement, which eventually included a membership with a wide range of viewpoints and sought many social reforms.
George Eliot (1819-1880)—A pseudonym for Marian, or Mary Ann Evans; her most popular novels are Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), and Middlemarch (1872).
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)—A writer of many novels, all based on the them that man really has no control over his life, that fate decides all. In addition to Return of the Native (1878), he wrote Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891).
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)—A writer of essays as well as novels. Vanity Fair (1847-48), Henry Esmond (1852), and The Newcomers(1835-55) are considered his best novels.
Peerage and baronetage—The titled, usually hereditary aristocracy of England.
Debtor’s prison—A special prison for people who owed money and could not pay.
Churlish—Rude or ill-bred.
Priggish—Acting overly virtuous.
Satirical barbs—Remarks which hold human weaknesses and short-comings up to ridicule.
Vaunt—To brag or put on an act.
Peregrinations—Travels or wanderings.
Arcana—Secrets; mysterious knowledge.
Modern Babylon—The ancient city of Babylon was considered the ultimate in sinfulness and wickedness. The “Modern Babylon” was London.
Dotage—Senility, the state of feebleness and mental incapacity which often comes with old age.