The Victorian Period 1832/1837-1901

Key concepts

Key events and people

Key authors

In Wider Contexts




The expansion of the Empire




Middle classes


Grim working conditions, bad living conditions and great poverty in urban slums


Family values


General education


Extended parliamentary representation


Utilitarianism = the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number of people


The suffragette movement – vote for women campaign



The reign of Queen Victoria 1837-1901


The Industrial Revolution continues


The First Reform Act 1832


The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834


The Great Exhibition in London 1851


Publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species 1858


The American Civil War 1861-65.


The Irish potato famine 1865


Trades Union Congress (TUC) founded 1868


The Education Act 1870



1815-1915 Britain acquires and maintains a great number of colonies in Africa and Asia. Queen Victoria is made Empress of India in 1876






Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65)


Charlotte Brontë (1816-55)

Emily Brontë (1818-48)


George Eliot (1819-80)


Charles Dickens (1812-70)


Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)




Elizabeth B. Browning (1806-61)


Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)


Robert Browning (1812-89)


Matthew Arnold (1822-86)



Oscar Wilde (1856-1900)


George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)


Matthew Arnold, “In Harmony With Nature”, 1849


Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Eagle”, 1851


Charles Dickens, Hard Times, 1854


R.L. Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886


Rudyard Kipling, “Lispeth”, 1886; “The White Man’s Burden”, 1899


H. Labouchère, ”The Brown Man’s Burden”, 1899


E. Crosby, “The Real White Man’s Burden”, 1902


Kate Chopin (Am), “The Story of an Hour”, 1894;

“Desirée’s Baby”, 1892/3


Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Am), “The Yellow Wallpaper”, 1892


Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper”, 1913



Historical and Social Context

The Victorian Period is determined by the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837-1901, but is usually delimited from the Romantic Period by the Reform Act of1832. This act increased the  number of people who had the right to vote, reduced the power of landowners and gave greater power to the middle classes, who became a dominant force in British politics and life in general. In 1867 the right to vote for men was extended further. Married women over 30 were given the franchise in 1918.


During the reign of Queen Victoria, the British Empire expanded, and British foreign trade was by far the biggest in the world. To emphasize this power, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1876. The British Empire covered a gerat deal of the earth, hence the coining of the phrase that the sun never sets on the British Empire. At its height the Empire included Australia, New Zealand and India, a number of African countries and Canada.


The Industrial Revolution continued, the railway network was extended, and urbanisztion increased. The population in England doubled between 1815 (13 million) and 1871 (26 million), and in 1914 80% of the population lived in towns. In spite of these apparent advances, many people lived in industrial slum towns in squalor and deprivation. Parents and children were part of the work force working long hours among unsafe machinery. Various laws were passed to improve conditions, but progress was slow. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 established workhouses for the homeless and destitute. Due to the harsh conditions in urban areas, the uncertainties created by scientific development and the questioning of traditional beliefs, the Victorian Age is characterized by a certain insecurity and unease. This was strengthened in the political arena through competition between the major powers and came to a boil at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.   



Religious ideas were challenged by the publication in 1858 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in which Darwin introduces the concept of evolution according to which all species derive ultimately from common ancestors, but have evolved through natural selection, a process later referred to as the “survival of the fittest”.


Family life based on middle-class values was a key concept in the Victorian Period. The family structure was strongly patriarchal, that is the father of the house played the main role. The woman’s role was to be “the angel in the house”, that is she was to perform or supervise all domestic chores and the bringing up of the children. She was considered inferior to the husband, who expected her to be submissive, devoted and passive, and outside the house, she did not have the right to vote and was not expected to play any public role. Stress was put on hard work, morality and social respectability, the necessity of doing one’s duty at home and in society. 


Literary Context

Drama was the genre of the Renaissance, poetry dominated in the Romantic Period, and the novel became the genre of the 19th century. The introduction of the Education Act in 1870, according to which the state provided primary education for all children, contributed to the development of an audience for this particular genre, and the establishment of free libraries was another asset. Many novels were serialized, that is one chapter was issued at a time, ending with a cliff-hanger episode to induce people to buy the next publication. Most of the novels of the Victorian Period are ‘realistic’ in that they describe the life which people experienced. Writers such as George Eliot (a pseudonym for Mary Ann Evans) directly describe the consequences of the changes in rural areas in connection with the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions and the moral responsibility that the middle classes have for those who are less fortunate than themselves. This can be seen in Middlemarch (1871/72) and in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854/55). The best known writer to describe the poor houses and life in the London slums and the middle classes, however, is probably Charles Dickens, whose Oliver Twist (1838) and Hard Times (1854) give an impression of the life of the poor in industrialized cities in England in the middle of the 19th century.



squalor                               elendighed

deprivation                        nød 

destitute                             nødlidende