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These notes are designed to introduce you to some of the main ideas and movements current in the Victorian period. There are entries on: Early 1830s Riots and Unrest; the Reform Bill; Chartism; Evolutionary thought; Legislative strictures on sexuality; the 'Woman Question' and the 'New Woman'; Religious Change; Decadence. Thanks to Rhian Williams for writing these up for the module.


Early 1830s Riots and Unrest

The first few decades of the nineteenth century saw social, political, and agricultural unrest, most notably at the “Peterloo Massacre” of 1819. Years of war and high taxes coupled with low wages had led to unemployment, particularly within the rural community. Arable workers’ livelihoods were perceived as facing near-extinction due to the expansion of enclosure and the introduction of technical innovation that would render manpower redundant. In August 1830 the threshing machine became a totem of rural disenfranchisement and despair as arable workers in the south and east of England took part in ‘Swing Riots’ to demand higher wages and an end to technical threat. They took part in rick-burning and cattle-maiming, smashed over a hundred threshing machines and threatened those who owned them. Nine of the rioters were hanged and hundreds more were transported to Australia. The following year, riots broke out in Bristol, in response to legislative delays in passing the Reform Bill. An angry mob chased prominent opponents of the Bill through the city, and riots continued for three days during which Bishop’s palace, Lord Mayor’s mansion and private homes were plundered and ruined. The mob also disrupted work on Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge (Brunel became a special constable). The Dragoons eventually dispersed the mob by charging with drawn swords: hundreds were killed and wounded and four men were hanged. Such prominent and violent unrest provided part of the context for the eventual passing of the Reform Bill in 1832.

Reform Bill

This Act of Parliament was proposed by the Whigs and, although it met much opposition from the Tories, was eventually passed in 1832. It was designed to a) expand the number of individuals entitled to vote and b) grant representation in the House of Commons to large cities that had become established during the Industrial Revolution. The bill was drawn up in response to centuries-long demands for review of corruption and bad practice and more immediate pressure from rallies calling for reform, such as in Birmingham, Manchester, and Bristol.  Previously, the right to vote had been restricted to men over twenty-one years of age provided that they met various property qualifications, effectively barring the vast majority of individuals from voting. Representation was organised around a system of boroughs and counties: county members represented landowners while borough members represented mercantile and trading interests. Votes were generally attached to property, meaning that those who own multiple properties in multiple constituencies could vote multiple times, leading to the phenomenon of ‘rotten boroughs’ in which no resident individuals could vote, but whose representation was in the hands of absent landowners. Corruption and bribery was rife and representative discrepancy was endemic: boroughs containing a handful of individuals had representation whilst large industrial cities did not.
In effect, the bill did disenfranchise many small and rotten boroughs, and granted representation to more counties, including allowing twenty-two large towns two representatives each. The bill also altered the property qualifications attached to vote entitlement, expanding the franchise by up to 60%. However, many anomalies persisted, and the franchise expansion meant little in real terms: the majority of individuals were still barred from voting. Nevertheless, the usefulness of the 1832 Reform Bill as a marker for change persists, nearly coinciding as it does with Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne in 1837. Although revisionist history leans generally to a cautious assessment that emphasises the lack of real change in the political landscape, by some the bill is considered the founding of modern democracy. Even a circumspect assessment allows that it saw Parliament begin to shift in its relationship to the British people, becoming more active in its process, and more susceptible to public opinion.


Despite the changes brought about by the Reform Bill, its limitations were considered by many working-class people to amount to a ‘great betrayal’. The Chartist movement sought further democratic change, summarised in the six points of the People’s Charter, published in 1838:

1)    Universal (adult male) suffrage
2)    No property qualifications for MPs
3)    Annual Parliaments
4)    Equal representation of electoral districts
5)    Payment of MPs
6)    Vote by ballot

Although the Chartists did not achieve their political goals, they had considerable social and cultural impact. Their demands constituted an alternative (frequently understood as threatening) ideological position to bourgeois gentility and their physical presence – particularly at the large gatherings of 1839, 1842, and 1848 – aroused sufficient alarm to require governmental intervention in the form of forcible repression. They also constituted an important interface between English working-class consciousness and European socialist thought. Furthermore, theirs was a particularly literate movement; many Chartist leaders were prolific and admired poets, and poetry constituted a vital rhetorical mode in the articulation of their demands and consolidation of their political and cultural identity.

Evolutionary Thought

Notions of evolution had been discussed for centuries, but the nineteenth-century saw particularly significant advances in mapping ‘evolution’s scientific and theoretic logic. Clearly, this field is diverse and complex, but in terms of literary impact certain texts had particular effects. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s 1809 Philosophie Zoologique proposed that organisms acquired certain habits in reaction to changing environments. These habits then produced structural changes within the organism, which were then passed onto descendents. The theory had little supporting evidence, but its premise had longstanding influence amongst commentators and scientists. Between 1830 and 1833 Charles Lyell published his Principles of Geology, which we know that Tennyson read during the composition of In Memoriam. The salient points of this publication were firstly Lyell’s proposal that the present is the key to the past, and that geological phenomena could, therefore, be explained by processes still ongoing and available for observation, and secondly, and most significantly, that the earth was shaped by minute changes taking place over vast stretches of time (rather than in one creative, catastrophic moment, as implied by biblical narrative). This sense of slow change was an important influence on Lyell’s friend, Charles Darwin. It must be remembered, however, that evolutionary thought was by no means confined to scientific or geological consideration. The sense of connection between past and present implied in Lyell’s work has interesting parallels in the Victorian passion for history, for example, evident in enthusiastic establishment of historical and preservation societies. Furthermore, ideas of political science and social engineering – such as Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population – importantly shared and inspired evolutionary theory and method and the notorious and disquieting Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844, proposed a model of evolution that extended from broad economic and political structures to the intimacies of human psychology as well as accounting for interplanetary and geologic phenomena. Notions of ‘struggle for existence’, ‘natural selection’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ proved especially conducive to multiple applications in political, economic, and Imperialist spheres. All of these texts, and many others, published as volumes, papers, pamphlets and articles, provided the energetic context for the eventual publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859.

Legislative Strictures on Sexuality

In terms of heterosexual relations beyond marriage, the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s had particularly concerning consequences. These were designed to combat the prevalence of venereal disease amongst the military. As those in the forces were discouraged from marrying (and clearly homosexuality was forbidden), visiting prostitutes was considered an inevitability and legislators, in their wisdom, sought, therefore, to provide ‘clean’ women for the militia to use. The Act allowed plain-clothed policeman to patrol the streets of garrison towns and haul in any woman suspected of being a sex worker for enforced medical examination and treatment (they could be put in locked hospitals for up to nine months). No provision was made for examining the women’s clientele. The Act became notorious as a symbol of distasteful sexual double standards and was the focus for much passionate campaigning by feminist philanthropists, such as Josephine Butler, who also garnered the support of those who objected to the Act’s violation of civil liberties. It was eventually repealed in 1886.   The nineteenth-century saw the continued implementation of longstanding sodomy laws (laws which define sexual acts as criminal), which, because they are largely concerned with sexual activity that thwarts reproduction, had particular relevance for sexual activity between men. However, the Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 considerably extended the law’s monitoring of male homosexual activity. Although it was rushed through Parliament, it had grave and longstanding consequences. The act read: "Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour." The ambiguity of ‘act of gross indecency’ allowed for the prosecution of virtually any male homosexual relations, and Oscar Wilde was famously convicted under its terms in 1895 (and sentenced to two years’ hard labour). The Act’s impact was considerable as homosexual identification became a matter of subtle and nuanced cultural semantics. The Act was not repealed until 1967.

The ‘Woman Question’ and the ‘New Woman’

Following the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 and across the nineteenth-century women’s political, social, and cultural status was hotly debated. Issues of concern included legal status, property rights, reproductive status, domestic labour, autonomy, motherhood, daughterhood, married duty, stereotyping, and suffrage. In commentary, issues surrounding women have had a tendency to fall into crude categorisation – the ‘angel in the house’ figure tied to the hearth, the ‘fallen woman’ associated with sexual exploitation and dubious morality, and the ‘bluestocking’ emotionless intellectual. Of course, the reality of women’s lives were far more complex, intertwined and varied than these categories suggest and the public/private dichotomy has been radically reconsidered in the light of the fact that many Victorian women had significant public profiles as well as private lives. Naturally, economic, political and social change impacted on women’s experiences across the century, but the ‘New Woman’ figure of the late 1880s and 1890s has gained particular attention as a cultural and economic ‘type’. Associated principally with the urban middle-classes, the ‘new woman’ came to denote an educated and relatively economically-independent woman whose concerns were to challenge and redraw cultural expectations of womanhood. She is often accessorised with the trappings of liberty – such as comfortable, unrestrictive clothing, or the symbol of female independence, the bicycle – and her new freedom is often seen in symbiotic relation with the transportation advances of the metropolis, making the ‘new woman’ a radically moving-target across the cityscape. The gender-specificity of her categorisation was not exempt from scrutiny, however: much ‘new woman’ literature, for example, challenges social propriety by addressing cross-dressing, androgyny and complex sexual or domestic scenarios.

Religious Change

Nineteenth-century British culture largely identified itself as Christian. One should not, however, overlook the impact of other religious thought and cultures, such as that of Buddhism and Eastern philosophies on certain areas of the liberal-minded Broad Church, or the late-century influx of Jewish influence brought by large numbers of immigrants, particularly in the East End of London. Later in the century, interest and commitment to quasi-religious movements such as Spiritualism grew substantially in some circles. In terms of Christian culture, however, Protestantism was dominant. The 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act had removed many of the longstanding restrictions on Catholicism in Britain, but Catholics, particularly converts, still held an anomalous and complex position in Victorian culture. The Anglican church, meanwhile, had benefited in terms of numbers from the Protestant Revival that saw the rise of Methodism in particular. This branch – broadly termed ‘Evangelical’ - sought to replace inertia in the Church of England with enthusiasm, and emphasised emotional, individual faith and scriptural authority. However, some Evangelicals became disillusioned with this move away from Church tradition and broke away to form the ‘Oxford Movement’, also known as Tractarianism, named for the Tracts for the Times, or ‘High Anglicanism’. The movement fused its interests in both theology and literature by emphasising the doctrine of reserve and figurative language, such as analogy. ‘Reserve’ refers to the sense that God’s laws should be hidden from all but the faithful, leading to the necessity of encoding religious knowledge through metaphor, analogy, and allegory. The prominent Tractarian, John Keble, particularly endorsed poetry as the favoured mode for expressing these issues, suggesting that the devotional poem could operate as a complex encoding of the hidden God. The poem’s meek and gentle appeal was also understood to encourage in the reader a position of humble reverence in which to devote themselves to God. Reserve named a kind of space for quiet mental contemplation and study: the doctrine considerably preoccupied Christina Rossetti. The Oxford Movement also reconsidered the Eucharist and confession and eventually their influence fed into Anglo-Catholicism, which emphasised the value of symbolism in worship. Gerard Manley Hopkins was particularly attracted to this branch of the church, but its modality also influenced late-century aestheticism. However, Hopkins, like many other Anglo-Catholics, eventually converted to Roman Catholicism, partly in search of a deeper certainty than the sometimes-equivocal views of the Anglo-Catholics offered. Evangelicals, meanwhile, rejected this ‘Romanist’ influence and continued to link individual salvation to ‘good works’, meaning that religious motivation frequently accorded with the ideals of philanthropy and reform that propelled much of the century’s social change. In aesthetic circles, however, Roman Catholicism had a significant influence, particularly at the very end of the century. Several ‘decadents’ converted to Rome in the 1890s, attracted variously to the potential for confessional sanctuary, to sumptuous symbolism and to Marian worship.


A loosely-formed movement that took its cue from French writers such as Theodore Gautier who wrote that ‘nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless’. Clearly a rejection of Victorian philanthropic and reforming zeal, the decadent writer frequently focussed on shocking depictions of morbidity, perversity, Hedonism and disease not in order to call for reform, but to revel in their essential ‘beauty’. Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads (1866) is associated with the inception of this movement, and its libidinousness and paganism considered to have shaped many of ‘decadence’s preoccupations. The decadent’s unwholesomeness directed not only the endless quest for new experience, but also figured as the transcendence of bourgeois and mundane morality. Similarly, the decadent often made ostentatious declarations of preference for the artificial and artistic, rather than ‘base’ naturalism, preferring (as did Baudelaire) the music-box to bird-song. The decadent’s interest in death and degeneration escalated as the century drew to a close, bringing with it a sense of foreboding threat to the enervated male (in contrast to the energy of the ‘new woman’ in these final decades). It was at this point that many decadents converted to Roman Catholicism.