Chapter XI. Period IX. The Victorian Period. About 1830 To 1901
GENERAL CONDITIONS. The last completed period of English literature, almost coincident in extent with the reign of the queen whose name it bears
(Victoria, queen 1837-1901), stands nearly beside The Elizabethan period in the significance and interest of its work. The Elizabethan literature to be sure, in its imaginative and spiritual enthusiasm, is the expression of a period more profoundly great than the Victorian; but the Victorian literature speaks for an age which witnessed incomparably greater changes than any that had gone before in all the conditions of life--material comforts, scientific knowledge, and, absolutely speaking, in intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. Moreover, to twentieth century students the Victorian literature makes a specially strong appeal because it is in part the literature of our own time and its ideas and point of view are in large measure ours. We must begin by glancing briefly at some of the general determining changes and conditions to which reference has just been made, and we may naturally begin with the merely material ones.
Before the accession of Queen Victoria the 'industrial revolution,' the vast development of manufacturing made possible in the latter part of the eighteenth century by the introduction of coal and the steam engine, had rendered England the richest nation in the world, and the movement continued with steadily accelerating momentum throughout the period. Hand in hand with it went the increase of population from less than thirteen millions in England in 1825 to nearly three times as many at the end of the period. The introduction of the steam railway and the steamship, at the beginning of the period, in place of the lumbering stagecoach and the sailing vessel, broke up the old stagnant and stationary habits of life and increased the amount of travel at least a thousand times. The discovery of the electric telegraph in 1844 brought almost every important part of Europe, and eventually of the world, nearer to every town dweller than the nearest county had been in the eighteenth century; and the development of the modern newspaper out of the few feeble sheets of 1825 (dailies and weeklies in London, only weeklies elsewhere), carried full accounts of the doings of the whole world, in place of long-delayed fragmentary rumors, to every door within a few hours. No less striking was the progress in public health and the increase in human happiness due to the enormous advance in the sciences of medicine, surgery, and hygiene. Indeed these sciences in their modern form virtually began with the discovery of the facts of bacteriology about 1860, and the use of antiseptics fifteen years later, and not much earlier began the effective opposition to the frightful epidemics which had formerly been supposed to be dependent only on the will of Providence.
Political and social progress, though less astonishing, was substantial. In
1830 England, nominally a monarchy, was in reality a plutocracy of about a hundred thousand men--landed nobles, gentry, and wealthy merchants--whose privileges dated back to fifteenth century conditions. The first Reform Bill, of 1832, forced on Parliament by popular pressure, extended the right of voting to men of the 'middle class,' and the subsequent bills of 1867 and 1885 made it universal for men. Meanwhile the House of Commons slowly asserted itself against the hereditary House of Lords, and thus England became perhaps the most truly democratic of the great nations of the world. At the beginning of the period the social condition of the great body of the population was extremely bad. Laborers in factories and mines and on farms were largely in a state of virtual though not nominal slavery, living, many of them, in unspeakable moral and physical conditions. Little by little improvement came, partly by the passage of laws, partly by the growth of trades-unions. The substitution in the middle of the century of free-trade for protection through the passage of the 'Corn-Laws' afforded much relief by lowering the price of food. Socialism, taking shape as a definite movement in the middle of the century, became one to be reckoned with before its close, though the majority of the more well-to-do classes failed to understand even then the growing necessity for far-reaching economic and social changes. Humanitarian consciousness, however, gained greatly during the period. The middle and upper classes awoke to some extent to their duty to the poor, and sympathetic benevolent effort, both organized and informal, increased very largely in amount and intelligence. Popular education, too, which in 1830 had no connection with the State and was in every respect very incomplete, was developed and finally made compulsory as regards the rudiments.
Still more permanently significant, perhaps, was the transformation of the former conceptions of the nature and meaning of the world and life, through the discoveries of science. Geology and astronomy now gradually compelled all thinking people to realize the unthinkable duration of the cosmic processes and the comparative littleness of our earth in the vast extent of the universe. Absolutely revolutionary for almost all lines if thought was the gradual adoption by almost all thinkers of the theory of Evolution, which, partly formulated by Lamarck early in the century, received definite statement in 1859 in Charles Darwin's 'Origin of Species.' The great modification in the externals of religious belief thus brought about was confirmed also by the growth of the science of historical criticism.
This movement of religious change was met in its early stages by the very interesting reactionary 'Oxford' or 'Tractarian' Movement, which asserted the supreme authority of the Church and its traditional doctrines. The most important figure in this movement, who connects it definitely with literature, was John Henry Newman (1801-90), author of the hymn 'Lead, Kindly Light,' a man of winning personality and great literary skill. For fifteen years, as vicar of the Oxford University Church, Newman was a great spiritual force in the English communion, but the series of 'Tracts for the Times' to which he largely contributed, ending in 1841 in the famous Tract
90, tell the story of his gradual progress toward Rome. Thereafter as an avowed Roman Catholic and head of a monastic establishment Newman showed himself a formidable controversialist, especially in a literary encounter with the clergyman-novelist Charles Kingsley which led to Newman's famous
'Apologia pro Vita Sua' (Apology for My Life), one of the secondary literary masterpieces of the century. His services to the Catholic Church were recognized in 1879 by his appointment as a Cardinal. More than one of the influences thus hastily surveyed combine in creating the moral, social, and intellectual strenuousness which is one of the main marks of the literature of the period. More conspicuously than ever before the majority of the great writers, not least the poets and novelists, were impelled not merely by the emotional or dramatic creative impulse but by the sense of a message for their age which should broaden the vision and elevate the ideals of the masses of their fellows. The literature of the period, therefore, lacks the disinterested and joyous spontaneity of, for example, the Elizabethan period, and its mood is far more complex than that of the partly socially-minded pseudo-classicists.
While all the new influences were manifesting themselves in Victorian literature they did not, of course, supersede the great general inherited tendencies. This literature is in the main romantic. On the social side this should be evident; the Victorian social humanitarianism is merely the developed form of the eighteenth century romantic democratic impulse. On the esthetic side the romantic traits are also present, though not so aggressively as in the previous period; with romantic vigor the Victorian literature often combines exquisite classical finish; indeed, it is so eclectic and composite that all the definite older terms take on new and less sharply contrasting meanings when applied to it.
So long a period naturally falls into sub-divisions; during its middle part in particular, progress and triumphant romanticism, not yet largely attacked by scientific scepticism, had created a prevailing atmosphere of somewhat passive sentiment and optimism both in society and in literature which has given to the adjective 'mid-Victorian' a very definite denotation. The adjective and its period are commonly spoken of with contempt in our own day by those persons who pride themselves on their complete sophistication and superiority to all intellectual and emotional weakness. But during the 'mid-Victorian' years, there was also a comparative healthiness in the lives of the well-to-do classes and in literature which had never before been equalled and which may finally prove no less praiseworthy than the rather self-conscious freedom and unrestraint of the early twentieth century.
The most important literature of the whole period falls under the three heads of essays, poetry, and prose fiction, which we may best consider in that order.
LORD MACAULAY. The first great figure, chronologically, in the period, and one of the most clearly-defined and striking personalities in English literature, is Thomas Babington Macaulay, [Footnote: The details of Macaulay's life are known from the; famous biography of him by his nephew, Sir George Trevelyan.] who represents in the fullest degree the Victorian vigor and delight in material progress, but is quite untouched by the Victorian spiritual striving. The descendant of Scottish ministers and English Quakers, Macaulay was born in 1800. His father was a tireless and devoted member of the group of London anti-slavery workers (Claphamites), and was Secretary of the company which conducted Sierra Leone (the African state for enfranchised negroes); he had also made a private fortune in African trade. From his very babyhood the son displayed almost incredible intellectual precocity and power of memory. His voracious reading began at the age of three, when he 'for the most part lay on the rug before the fire, with his book on the floor, and a piece of bread-and-butter in his hand.' Once, in his fifth year, when a servant had spilled an urn of hot coffee over his legs, he replied to the distressed inquiries of the lady of the house, 'Thank you, madam, the agony is abated.' From the first it seems to have been almost impossible for him to forget anything which had ever found lodgment in, or even passed through, his mind. His childish production of both verse and prose was immense. These qualities and accomplishments, however, did not make him a prig. Both as child and as man, though he was aggressive and showed the prejudices of his class, he was essentially natural and unaffected; and as man he was one of the most cordial and affectionate of companions, lavish of his time with his friends, and one of the most interesting of conversationalists. As he grew toward maturity he proved unique in his manner, as well as in his power, of reading. It is said that he read books faster than other people skimmed them, and skimmed them as fast as any one else could turn the leaves, this, however, without superficiality. One of the habits of his middle life was to walk through London, even the most crowded parts, 'as fast as other people walked, and reading a book a great deal faster than anybody else could read.' His remarkable endowments, however, were largely counterbalanced by his deficiency in the spiritual sense. This appears most seriously in his writings, but it shows itself also in his personal tastes. For Nature he cared little; like Dr. Johnson he 'found London the place for him.' One occasion when he remarked on the playing of 'God save the Queen' is said to have been the only one when he ever appeared to distinguish one tune from another. Even on the material side of life he had limitations very unusual in an English gentleman. Except for walking, which might almost be called a main occupation with him, he neither practised nor cared for any form of athletic exercise, 'could neither swim nor row nor drive nor skate nor shoot,' nor scarcely ride.
From private schools Macaulay proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained through the seven years required for the Master's degree. In spite of his aversion for mathematics, he finally won a 'lay' fellowship, which did not involve residence at the University nor any other obligation, but which almost sufficed for his support during the seven years of its duration. At this time his father failed in his business, and during several years Macaulay was largely occupied with the heavy task of reestablishing it and paying the creditors. In college he had begun to write in prose and verse for the public literary magazines, and in 1825 appeared his essay on Milton, the first of the nearly forty literary, historical, and biographical essays which during the next thirty years or more he contributed to 'The Edinburgh Review.' He also nominally studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1826, but he took no interest in the profession. In 1828 he was made a Commissioner of Bankruptcy and in 1830 he attained the immediate object of his ambition by receiving from a nobleman who controlled it a seat in Parliament. Here he at once distinguished himself as orator and worker. Heart and soul a Liberal, he took a prominent part in the passage of the first Reform Bill, of 1832, living at the same time a busy social life in titled society. The Ministry rewarded his services with a position on the Board of Control, which represented the government in its relations with the East India Company, and in 1834, in order to earn the fortune which seemed to him essential to his continuance in the unremunerative career of public life, he accepted the position of legal adviser to the Supreme Council of India, which carried with it a seat in that Council and a salary of L10,000 a year. During the three months voyage to India he 'devoured' and in many cases copiously annotated a vast number of books in 'Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, and English; folios, quartos, octavos, and duodecimos.' Under the pressure of actual necessity he now mastered the law, and the most important parts of the astonishing mass of work that he performed during his three and a half years in India consisted in redrafting the penal code and in helping to organize education.
Soon after his return to England he was elected to Parliament as member for Edinburgh, and for two years he was in the Cabinet. Somewhat later the publication of his 'Lays of Ancient Rome' and of his collected essays brought him immense fame as a writer, and in 1847 his defeat at Edinburgh for reelection to Parliament gave him time for concentrated labor on the
'History of England' which he had already begun as his crowning work. To it he thenceforth devoted most of his energies, reading and sifting the whole mass of available source-material and visiting the scenes of the chief historical events. The popular success of the five volumes which he succeeded in preparing and published at intervals was enormous. In 1852 he was reelected to Parliament at Edinburgh, but ill-health resulting from his long-continued excessive expenditure of energy warned him that he had not long to live. He was made a baron in 1857 and died in 1859, deeply mourned both because of his manly character and because with him perished mostly unrecorded a knowledge of the facts of English history more minute, probably, than that of any one else who has ever lived.
Macaulay never married, but, warm-hearted as he was, always lived largely in his affection for his sisters and for the children of one of them, Lady Trevelyan. In his public life he displayed as an individual a fearless and admirable devotion to principle, modified somewhat by the practical politician's devotion to party. From every point of view, his character was remarkable, though bounded by his very definite limitations.
Least noteworthy among Macaulay's works are his poems, of which the 'Lays of Ancient Rome' are chief. Here his purpose is to embody his conception of the heroic historical ballads which must have been current among the early Romans as among the medieval English--to recreate these ballads for modern readers. For this sort of verse Macaulay's temperament was precisely adapted, and the 'Lays' present the simple characters, scenes, and ideals of the early Roman republican period with a sympathetic vividness and in stirring rhythms which give them an unlimited appeal to boys. None the less the 'Lays' really make nothing else so clear as that in the true sense of the word Macaulay was not at all a poet. They show absolutely nothing of the finer feeling which adds so much, for example, to the descriptions in Scott's somewhat similar romances, and they are separated by all the breadth of the world from the realm of delicate sensation and imagination to which Spenser and Keats and all the genuine poets are native-born.
The power of Macaulay's prose works, as no critic has failed to note, rests on his genius as an orator. For oratory he was rarely endowed. The composition of a speech was for him a matter of a few hours; with almost preternatural mental activity he organized and sifted the material, commonly as he paced up and down his garden or his room; then, the whole ready, nearly verbatim, in his mind, he would pass to the House of Commons to hold his colleagues spell-bound during several hours of fervid eloquence. Gladstone testified that the announcement of Macaulay's intention to speak was 'like a trumpet call to fill the benches.' The great qualities, then, of his essays and his 'History' are those which give success to the best sort of popular oratory--dramatic vividness and clearness, positiveness, and vigorous, movement and interest. He realizes characters and situations, on the external side, completely, and conveys his impression to his readers with scarcely any diminution of force. Of expository structure he is almost as great a master as Burke, though in his essays and 'History' the more concrete nature of his material makes him prevailingly a narrator. He sees and presents his subjects as wholes, enlivening them with realistic details and pictures, but keeping the subordinate parts subordinate and disposing of the less important events in rapid summaries. Of clear and trenchant, though metallic, narrative and expository style he is a master. His sentences, whether long or short, are always lucid; he knows the full value of a short sentence suddenly snapped out after a prolonged period; and no other writer has ever made such' frequent and striking (though somewhat monotonous) use of deliberate oratorical balance of clauses and strong antithesis, or more illuminating use of vivid resumes. The best of his essays, like those on the Earl of Chatham and on the two men who won India for England, Clive and Warren Hastings, are models of the comparatively brief comprehensive dissertation of the form employed by Johnson in his 'Lives of the Poets.'
Macaulay, however, manifests the, defects even of his virtues. His positiveness, fascinating and effective as it is for an uncritical reader, carries with it extreme self-confidence and dogmatism, which render him violently intolerant of any interpretations of characters and events except those that he has formed, and formed sometimes hastily and with prejudice. The very clearness and brilliancy of his style are often obtained at the expense of real truth; for the force of his sweeping statements and his balanced antitheses often requires much heightening or even distortion of the facts; in making each event and each character stand out in the plainest outline he has often stripped it of its background of qualifying circumstances. These specific limitations, it will be evident, are outgrowths of his great underlying deficiency--the deficiency in spiritual feeling and insight. Macaulay is a masterly limner of the external side of life, but he is scarcely conscious of the interior world in which the finer spirits live and work out their destinies. Carlyle's description of his appearance is significant: 'I noticed the homely Norse features that you find everywhere in the Western Isles, and I thought to myself, "Well, any one can see that you are an honest, good sort of fellow, made out of oatmeal." Macaulay's eminently clear, rapid, and practical mind comprehended fully and respected whatever could be seen and understood by the intellect; things of more subtle nature he generally disbelieved in or dismissed with contempt. In dealing with complex or subtle characters he cannot reveal the deeper spiritual motives from which their action sprang; and in his view of history he does not include the underlying and controlling spiritual forces. Macaulay was the most brilliant of those whom the Germans have named Philistines, the people for whom life consists of material things; specifically he was the representative of the great body of middle-class early-Victorian liberals, enthusiastically convinced that in the triumphs of the Liberal party, of democracy, and of mechanical invention, the millennium was being rapidly realized. Macaulay wrote a fatal indictment of himself when in praising Bacon as the father of modern science he depreciated Plato, the idealist. Plato's philosophy, said Macaulay, 'began in words and ended in words,' and he added that 'an acre in Middlesex is better than a peerage in Utopia.' In his literary and personal essays, therefore, such as the famous ones on Milton and Bacon, which belong early in his career, all his immense reading did not suffice to produce sympathetic and sensitive judgments; there is often more pretentiousness of style than significance of interpretation. In later life he himself frankly expressed regret that he had ever written these essays.
Macaulay's 'History of England' shows to some degree the same faults as the essays, but here they are largely corrected by the enormous labor which he devoted to the work. His avowed purpose was to combine with scientific accuracy the vivid picturesqueness of fiction, and to 'supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies.' His method was that of an unprecedented fulness of details which produces a crowded pageant of events and characters extremely minute but marvelously lifelike. After three introductory chapters which sketch the history of England down to the death of Charles II, more than four large volumes are occupied with the following seventeen years; and yet Macaulay had intended to continue to the death of George IV, nearly a hundred and thirty years later. For absolute truthfulness of detail the 'History' cannot always be depended on, but to the general reader its great literary merits are likely to seem full compensation for its inaccuracies.
THOMAS CARLYLE. The intense spiritual striving which was so foreign to Macaulay's practical nature first appears among the Victorians in the Scotsman Thomas Carlyle, a social and religious prophet, lay-preacher, and prose-poet, one of the most eccentric but one of the most stimulating of all English writers. The descendant of a warlike Scottish Border clan and the son of a stone-mason who is described as 'an awful fighter,' Carlyle was born in 1795 in the village of Ecclefechan, just across the line from England, and not far from Burns' county of Ayr. His fierce, intolerant, melancholy, and inwardly sensitive spirit, together with his poverty, rendered him miserable throughout his school days, though he secured, through his father's sympathy, a sound elementary education. He tramped on foot the ninety miles from Ecclefechan to Edinburgh University, and remained there for four years; but among the subjects of study he cared only for mathematics, and he left at the age of seventeen without receiving a degree. From this time for many years his life was a painful struggle, a struggle to earn his living, to make a place in the world, and to find himself in the midst of his spiritual doubts and the physical distress caused by lifelong dyspepsia and insomnia. For some years and in various places he taught school and received private pupils, for very meager wages, latterly in Edinburgh, where he also did literary hack-work. He had planned at first to be a minister, but the unorthodoxy of his opinions rendered this impossible; and he also studied law only to abandon it. One of the most important forces in this period of his slow preparation was his study of German and his absorption of the idealistic philosophy of Kant, Schelling, and Fichte, of the broad philosophic influence of Goethe, and the subtile influence of Richter. A direct result was his later very fruitful continuation of Coleridge's work in turning the attention of Englishmen to German thought and literature. In 1821 he passed through a sudden spiritual crisis, when as he was traversing Leith Walk in Edinburgh his then despairing view of the Universe as a soulless but hostile mechanism all at once gave way to a mood of courageous self-assertion. He afterward looked on this experience as a spiritual new birth, and describes it under assumed names at the end of the great chapter in 'Sartor Resartus' on 'The Everlasting No.'
In 1825 his first important work, a 'Life of Schiller,' was published, and in 1826 he was married to Miss Jane Welsh. She was a brilliant but quiet woman, of social station higher than his; for some years he had been acting as counselor in her reading and intellectual development. No marriage in English Literature has been more discussed, a result, primarily, of the publication by Carlyle's friend and literary executor, the historian J. A. Froude, of Carlyle's autobiographical Reminiscences and Letters. After Mrs. Carlyle's death Carlyle blamed himself bitterly for inconsiderateness toward her, and it is certain that his erratic and irritable temper, partly exasperated by long disappointment and by constant physical misery, that his peasant-bred lack of delicacy, and his absorption in his work, made a perpetual and vexatious strain on Mrs. Carlyle's forbearance throughout the forty years of their life together. The evidence, however, does not show that the marriage was on the whole really unfortunate or indeed that it was not mainly a happy one.
For six years beginning in 1828 the Carlyles lived on (though they did not themselves carry on) the lonely farm of Craigenputtock, the property of Mrs. Carlyle. This was for both of them a period of external hardship, and they were chiefly dependent on the scanty income from Carlyle's laborious work on periodical essays (among which was the fine-spirited one on Burns). Here Carlyle also wrote the first of his chief works, 'Sartor Resartus,' for which, in 1833-4, he finally secured publication, in 'Fraser's Magazine,' to the astonishment and indignation of most of the readers. The title means 'The Tailor Retailored,' and the book purports to be an account of the life of a certain mysterious German, Professor Teufelsdrockh
(pronounced Toyfelsdreck) and of a book of his on The Philosophy of Clothes. Of course this is allegorical, and Teufelsdrockh is really Carlyle, who, sheltering himself under the disguise, and accepting only editorial responsibility, is enabled to narrate his own spiritual struggles and to enunciate his deepest convictions, sometimes, when they are likely to offend his readers, with a pretense of disapproval. The Clothes metaphor
(borrowed from Swift) sets forth the central mystical or spiritual principle toward which German philosophy had helped Carlyle, the idea, namely, that all material things, including all the customs and forms of society, such as government and formalized religion, are merely the comparatively insignificant garments of the spiritual reality and the spiritual life on which men should center their attention. Even Time and Space and the whole material world are only the shadows of the true Reality, the spiritual Being that cannot perish. Carlyle has learned to repudiate, and he would have others repudiate, 'The Everlasting No,' the materialistic attitude of unfaith in God and the spiritual world, and he proclaims 'The Everlasting Yea,' wherein are affirmed, the significance of life as a means of developing character and the necessity of accepting life and its requirements with manly self-reliance and moral energy. 'Seek not Happiness,' Carlyle cries, 'but Blessedness. Love not pleasure; love God.'
This is the central purport of the book. In the second place and as a natural corollary Carlyle vigorously denounces, throughout, all shams and hypocrisies, the results of inert or dishonest adherence to outgrown ideas or customs. He attacks, for instance, all empty ostentation; war, as both foolish and wicked; and the existing condition of society with its terrible contrast between the rich and the poor.
Again, he urges still a third of the doctrines which were to prove most characteristic of him, that Gospel of Work which had been proclaimed so forcibly, from different premises, five hundred years before by those other uncompromising Puritans, the authors of 'Piers Plowman.' In courageous work, Carlyle declares, work whether physical or mental, lies the way of salvation not only for pampered idlers but for sincere souls who are perplexed and wearied with over-much meditation on the mysteries of the universe, 'Be no, longer a Chaos,' he urges, 'but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal, fraction of a Product, produce it, in God's name! 'Tis the utmost thou hast in thee: out with it, then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.'
It will probably now be evident that the mainspring of the undeniable and volcanic power of 'Sartor Resartus' (and the same is true of Carlyle's other chief works) is a tremendous moral conviction and fervor. Carlyle is eccentric and perverse--more so in 'Sartor Resartus' than elsewhere--but he is on fire with his message and he is as confident as any Hebrew prophet that it is the message most necessary for his generation. One may like him or be repelled by him, but a careful reader cannot remain unmoved by his personality and his ideas.
One of his most striking eccentricities is the remarkable style which he deliberately invented for 'Sartor Resartus' and used thenceforth in all his writings (though not always in so extreme a form). Some of the specific peculiarities of this style are taken over, with exaggeration, from German usage; some are Biblical or other archaisms; others spring mainly from Carlyle's own amazing mind. His purpose in employing, in the denunciation of shams and insincerities, a form itself so far removed from directness and simplicity was in part, evidently, to shock people into attention; but after all, the style expresses appropriately his genuine sense of the incoherence and irony of life, his belief that truth can be attained only by agonizing effort, and his contempt for intellectual and spiritual commonplaceness.Next