The Reality of Victorianism 

Popular ideas about the Victorians and attitudes toward their age change as it recedes into the past. Modern writers who were trying to free themselves from the massive embrace of their predecessors often saw the Victorians chiefly as repressed, over-confident, and thoroughly philistine. The confidence certainly was there! As Robert Furneaux Jordan points out, "The architecture of the Victorian Age tells us more about the men who made it than does any other architecture in history. It made such very definite statements about life; it was all so self-assured and vulgar, that it never leaves us in doubt. It never diluted itself - as has our architecture - with inhibitions about style or taste. The Victorian architect knew what he wanted to do and, good or bad, he did it. (Victorian Architecture, 19)
Jordan also points out that popular notions of Victorian life as cosy and picturesque hardly fit the hurly burly of Victorian reality: That earnest world of Tractarian parsons and Oxford common-rooms, that world of Hardy's peasants buried deep in English shires, did really exist. Of course it did. But it was not very important. By and large Victorian England was a tremendously virile and very terrible affair. If we strip away the gadgets and fashions, Victorian England was not unlike the United States today. There was the same unblinking worship of independence and of hard cash; there was the same belief in institutions -- patriotism, democracy, individualism, organized religion, philanthropy, sexual morality, the family, capitalism and progress; the same overwhelming self-confidence, with its concomitant - a novel and adventurous architecture. And, at the core, was the same tiny abscess - - the nagging guilt as to the inherent contradiction between the morality and the system.
Jordan, an obviously polemical author, to some degree slants his argument, but assuming that he is largely correct, what does that tell us about the Victorian authors you have read? Does Dickens chiefly support Jordan's view of the age? Which others do not, or at least seem to write works in opposition to the kind of age that Jordan describes?


ã George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University.