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Queen Victoria’s Effect on Britain

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Published: Fri, 17 Aug 2018

Did Queen Victoria leave her subjects in a better condition in 1901 than when she found them in 1837?

The Victorian era was principally a time of change, of transience: the translocation of a people, challenged morally, socially and in their religious beliefs, as never before. Standing majestically above all this was the image of stability which Queen Victoria symbolised. The shift from the rural life of the eighteenth century and the Romantic Movement in the Arts which accompanied it was displaced and the population in the industrial towns and cities swelled to the point of overflowing, producing slums and sweatshops rather than the wealth and security that had been sought, with ‘the Age of the Novel’ involved with social issues as well as establishing a new literary genre. In 1837, when Victoria came to the throne, these changes had already begun and by the time her reign ended, in 1901, more was ahead particularly if one considers the ‘long nineteenth century’ which encompasses the pre-war years up to 1914. How far her people were in a ‘better condition’ by the end of Victoria’s reign will be the subject of this essay, looking at the idea via the different media of change evidenced in religion, literature, politics and related social issues as well as the Imperialism which the establishment of the British monarch as the first Empress of India established.

In many ways, it is true to say that Victoria presided over a Renaissance which had not been seen since her antecedent, Elizabeth, had been on the throne. The coincidence that a female monarch should have been in place at both times of regeneration does not, however, imply a connective: conditions were very different during Elizabeth’s reign, particularly in the area of social mobility and religious imperatives. The Victorian era saw the greatest challenges to both of these that had ever been seen.

The movement of the peasantry to the towns saw an enormous shift in both the physical location of the population and its imperatives. Much was lost, in terms of tradition and permanence when the move to the cities occurred because most of those who did relocate in the hope of increasing their meagre incomes had never been farther than the next village before they moved and this had been the case for generations. Indeed, as early as the mid-nineteenth century novelists were using the idea of the rural idyll to exemplify an ideal existence now lost[1]. This is evident in novels such as George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859) which was set some fifty years before it was written:

As he reached the foot of the slope, an elderly horseman, with his portmanteau strapped behind him, stopped his horse when Adam had passed him, and turned round to have another long look at the stalwart workman in paper cap, leather breeches, and dark-blue worsted stockings.[2]

The mounted, unidentified and detached observer (a connective with the contemporary reader) takes a ‘long look at the ‘stalwart workman’ in an elegiac emblem of the author’s intent within the novel to show a time now lost and the changes that were about to take place. Adam as a type of workman has been displaced and is no longer to be found and which represents a longing for a return to old times and old days associated with the countryside which can be traced to the present day and certainly becomes a primary informative, present in works such as Flora Thompson’s enduringly popular Larkrise to Candleford (1945) and further evidenced even in the work of such ‘scientific’ novelists as H.G. Wells in his novel, The History of Mr Polly, and the character of Leonard Bast as well as the evocative, mystical rural setting in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, both written in 1910.

The novel also introduces the character of a female preacher, a ‘Dissenter’, in other words a Methodist, and by combining the two, Eliot shows that despite the loss of the life portrayed in her novel, there were positive challenges which changes such as the growing desire for the emancipation of women, at the forefront of which was J.S. Mill[3], and the need to find new ways of expressing religious sensibility.

The ultimate challenge to religion, of course, was presented by the theories of evolution which were being formulated in the 1860s. Although Charles Darwin is credited with having discovered this, the work of such as Herbert Spencer, who actually coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ in his Principles of Biology (1864) which Darwin incorporated into a later edition of his own work, were also significant. Within his seminal The Origin of Species, first published in 1859, Darwin introduced to the wider public the then profoundly disturbing notion that man was not created entire and complete as the Bible relates but evolved and thus dispossessed an entire generation who had previously felt secure in the knowledge of God as their Creator (though Darwin uses this term himself many times within the work and does not deny the idea of a Creator directly[4]). It is a mistake, however, to assume that Darwin’s ideas had much immediate effect on the population at large. Rather, its immediate aftermath may be discerned in the literature of the time, George Eliot, a close friend of Spencer, amongst these. Moreover, his published theories were simply an affirmation for many of a growing generic scepticism, such as Thomas Hardy shows:

On the last day of the year [1901] he makes the following reflection: ‘After reading various philosophic systems, and being struck with their contradictions and futilities, I have come to this: Let every man make a philosophy for himself out of his own experience. He will not be able to escape using terms and phraseology from earlier philosophers, but let him avoid adopting their theories if he values his own mental life. Let him remember the fate of Coleridge, and save years of labour by working out his own views as given him by his surroundings.’[5]

However, just as the move from the towns to the cities subsequently produced a sense of loss, the disconnection with the certainty of divine creation also saw the longing for a mystical element to life once ‘the divine’ had, in a sense, been removed from it: seeking ‘an oasis of mystery in the dreary desert of knowledge’[6]. The disconnection resulted in the burgeoning of interest in Spiritualism which was witnessed at the end of the century, with personages as eminent and respected as Rudyard Kipling not only interested and involved with this but also writing about it in stories such as the mysterious ‘They’[7] and imagination came to be seen as connected to the divine and dislocated by Darwin’s discoveries, Forster wrote in 1910: ‘They collect facts and facts and empires of facts. But which of them will re-kindle the light within?’[8]

However, the connection of facts with the denial of imagination had been discussed much earlier by the man who is above anyone the voice of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens. In his novel of 1854, Hard Times, he demonstrates the denial of the importance of ‘fancy’ in Utilitarian educational methods and the pre-eminence of ‘facts’[9]. This he extends to the teaching methods used to train the teachers themselves:

He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. […] He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin and Greek. […] Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more![10]

Dickens the radical is less appreciated now than in his own time, as in subsequent centuries he has come to be seen simply as a master-story teller, which of course he was. However, this is to deny the way that Dickens, as evidenced in this satirical swipe at the Utilitarian movement, used his immense popularity in the cause of social reform. Indeed, in the early years of Victoria’s reign, he published his second and third novels, Oliver Twist (1837-9) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9). The first of these was concerned with the effects of the infamous ‘Poor Law’ and the 1834 amendment. It was widely believed that the abuse of this injured rather than helped the poor and Dickens’ novel was intended to bring that to the notice of those who had the power to do something about it, as well as reaching the newly literate lower echelons and letting them know they had someone who would speak for them, that their story, as Dickens remarked in his Preface to the 1867 edition, from thieves to prostitutes, was a ‘TRUTH’ that ‘needed to be told’[11]. As his friend and first biographer remarked:

His qualities could be appreciated as well as felt in an almost equal degree by all classes of his various readers.[12]

Thus, as the novelist is known to have said, by making people care about one child, he might make them care about the many and this emanated from his own sufferings as a child alone in London when his father was imprisoned for debt in the infamous Marshalsea (which was to provide the setting for his later novel, Little Dorrit, 1857, though the six hundred year old prison closed in 1842) whence he was accompanied by his wife and younger children[13]. Dickens never spoke of the experience, save through his fiction, nor did he ever forget it.

In Nicholas Nickleby and the creation of Dotheboys Hall, Dickens continued to exercise his creative power to bring to the attention of his readers the appalling social evil of the Yorkshire schools, whose abuses he remembered hearing of as a child and then investigated (whilst wearing a disguise) as part of his research for the novel. As the author said in his fragment of autobiography, ‘we should be devilish careful what we do to children’[14]. Dickens had a long memory and an acute social awareness and both are evident in Nickleby, as is the sheer exhilaration and appetite for life which had proved so popular in his first novel Pickwick Papers (1836-7). Moreover, Dickens was a successful reformer, commenting in his preface to the 1848 edition:

This story was begun, within a few months after the publication of the completed Pickwick Papers. There were, then, a good many cheap Yorkshire schools in existence. There are very few now.[15]

The fact is stated simply but the achievement was immense. The obverse of these schools, of course, was seen in Arnold’s pioneering work in reforming the public schools, as evidenced in Thomas Hughes’, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857).

The issue of social and educational reform was one with which many novelists were concerned at this time, engaging with both the needs and desires of the weakest in society. Engels had identified this as ‘the social war, the war of each against all’[16] and he applied this as a generic to the multiplicity of industrial towns and cities:

What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man’s house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together.[17]

Engels’ work was published between September 1844 and March 1845 and had an immediate effect on not just those who were, if one may term it so, ‘declared radicals’, like himself, but also those like the deeply ‘respectable’ and widely respected writer Elizabeth Gaskell, whose first novel, Mary Barton, written in 1848, partly to assuage the pain of losing her child, deals largely with the poverty experienced by the poor in Manchester. Gaskell, encouraged by both her husband, the Ereverend William Gaskell, and Dickens, researched the conditions of the city in which she and William were then living. What she found horrified her and the reality of expression present within the novel can be seen in her powerful descriptions of the slum dwellings she had seen:

Our friends were not dainty, but even they picked their way, till they got to some steps leading down to a small area, where a person standing would have his head about one foot below the level of the street, and might at the same time, without the least motion of his body, touch the window of the cellar and the damp muddy wall right opposite. You went down one step even from the foul area into the cellar in which a family of human beings lived. It was very dark inside. The window-panes many of them were broken and stuffed with rags, which was reason enough for the dusky light that pervaded the place even at mid-day. After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down.[18]

The importance of setting such descriptions in the context of fiction might be thought possibly to lessen its reality in the eyes of contemporary readers but nothing could be farther from the truth, as though few would be drawn to the admirable tracts of Engels, many were attracted to the vivid stories of such as Dickens and Gaskell. Indeed, Gaskell was careful always to ensure that her work did not offend those in power to the extent that she will qualify a passage on the uncaring attitude of the rich as perceived by the poor by adding placatory comments such as:

I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters: but what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks.[19]

The implied separation in comprehension may appear patronising by today’s standards but it must be remembered that Gaskell was truly attempting to do as she proclaimed, ‘impress’ the thoughts and feelings of ‘the workman’ on those in power in the hope it would aid reform. If she had been too directly challenging, they would simply not have read her works which would have defeated the object.

Gaskell faced similar opposition in her second novel, Ruth, published in 1853, when she addressed the topic of an unmarried mother sympathetically, much too sympathetically for the liking of many, who felt she was undermining the perceived moral and religious mores of the time. The novel was thought to be based upon the true story of a girl called Pasley:

In 1850 she took up the cause of a girl called Pasley whom she had come across in the New Bayley prison. In a long letter to Dickens, at that time involved in his emigration project for fallen women, she gives details of the case. Pasley’s career exemplifies the dangers facing even a girl of respectable parentage who was neglected. The daughter of an Irish clergyman who had died when she was two, she had been neglected by an indifferent mother, and then placed in an orphanage, before becoming a dressmaker’s apprentice. Following a series of misfortunes for which she had not herself been responsible she had been seduced by her own doctor. The consequence had been first the Penitentiary and then a career of petty crime; finally, by an appalling stroke of coincidence, the poor girl had been confronted when in prison by her very seducer, now acting as prison surgeon.[20]

Certainly, there are many similarities between the case of Pasley and that of Ruth and Gaskell’s clear intent is to show how difficult was the plight of girls in Ruth’s and Pasley’s situation. Gaskell successfully persuaded Dickens to intervene for Pasley and she emigrated but clearly the case was not forgotten by her as emblematic of the vulnerability of young girls in nineteenth century society. Indeed, she had already addressed the idea that prostitution was the usual fate of such girls in Mary Barton and the ‘petty crime’ to which she refers might certainly be euphemistically describing prostitution.

Attitudes towards prostitution were far from sympathetic and much of the reforming work done at the time concerned not only changing conditions for prostitutes but also in improving the notorious double-standard which operated towards it, both then and now. The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869 to some extent reflect this. The Act was established to protect soldiers but had the coincidental effect of advancing the cause of women’s liberation:

[…] legislation intended to protect members of the British armed forces from sexually transmitted diseases ended up galvanizing a major Victorian feminist movement in which working- and middle-class women worked together for a common cause.[21]

Thus, it can be seen that Gaskell’s pre-emptive strike truly reflected the feelings of many that Victorian laws operated for the protection of men rather than women and that even though there were exceptions, such as Mill and Dickens, the latter of whom set up Urania Cottage as a refuge for ‘fallen women’, the vast majority of the population preferred simply to ignore the suffering and anguish of girls on the streets. Somewhat ironically, compassion towards prostitutes was stirred by the infamous ‘Whitechapel Murders’ of 1888-91, perpetrated by the still unidentified ‘Jack the Ripper’.

Even for the so called ‘respectable’ working classes, indeed, in general conditions were appallingly bad, especially in the factories and sweatshops[22] which abounded both in London and elsewhere in the country: ‘The nineteenth century saw the Englishman turn town dweller and by 1900 three-quarters of the nation lived in towns’[23]. Bearing this in mind, it seems inevitable that conditions in these towns would be at best difficult and at worst unbearable (the infamous employment of children as, for example, chimney-sweeps, being evident in the work of such as the reformer Charles Kingsley who wrote The Water Babies in 1863 to expose this abuse). Thus, approaching the end of Victoria’s reign, the population was generally in a state of crisis.

However, there was a discernable exception to this, in part, in the beginning of what we would now take to be an upwardly mobile meritocracy. Consisting largely of those persons concerned with ‘white-collar work’, the clerk for example, this section of society knew a growth and freedom such as never before. Possibly the best example of this is to be found in George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody, first published in Punch as a series of articles during 1888-9, in the form of a diary of the fictional Mr. Pooter. The highly amusing work is also an invaluable record of a new type of man emerging in Victorian society:

My clear wife Carrie and I have just been a week in our new house, “The Laurels,” Brickfield Terrace, Holloway—a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour. We have a little front garden; and there is a flight of ten steps up to the front door, which, by-the-by, we keep locked with the chain up. Cummings, Gowing, and our other intimate friends always come to the little side entrance, which saves the servant the trouble of going up to the front door, thereby taking her from her work. We have a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway. We were rather afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took £2 off the rent. He was certainly right; and beyond the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience.[24]

The Pooters encapsulate the image of a new class, living in their own home, employing a servant, having a garden and yet still retaining their parsimonious connective with their humbler origins; in many ways, the Pooters are the future.

In conclusion, it may be remarked that the Victorian era saw the greatest period of change that had ever been seen. Industrial development saw riches and poverty in unequal measure; improvements were made in nursing and social concerns but the population mostly remained in poverty and both ill-nourished and inadequately cared for in terms of health; the trains united the country but the rural population was fragmented and the urban largely in dire circumstances; schooling was expanded and literacy improved but the standard of education was at best questionable; the Empire flourished but its members across the seas were mostly downtrodden, subjugated and rebellious: in short, to quote Dickens’ famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities (1859), ‘it was the best of times and the worst of times’. It is extremely difficult to assess, in the final analysis, whether the end of Victoria’s reign saw her people in a better or worse condition than when her reign began but certainly, the single most important development seen was the opportunity for change. In this sense if no other, the population was better off at the end of the long nineteenth century than at the beginning of it. However, the war that was about to devastate Europe brought apocalyptic changes which could never have been envisaged and certainly Tennyson’s famous reference in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854) to the fact that ‘Some one had blunder’d’ would take on a profoundly disturbing resonance from which the world over which Victoria presided would never recover. Truly, 1914 brought more than just the end of an era it brought the end of Victorian mores and the expectations of the population would alter radically, with revolution, such as occurred in Russia in 1917, a perpetual possibility, especially with the growth of the unions and the Socialist Party, which wiped out the Liberals. Victoria’s reign was not just one age but many and as such, like most eras, was both good and bad.


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[1] For more on the idea of changes and loss of traditions see: Sturt, George. Change in the Village. London: Caliban Books, 1984. (First published in 1912.)

[2] Eliot, George. Adam Bede. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 12.

[3] See: Mill, J.S. The Subjection of Women. New York: Prometheus, 1986.

[4] Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[5] Hardy, F.E. The Life of Thomas Hardy. London: Macmillan, 1962, p. 310.

[6] Eliot, George. The Lifted Veil. 1878. London: Virago Press, 1985, p. 26.

[7] Kipling, Rudyard. Traffics and Dicoveries. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904, p. 337.

[8] Forster, E.M. Howards End. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987, p. 43.

[9] Dickens, C. Hard Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 8-9.

[10] Dickens, C. Hard Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 10.

[11] Dickens, C. Oliver Twist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, Preface, p. xx.

[12] Forster, J. The Life of Charles Dickens in Two Volumes. London: J.M. Dent, 1980, vol. I, p. 83.

[13] Forster, J. The Life of Charles Dickens in Two Volumes. London: J.M. Dent, 1980.

[14] Forster, J. The Life of Charles Dickens in Two Volumes. London: J.M. Dent, 1980.

[15] Dickens, C. Nicholas Nickleby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, Preface to the 1848 Edition, Lii.

[16] Englels, F. The Condition of the Working class in England (1844): 29.11.08.


[17] Englels, F. The Condition of the Working class in England (1844): 29.11.08.


[18] Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993, pp. 79-80.

[19] Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993, p. 49.

[20] See Alan Shelston’s introduction to: Gaskell, Elizabeth. Ruth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. vii-viii.

[21] See: ‘The Contagious Diseases Act’, accessed 30.11.08. <http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/contagious.html>

[22] See: Mayhew, Henry. The Unknown Mayhew. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

[23] Mathias, P. The First Industrial Nation. London: Routledge, 2001, p. 226.

[24] Grossmith, G & M. The Diary of a Nobody. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 3.

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