|The Crystal Palace Exhibition in England in 1851.|
The Victorian World Picture
by David Newsome
Rutgers University Press
Like the difference between indie bands and major label bands there is usually some "reason" that a book on an academic subject is published by a university press OTHER then Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. Writing style, lack of originality, obtuse subject are all reasons why a larger academic press might reject a manuscript and a smaller press might publish. Not that Rutgers is a slouch university press, but it took me about 6 weeks to read this 250 page book because it was so, so boring. But: Informative.
|The Chartist Demonstration of 1848: This is also generally considered to be the first news photograph.|
It's appropriate to identify with the Victorians because they faced a similar situation: A rapidly changing world brought about scientific/technological change and the spill-over that change wrought in every aspect of human existence.
The specific "aspect of human existence" that interests me in the context of this blog is the development of a mass audience for cultural products: Books, Music, Paintings, Sculpture ETC. The very first secular mass audience just so happened to develop in England during the early Victorian Period. Books were fortunate because the technology required to manufacture and sell books to a mass Audience actually existed before demographic expansion brought about an Audience large enough to buy books in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Compare that to Music, where the phonograph was not even invented until the end of the 19th century, or Film, where the invention date is in the 20th century. Books were there before the Audience was.
|Black Friday... in 1866. Many of the events of the so-called Modern world have been happening over and over again since the mid 19th century- financial panics not the least of them.|
Although I personally only read Novels from that period, Novels were not the only popular form of literature that existed in Mass form- sermons abounded, pamphlets, newspapers and magazines- all forms of literature obtained a mass audience essentially at the exact same point and time. The sole and primary reason for the existence of this new mass audience is the increase in population in the United Kingdom between the mid 18th century and the mid 19th century:
"It is clear that the increase began in the middle years of the eighteenth century, accelerated from about 1770, and moved into top gear between 1801 and 1851, when the population of England and Wales rose from nearly 9 million to about 18 million. It continues to rise thereafter, but at a slightly slower rate, reaching 23 million in 1871."
In terms of sheer numbers, there you have it- less then 10 million people in the 1770s and more then 20 million people 100 years later. That fact in and of itself demonstrates how novels, starting in the 1840s, could become international sensations and sell tens of thousands of copies- and even think to sell one hundred thousand copies- there were just a lot more people to buy them. All of the other explanations for the new mass audience for culture simply fill in the shadows behind the main figure.
|Girton College Fire Brigade: When Cambridge University let women in they had to live so far away they needed to form their own Fire brigade because the main one wouldn't be able to get there in time.|
An interesting part of this mass audience was the audience that developed during the Victorian period for ideas themselves and ideas about the "state of society." This audience was not a "Mass Audience" in the sense that the audience for Harriet Beacher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was a mass audience, but it existed and it's interesting to compare THEIR ideas about themselves to OUR ideas about ourselves.
The Victorians hey day was roughly 1850 through the 1890s. Queen Victoria herself didn't die until the 20th century, but all of the the ideas that made Victorians think of themselves as Victorian were in eclipse by the 1890s to be replaced with the components of Modernism- specifically fin de siecle malaise and a more robust national identity.
During this period, Victorians agreed that "they" were Victorian and called themselves that, but endlessly argued about what it meant to be "them" and who "they" were. Much of the importance materials that were written on this subject during this period were influenced by Darwin and the Theory of Evolution, and the impact that had on the role of religion in society. Specifically, Darwin was the catalyst that gave secularists the upper hand in the protracted struggle between science and religion.
The Victorians manufactured hundreds of thinkers who struggled mightily with what Darwinism meant for organized Religion. Victorian thinkers also yearned to move backwards to a simpler time the idea of romanticizing history is something that played a huge role in the formation of Victorian thinkers but was itself out of fashion during the Victorian period itself.
The books of Sir Walter Scott- so critical in the very creation of this hugely influential "Romantic Historical Complex" were out of fashion and unpopular during the 1850-1890s. Similarly, the perception of an obsession with rectitude and morality that so often characterizes the Victorian period in the mind of people today needs to be understood in the context of a struggle where the moralists felt like they were on the defense and fighting a rear guard action against the swelling lower classes and their collaborators in the upper classes. Within this struggle the role of the established Anglican clergy played a role that is hard for a modern American to understand.
The Anglican Church was funded by the state, and lower level aristocrats and university graduates gravitated towards these paid, lifetime positions the way graduate students gravitate towards tenured professorships. Further, these positions were spread throughout the country and not clustered in London. Therefore, these individuals were both agents for the sides of morality and those who wanted change- often at the same time- and often they were one of handful of people in more rural areas that actually cared about these subjects.
The biggest difference between the Victorian World Picture and our own is the role of Religion- much bigger then, not so big- but still important today. However the similarities- a mass Audience grappling with the troubling aspects of rapid technological change and its corresponding impact on all aspects of human existence- far outweigh the differences.