Introductory Remarks on Victorian Literature and Its Context
Nineteenth century English literature was very diverse, and among the more impressive literatures within one period England produced, with a possible competitor in Renaissance English. The Victorian period covers 64 years, longer than the average Victorian lifespan.
England changed during this period from an essentially agrarian nation to the wealthiest industrial and imperialist power in the world, but the shift was attended by massive poverty and attendant social problems--rapid urbanization, disease, filth and pollution, a high mortality rate, illiteracy, immiseration, unrest and repression.
The population of Great Britain increased from 11 million in 1811 to 32 million in 1870 (of which 21,500 were in England and the rest in Scotland, Wales and Ireland), and to 42 million by the end of the century. London became the largest city in Europe, with its population of around 1 million in 1812 rising to more than 3 million by 1870. With no advance planning for sanitation or limitation of crowding, this explosion of population caused compounded problems of health, uncleanliness and crime.
In literature, among other things, this is the period of the rise of a mass audience for newspapers, fiction, and other forms of reading matter, and the century of the respectabilization of the novel.
At the beginning of the century novels were considered an inferior genre, and highly educated persons preferred to write poetry. By the end of this century of great popular novelists such as Dickens and Bronte, the novel was at least valued for its potential artistry; in the intervening decades, of course, it has even become the genre of academic choice.
In a related phenomenon, the 19th century was an era of great women novelists; women were less likely to receive the classical education considered appropriate for successful poets, and were more accepted as authors of fiction than of other genres (with some qualifications and some differences in markets).
Before the beginning of the century, sentimental and gothic novels constituted the bulk of fiction, but at the turn of the century and directly afterwards, Maria Edgeworth, Walter Scott, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley extended these genres into historical and multi-generational works.
The Victorian period saw an explosion in the number of great novelists--Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Gissing, Meredith, the Brontes, Gaskell, Eliot, Hardy, Schreiner, Moore, Grand--and in novels which combined social and psychological analysis.
The best novels combined both of these forms of analysis--of the novels we read, each represents one of these polarities (WH, FH).
Many "romances" and pastorals were written during the period, as were fairy stories, mythological tales and literature for children; and in a related genre, utopias such as News from Nowhere combined elements of the pastoral romance, travel account, time-travel narrative and social critique.
The novels of the period are generally somewhat nostalgic in presenting a more rural England than its inhabitants experienced; the city is usually seen as a place of evil and unhappiness, in contrast to the cohesion or fixed order of a past agarian society (as in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, George Eliot's Silas Marner, or Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles).
There were several social determinants of authorship. Most highly reputed authors received an upper-middle class education (the upper-middle-class was defined in 1840 as 1% of the population; the middle-class as 5%; at least half of the urban population worked as servants). Class distinctions were always important in the response authors received--Keats, for example, was forced to study the classics on his own, and was criticized for this; at the end of the cenury Hardy was very conscious of his lack of a university education, and wrote his greatest novel Jude the Obscure about a young man's disappointment at his educational and social marginality.
The essay was a popular form. Victorians bought and read sermons, and writers couched social and ethical criticism in the form of history and art criticism.
The period brought a rise in consciously autobiographical modes of writing--in autobiographies (J. H. Newman, John Stuart Mill, Harriet Martineau, Anthony Trollope, Charles Darwin); novels (George Eliot's Mill on the Floss; Charles Dickens' David Copperfield); and poetry ("In Memoriam,").
In poetry, Victorians admired their Romantic predecessors, among them Byron (whose autobiographical pyrotechnics were seen as passionate but melodramatic) and Wordsworth, the poet of rural independence and individual meditation within nature.
Its poetry was lyrical, musical, and highly varied in meter and diction. Often poems placed an external or more realistic frame around an inner or romantic vision, used oblique and multiple narrators, and projections into the past and future, mingling irony, direct emotion, detachment and sympathy.
In art, social groups or settings were portrayed with vivid romantic coloration and sentiment. The Pre-Raphaelites were a new school of early Victorian Romantics.
England After the Napoleonic Wars and in the Early Years of Victoria's Reign:
Once the focus of academic history was chiefly on political, and to a lesser degree, intellectual hstory, but in recent years, greater emphasis has been placed on social, economic and cultural history. Here I will mention a few topics relevant to understanding the early Victorian period: the Corn Laws and unrest; the suffrage and Chartism; what people ate; wages; education; and the laws affecting women.
In 1815 most persons in Britain worked on the land, but by 1840 half lived in cities. During this period Britain became a textile exporting nation, which imported raw cotton from the American South. Its economy was based on trade and colonial markets (which of course had a growing effect on British foreign policy).
The Napoleonic War had affected the upper classes very little. At the end of the war the ranks of unemployed were swollen by more than 400,000 demobilized men.
Rises in the price of corn (grain) hurt the manufacturing and laboring classes, but added to the profits of the grain sellers, the aristocracy. Under the Speedhamland relief system the poor received a dole, thus maintaining wages at a below-subsistence level and keeping grain prices high. When power was transferred to the manufacturing upper-middle-classes by the Reform Bill of 1832, one of the first things they did was to abolish outdoor relief.
In 1815 the Corn Law had been passed, prohibiting the import of corn until the price rose to a certain (starvation) level. This prevented competition for grain growers and encouraged speculation. The existence of the Corn Laws provided the background for the thirty year debate about "free trade."
After the war, a decreasing proportion of farmers were able to own their own land, and the dispossessed became farmhands working for wages. Enclosure continued, as formerly cultivated land was used for grazing. In 1830 starving field laborers in the southern counties rioted for higher wages; 3 were hanged and 420 deported.
Until 1832 there were 220 offenses for which the death penalty could be imposed, among them housebreaking, forgery, and sodomy (still a hangable offense until the 1860s). Game laws were very severe; early in the century it was illegal for anyone not a squire or squire's eldest son to kill game; a cottager who set traps might be transported for 7 years; mantraps and spring-guns could be legally set on poachers. The gentry were also magistrates and justices of the peace, and remained rulers of the countryside even after the Reform Bill of 1832.
Although George III did not die until 1830, he was unable to govern from recurrent fits of madness. His son, the unpopular George IV, who became regent in 1811 and reigned until 1830, was succeeded by his brother William IV until 1837. In 1830 the Whigs gained an electoral majority for the first time in almost half a century, and inaugurated a period of (relative, upper-middle-class) reforms.
The Whigs were the party of the wealthy urban merchants (sometimes referred to as "middle-class," though it is important to realize that this is 19th century British usage which may refer to prosperous persons whose wealth was gained through trade rather than farming). The Tories (Conservatives) were the party of the landed gentry, who Tories upheld the established (i. e., state-funded Anglican) church and filled many of its benefices. By contrast many of the Whigs were "dissenters," that is, non-Anglican Protestants, such as Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians or Independents.
In 1829 one of their legal desires had already been effected. The Catholic Emancipation Bill permitted Catholics to hold office, a crucial matter in relations with hitherto largely disenfranchised Ireland.
In 1840 the lower bounds of the middle class (defined as 5-10% of the population) was defined as possession of a family income of roughly 150 pounds a year. Before the Reform Bill of 1832, even many upper-middle-class male Britons were unable to vote, and not until 1884 was the vote extended to all members of the middle class and most urban workers.
Before 1832 the borough vote was very irregular--entire cities were disenfranchised, others were held as "pocket boroughs" [that is, a single landowner could choose the candidate], votes were openly sold, and in the absence of a secret ballot, landlords controlled the votes of smaller farmers. Those who performed services for the king routinely received newly created peerages and sat in the House of Lords.
The Reform Bill of 1832 eliminated 56 pocket and rotten boroughs and redistributed 143 seats to towns, counties, Scotland and Ireland. In the counties the vote was given to 40 shilling freeholders; to renters who paid 10 pounds per year as freeholders, copyholders, and 60 year leaseholders; and to 50 pound leaseholders with shorter term leases and renters (tenants-at-will). In the boroughs the vote was given to those paying 10 pounds annual leasehold, with one year residency.
This added 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000; and population increase had added another 400,000 by the Second Reform Bill of 1867, but even so, the bulk of the population was still disenfranchised. The next great reform bill, that of 1867, gave the vote in counties to those who paid 12 pounds rent, and in cities, to 5 pound renters. This added 938,000 voters to an electorate of 1,057,000, but brought the electorate up to only something less than 10% of the adult population. Most of the new county votes were middle-class, but the town electorate for the first time included some of the more prosperous working-class voters; small boroughs were over-represented at the expense of large conurbations.
In 1867 John Stuart Mill had brought forth a proposal that electors should be allowed to vote for "members of Parliament in general" if they preferred these to their own regional candidates, and introduced an amendment in favor of women's suffrage; both were defeated (see Women's Suffrage).
In 1833 slavery was abolished in British colonies, as the culmination of agitation led by William Wilberforce and others; on the other hand, the Jamaican constitution was suspended for the 5 years 1839-44 to protect former slaveowners from punishment for brutality toward former slaves.
The period after 1815 was one of severe repression of trade unions and of demands for reform in general. When in 1819 a large crowd of 60,000 assembled to hear the radical (i. e. reforming) orator Thornton Hunt near Peterloo in northern England, mounted yeomanry charged into the crowd, killing 11 and wounding 400, including women and children, an attack known as "The Massacre of Peterloo." Directly afterwards the "Six Acts" were passed repressing large meetings, anti-government statements in the press, and combinations of workers to restrict trade.
The trade union movement began with the repeal of the Combination Laws in 1824. Robert Owen and others formed the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union with 500,000 members, seeking an 8 hour day and promoting the notion of a "general strike." A ten year period of growth in union membership ended when in 1834 6 Dorchester laborers who had tried to enlist others in the union, the "Tolpuddle Martyrs," were sentenced to 7 years imprisonment and transportation to Australia (though their sentences were remitted in 1836), and the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union dissolved.
Chartist agitation for the suffrage was the major working-class movement of the late 30s and 40s. In 1836 a Workingman's Association in London (with associated branches in Manchester and other places in the North) set forth its program in a charter drawn up by Francis Place and William Lovett. This advocated manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, the abolition of property requirements for members of parliament, annual parliamentary elections, the payment of salaries to members of parliament, and equal electoral districts.
Chartists also campaigned for a ten-hour work day and supported various movements to form co-operative stores, worker education schemes and other worker cooperative ventures. Although some Chartists were religious (usually members of Dissenting sects such as Methodists), many artisans were rationalists and anti-clericalists in the tradition of Thomas Paine.
In 1839 a large mass demonstration presented the Charter to Parliament, which rejected it; riots broke out in Birmingham and Newport, Wales, where police fired on a crowd and killed 20 persons (cmp. the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, in which 11 were killed and 400 wounded).
A depression of 1846-1848 brought widespread poverty and prompted the unrest which accompanied the height of Chartist sentiment; and in the year in which Marx and Engels published the "Communist Manifesto," 1848, agitation reached its peak. In a year of great economic distress, increased emigration and famine in Ireland, and populist revolutions on the Continent, the Charter was once again carried to Parliament and again rejected. As the recession lightened, the 50s became a period of reaction. The nationalist movement arose in Ireland, and its adherents were severely repressed by coercion bills. Though, as mentioned above, another Reform Bill was passed in 1867, universal suffrage was not attained until 1928.
In the meantime, the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846 after a great campaign by manufacturers and working people's organizations. The duty on corn was reduced to a shilling a quarter bushel, and other duties were abolished.
1847 was the year of Jane Eyre, Dombey and Son, and Wuthering Heights. The latter was in some respects a romanticization of the remote life of the passionate, self-willed gentry, and in other respects reflected the harshness and unrest of the life of its decade.
During a period of fluctuating business conditions and in the absence of tight bankruptcy laws, the early Victorian period also was a time of uneven fortunes, even for investors and entrepreneurs. Hundreds of schemes collapsed, reducing hitherto comfortable families to marginality (Victorians whose families lost from such schemes included Harriet Martineau and William Morris senior); the sudden decline in family fortunes is a standard plot motif of the period.
The "established" or state church of England was Anglicanism (Episcopalianism), as Presbyterianism was the established religion of Scotland. The Church of England adhered to the 39 Articles and Book of Common Prayer, advocating what it conceived of as a via media between dissenting Protestant religions such as Methodism, Congregationalism, and Unitarianism, and the Church of Rome. "Establishment" brought revenues, paid clergy and other forms of support, collected in the form of "tithes" which Anglicans and non-Anglicans were forced to pay; a system of patronage rewarded the well-connected, many of whom were the younger sons of the landed gentry, with church offices and advancement.
As England became urbanized, old parish divisions and a patronage system seemed increasingly obsolete. In the 1830s the Evangelical Movement arose within the Church of England, emphasizing personal devotion, faith and good works. Evangelical Anglicans were called "Low Church," as opposed to Tractarian and other advocates of increased ritual, styled "High Church" for their adherence to practices resembling those of the Church of Rome. Yet a third group developed--"Broad Church"--of those influenced by rationalism and pluralism, who wished the Church to be less doctrinally restrictive. The educator Thomas Arnold, for example, was a promoter of Broad Church views, and the Oxford Movement, led by Pusey and John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman, was High Church. An act of 1836 reshaped dioceses, distributed bishops' incomes more equitably, added new bishoprics to respond to shifts in population, outlawed sinecures, limited pluralism (the holding of several livings simultaneously), and forbade non-residence among the clergy.
Nevertheless, Nonconformists and others resented, among other things, their exclusion from parish cemeteries, and having to pay church rates for the upkeep of parish churches, a grievance which was removed in 1868. They also opposed universal Anglican education; Anglicans ran more elementary schools than anyother demonimation before 1870, and organized a network of philanthropic services. A religious census of 1851 revealed that non-Anglicans and Dissenting religions had more active mmebers and chapel attendance than the established Church, but 42% of the population attended no church at all. Religious affiliation was class-linked;members of the upper and upper-middle-classes and those in rural communities were more likely to be Anglican.
As the nineteenth century progressed, however, Anglicanism began to develop some traits of a voluntary denomination, seeking public financial support and competing for members. Yet by the 1880s non-attenders were a majoirty as religious observance declined in the villages and the urban population became increasingly unchurched. Dissenters and others sought the disestablishment of the national church, which occured in Ireland in 1869 and in 1920 in Wales. Yet despite efforts throughout the century and beyond to remove the privileged status of Anglicanism in England, it has remained the official state church.
Of the Dissenting Protestant groups, Methodists (revivalist, pietist) and Plymouth Brethren (strict Biblical constructionists and typologists) were offshoots of Anglicanism, Congregationalists and Presbyterians stressed government by members of the presbytery, or congregation of elders, Quakers and Baptists were descendants of independent sects, and Unitarians rejected the doctrine of the Trinity in favor of a more deistic belief in a unified God and generally more rationalist and social-reformist views. Yet these denominations coulxd exist in unexpected permutations and overlapping--it was possible to find a congregation of Quaker Baptists, or of Primitive Methodists and Successionist Presbyterians who held much the same views.
At the end of the 18th century, Roman Catholics in England numbered only about 100,000, led by a traditional leadership of gentry. Acts of 1778 and 1791 repealed most non-political disabilities for Catholics, and in 1829 "Catholic Emancipation" permitted Roman Catholics to vote, though restrictions remained (Catholics, Dissenters and Jews couldn't attend Oxbridge or Cambridge, which required assent to the 39 articles). Irish immigration and population raised the number of English Catholics to 250,000 by 1840. Schools were established, and Nicholas Wiseman intellectual (later Cardinal Wiseman) founded the Dublin Review to promote Catholic and religious life.
The Tractarian Movement began in the 1840s; led by John Henry Newman, this was a movement of High-Church Anglicans towards ritualism and in some cases, Catholicism. In the same decade, the Irish famine of 1845 and thereafter brought several hundred-thousand impoverished Irish to Scotland and England, and Catholicism became the religion of those perceived as ethnic immigrants of lower social status. Earlier in the century the Roman Catholic hierarchy had considered Britain as a missionary country, but encouraged by its gain in membership it established an archbishopric and bishoprics in 1850. Counterattacks against Catholicism generally failed to lessen its membership, and Catholics were absorbed into the mainstream as the century continued, and gained increased cultural respectability by the phenomenon of upper-class converts, such as G. M. Hopkins, Oscar Wilde, Alice Meynell, and Lionel Johnson.
In 1850 20,000 Jews lived in London and somewhat fewer outside, of which 90% were native-born English. In 1829 when Catholics were granted the franchise, Jews remained the most well-represented group without civil liberties, including the vote. They were bared from Parliament, the military, some legal careers, and attendance at Oxford or Cambridge. The Jewish Chronicle, established in 1841, supported the goals of emancipation and "liberal compromise" (that is, assimilation), emphasizing the patriotism and loyalty of Jewish subjects to the British empire. The Rothchild, Montefiore and Montagu families were known for their extensive philanthropy and community service.
In 1851, Lionel de Rothchild was permitted totake his seat in the House of Commons without taking the usual oath, "by the true faith of a Christian." In 1855 Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler established a Jews College to train ministers as ambassadors to British society; later Adler became the chief British Rabbi under the United Synagogue Act. In 1870 Jews were permitted to matriculate at universities, and in 1890 all civil offices were opened to them.
Meanwhile a small minority of adherents of Reform Judaism pressed more actively for emancipation and remained outside this structure, under ban by Rabbi Adler. Another separate group consisted of the Sephardic Jews who attended the Bevis Marks synagogue. Hermann Adler, Rabbi Adler's son, was anti-Zionist, which caused further internal division.
Around 1870 began a massive immigration of Jews to Great Britain, motivated by poverty and anti-Semitic persecutions in Europe, especially Eastern Europe and Russia; as this intensified in the 1880s and 1890s it further strained community cohesion as the more established Jews were called upon to help large numbers of their fellows.
Though Jews were represented in novels by Walter Scott, Benjamin Disraeli (an Anglican of Jewish parentage), Charles Dickens, George Eliot and others, the first avowedly Jewish major writers were the poet Amy Levy and novelist and short story writer Israel Zangwill.
Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) served as president of the Board of Deputies of Anglo-Jews, undertook numerous missions to impoverished or endangered Jewish communities, and initiated projects aimed at the renewal of Palestine. He was a staunch advocate of orthodox Judaism, in opposition to internal liberalization and Reform movements. He visited Russia in 1846 and 1872 to attempt to persuade the Czar to alleviate the condition of Jews there, and visited Palestine seven times to facilitate the rebuilding of a Jewish homeland. These visits fostered the concept of an international Jewish community and signified increasing interest in Palestine as a potential site for Jewish renewal.
Summary: Non-Anglican Christians (Dissenters, Catholics) were still excluded from most forms of public office (although non-Catholics could vote and become members of Parliament) and from positions in the universities and commissions in the armed services. In 1854 Dissenters of all creeds were admitted to Oxford and Cambridge, but still debarred from the M. A. degree, degrees of divinity, headships, professorships, and fellowships--that is, from teaching, governing and administrative positions. Disabilities on Jews were first removed in the 1850s, when they were permitted to vote; agnostics and non-believers suffered exclusion throughout the century.
These exclusions account for the somewhat smaller number of Catholics and Jews who were prominent in the public intellectual debates of the period. The Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli converted to Anglicanism; the Jesuit poet Hopkins finished Oxford before converting to Catholicism. Arguments over whether Anglican church should lean toward high- or low-church practices--Evangelicalism or the Oxford Movement--were an important feature of contemporary debates.
Railroads, Daily Life:
This was a period of swift railroad expansion and the resulting division of the countryside; by 1848 some 5000 miles of railways had been built, and the rest of the century saw the introduction of railways into hitherto remote parts of the north and west. British paintings of the period often present a nostalgically realized countryside, even as this was ever-receding.
Education: Although all but the poorest classes generally had access to three to five years of schooling provided by a local private teacher, this was often of very low quality; many women complained that they were chiefly taught to sew. No goverment provision for general literacy existed until after the Education Acts of 1870 and 1872 (Scotland), which provided for state-supported primary and middle schools.
England thus lagged behind other European nations in providing for general education, a delay in part occasioned by quarrels between religious groups: Anglicans wanted state-supported education to be Anglican, and dissenters and others demurred.
Childrearing was often severe, with corporeal punishment.
For women no middle-class employments except governessing and teaching were available. Wives had no legal right to their own children, who could even be taken away from them by their husbands. Divorce was expensive and unequal; the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 permitted men to divorce on the grounds of adultery, but not women, legalizing a "double standard" of morality. Wives had no right to own property (except in trust), and until 1870 had to right to their own earnings, and the legal age of consent was 12, encouraging child prostitution. A husband had the legal right to "chastise" his wife, making it difficult to limit domestic violence. The average woman bore about 6 live children even at the turn of the century.
On Laws Affecting the Poor and Workers:
The Poor Law of 1834 ended outdoor relief to the able-bodied poor, and in its place it set up workhouses under local administration. Families were separated, and kept on subsistence rations to make the workhouse less attractive than all available forms of labor, a grim comparison. Often the poor, insane, sick and orphans were crowded together into workhouses, though as the century progressed orphanages, insane asylums and hospitals began to absorb these more specialized functions.
Those who worked were sometimes not much better off--during the "season" dressmakers and milliners worked 20 hour days in crowded, dark conditions; it was said that one died yearly in an average establishment. Bending and fatigue produced deformed limbs, and made it difficult for long- overworked seamstresses to bear children.
Mine workers lived a worse life, with 14 hour days; cramping and stooping resulted in frequent physical deformity and death. Under the general influence of the doctrine of "laissez faire," the utilitarian doctrine that the markets would be essentially self-regulating, elected officials were reluctant to interfere in factory operations, and manufacturers strongly resisted the progress of legislation. As Victorian writers and philanthropists publicized these conditions, however, a series of factory acts began to mitigate the worst conditions.
In 1833, the first of the facts decreed that no child under 11 was to be employed more than 48 hours a week, or 9 hours per day; no person under 18 more than 12 hours per day; and young children were to be given leave to attend school for two hours daily. The rules on education were not always enforced by inspectors, and teachers were often untrained and ignorant. In 1847 the Ten Hours Bill limited work to 70 hours weekly for women and children; women were paid about half of the salary of men, and children even less. Over time laws were passed requiring the fencing of hazardous machines and the use of safety precautions in mines.
Crime, Punishments and Prisons:
Criminal law was overhauled by the 1830s, reducing the incidence of capital offences and regularizing penalties. In 1829 the London Metropolitan Police was created, and borough and county forces increased. Crime reached a high level after the Napoleonic Wars and remained high until the 1840s; in fact, statistically 1842 was a peak year for crime.
Later in the century and until the 1930s incidents of reported crime decreased, and after 1850 crimes became less violent. Robbery (theft with violence) declined to 1/7th of its 1857 rate by the end of the century. The assault rate was highest in the 1840s (the decade of Oliver Twist), when there was five times the rate of such crimes relative to the population as in the 1920s.
Crime seemed to follow the economic cycles of trade and harvest, with depressions producing unemployment and property crimes. Some evidence also indicates that the crime rate was much higher in the industrial north than in the more prosperous south.
On the other hand, prosperity brough crimes of personal violence, such as assault and crimes triggered by drunkenness, especially in the early 1870s when alcohol consumption reached its peak. With some exceptions and reversals, though, the incidence of reported crimes continued downward.
Prisons in the late 18th and 19th centuries:
The brutal tortures and executions of the past gradually but slowly gave way to schemes for reformation and rehabilitation, at least in theory--but see "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."
Early 18th century prisons were severely criticized and evoked a parliamentary inquiry in 1730, but few changes were made, because prisons were chiefly holding places for prisoners awaiting trial, execution, or transportation.
The Waltham Black Act of the late 18th century had increased the number of capital crimes from about fifty to several hundred, a law so severe that for some of the more minor offenses juries were reluctant to convict. Prisons of the time were run for profit, subject to little inspection, and lacked sewage and heat. Offenders of different sexes, ages and crimes were mixed together, as were novice and repeat offenders.
One of the first treatises on prison reform was John Howard's The State of the Prisons (1777). Conditions for women convicts at Newgate and elsewhere were improved by the efforts of Elizabeth Fry, beginning in 1813, and later by a series of reformers, many from the Society of Friends. By 1823, most of the Waltham Black Act had been repealed, and after 1838 hangings except for murder and attempted murder ceased. The last public hanging occurred in 1868, although as witnessed in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," hangings within prison continued throughout the century.
Transportation to British colonies also was phased out. The practice of transportation had been begun in the 17th century, and involved selling convict labor to private contractors. When exportation to the American colonies became impossible after the Revolutionary War, Australia became the new site for prisoners, and the first convicts reached Botany Bay in 1788. By 1832, Australian settlers were complaining about the presence of convicts, and the practice of transportation to New South Wales ceased in 1840. Van Diemen's Land then became inundated with convicts until transportation there was likewise suspended in 1846. In 1853 the Penal Servitude Act substituted shorter sentences of imprisonment for transportation, and the last convict ship sailed in 1868.
Meanwhile old prisons were destroyed; Fleet and Marshalsea prisons were abolished in 1842, and by 1877 Newgate was used only for convicted felons awaiting execution. By contrast, the newer prisons were designed with a greater view to rehabilitation. Pentonville Prison, built in 1842, was considered an improvement, and within 6 years 54 new prisons were built on the city periphery (as opposed to the city center, where the earlier prisons had been built) on the Pentonville plan, with exercise yards. In 1877 the ownership of prisons passed to the Home Secretary.
Meanwhile there were changes in the treatment of prisoners. In 1853 a ticket-of-leave, or parole, system was introduced, and reformatories established for younger prisoners. In 1878 first offenders were separated from repeaters, and in 1898 a system of remission of sentences for good behavior was introduced and corporeal punishment limited. In 1908, finally, the possibility of capital punishment for children was ended.
Yet despite these changes, as testified by Oscar Wilde in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" and in the memoirs of suffragettes imprisoned for their acitivites in support of the women's franchise, prisons remained harsh, unhealthy and dangerous places throughout the century.
“Madness” or Mental Illness
This was a major theme in Victorian literature--as seen in poetry by Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, George Meredith, and others; and novels by Walter Scott, the Brontes, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, M.E. Braddon and Wilkie Collins. The Victorian period was one of change, systematization, and medicalization of the treatment of “insanity.”
The late 18th century saw the establishment of St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics (1751) and early treatises on the prevention of insanity. George III’s madness brough an increased interest in the problem.
In 1829-44 the Metropolitan Commission on Lunacy issued a series of reports. In 1845 the Lunacy Act for the first time required counties to provide adequate asylum accommodations for pauper lunatics and for the diagnosis and treatment of insanity; and mandated that asylums be inspected by medical practitioners.
At the time the causes of insanity were categorized as physical or moral.
1. Physical causes included heredity, irregular blood circulation, accident, alcoholism, or even old age and female gender.
2. Moral causes were various--dissipation, excess, gluttony, even excessive studying! Madness could allegedly be caused by shocks, rape, or even masturbation.
The definition of madness was debated. One classification scheme postulated four types--mania, melancholia or monomania, partial insanity, and moral insanity.
Mania was exemplified in raving, violent lunatics. Partial insanity could be periodic and included hypochrondia and hysteria. Moral insanity was characterized by antisocial behavior and lack of social control.
It has been claimed that nineteenth-century doctors were even more unsympathetic to hysteria and mental illness than eighteenth-century ones; the use of moralistic and condemnatory rhetoric indicates an overlapping of the roles of curate and local physician. The label of insanity could also be used to subjugate those who failed to conform, as shown in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria or the Wrongs of Woman.
As a partial corrective, an 1862 amendment to the Lunacy Act required the signatures of two physicians with no financial interest in the asylum to which commitment was intended and the approval of a magistrate for commitment.
Despite a belief in the “moral” implications of madness, only medical doctors were permitted to treat patients. In general there was a movement away from the use of force, such as whippings, forced feedings, haphazard drugging, and confinement in straitjackets, chairs and dark rooms. Instead, “moral managers” tried to encourage a homelike environment in which inmates were encouraged to develop self-respect and industry.
In the 1830s and 40s hydropathic establishments became popular, and patients were submerged for long periods in the “water cure” and required to abstain from alcohol, coffee and other stimulants. Such relatively humane methods were often neglected in practice, and such prescriptions as leeching, purging or using leg hobbles and waist locks continued.Women were subject to bizarre intrusions; an 1848 article in the London Medical Journal recommended as treatment for suspected insanity in menopausal women ice water in the rectum, ice in the vagina, and leeching of the labia and the cervix. In the late 19th century understanding of the female reproductive system also freed women from the charge that the possession of a womb renderd them especially subject to insanity.
“Fools” or “naturals” had apppeared in Walter Scott’s novels and in Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy.” Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge is not fully insane--but closer to what in the nineteenth-century would have been called an “idiot.” A common theory suggested that traumatic experience during pregnancy might lead to birth defects. In general the Victorian view of deformity--so central to Dickens’ caricatures-- is one fundamentally difficult to understand from a modern American perspective, with the vast increase in the proportion of people able to continue in good health through life and with an array of institutions and agencies for helping the disabled.