The historical terms, Victorian Age or Victorian Era, referred to the
things and the events that happened during the reign of Queen Victoria in
England from 1837 to 1901. Some adjectives to describe the people and
things of this period would be prudish, strait-laced, and old-fashioned.
Another characteristic of the Victorian society was that many of the upper
class individuals were snobbish and that they looked down upon others,
especially the lower class individuals. In addition, this era came before
the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the 1920’s. Many women were still thought
of as being inferior to their male counterparts, even if they were wealthy.
Two examples of literary works that show some of the characteristics of
the Victorian age are The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde and
The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell.
During the Victorian age, there were immense changes in society,
advances in the sciences, and it was also the beginning of the Industrial
Age. A number of the literature produced during this period reflected on
these changes and celebrated them. Some literary works criticized the
changes being made and made a mockery of them as well.
The literary genre, the novel, also came on the scene during the
Victorian Era. Some Victorian writers that also emerged are Charles
Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Oscar Wilde. Victorian
writers always responded to the conditions around them. Queen Victoria
influenced her world and she also influenced the literature that used
conditions in the Victorian world as its subject.
Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is set in the
late Victorian age in England. Here, he uses satire to get his point
across about how it was to be an aristocrat during the Victorian Era. In
the play, Wilde portrays many characters as being prudish, snobbish, and
very formal. Many times, it is a person’s name that determines social
status. Like today, a name such as, Hilton, Kennedy or Rockefeller might
suggest that one is a descendant from one of these wealthy families or it
may mean that you may have some social status. The character of Gwendolyn
is set on obtaining social status by marrying a man named Ernest. In Act
I, Gwendolyn says to Jack, “…my ideal has always been to love someone of
the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute
confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend
called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you” (Wilde 1769). There is
also the ideal of love at first sight. Jack, whom Gwendolyn thinks his
name is Ernest, is willing to lie to her in order to get the girl that he
wants. To get a better idea of how it was to live in upper crust Victoria,
it is best to view the movie, The Importance of Being Earnest. The viewers
will get a better sense as to how the Victorians dressed, how they spoke,
among other things.
Elizabeth Gaskell, like many other women writers, opposed the
patriarchal societies. They expressed their opinions and views through
their literature. In her writings, Gaskell shows how male domination can
make females seem powerlessness.
The Old Nurse’s Story is a Victorian tale that tells of Lord Furnivall
who is an overbearing father who had control over his wife and daughters.
Lord Furnivall was the type of man who looked down upon all females. He
was depicted as a “fierce dour old man, and had broken his wife’s heart
with his cruelty” (Gaskell 1329). Lord Furnivall was so cold hearted that
he banished his own daughter and granddaughter from his estate. The
passage reads, “…there was a great and violent noise heard, and the old
lord’s voice above all, cursing and swearing awfully, – and the cries of a
little child, – and the proud defiance of a fierce woman, – and the sound
of a blow, – and a dead stillness, – and moans and wailing’s dying away on
the hill-side! Then the old lord summoned all his servants, and told them,
with terrible oaths, and words more terrible, that his daughter had
disgraced herself, and that he had turned her out of doors, – her, and her
child, – and that if ever they gave her help, – or food, – or shelter, – he
prayed that they might never enter Heaven” (Gaskell 1330).
There were also incidences in the tale where Lord Furnivall’s organ
would play by itself, even though he was dead. We see this in the passage
where it says, “…but it was a very strange noise, and she had heard it
many a time…folks did say, it was the old lord playing on the great organ
in the hall, just as he used to do when he was alive…and I thought it was
rather pleasant to have that grand music rolling about the house, let who
would be the player; for now it rose above the great gusts of wind, and
wailed and triumphed just like a living creature” (Gaskell 1324). The
nursemaid then says, “I opened the organ and peeped all about it and around
it, as I had done to the organ in Crosthwaite Church once before, and I saw
it was all broken and destroyed inside” (Gaskell 1324). This particular
incident shows that Lord Furnivall’s spirit still lives on and still has
control over the people, particularly the women, who are living in his
home. He may not have been physically there, but he still had the power to
place fear in others.
The Victorian Age is a very important time in our world history. It
was a time of flourishment for the arts and literature as well as other
things. The characteristics of this period defined what this era was all
about. They are well known and will continue to be.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. “The Old Nurse’s Story.” The Norton Anthology of
English Literature. Ed. Julia Reidhead. 7th
ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton & Company, 2000. 1319-33.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The Norton Anthology of
English Literature. Ed. Julia
Reidhead. 7th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton & Company, 2000. 1761-