Although America is a relatively young colony, it is considered by many to be the country that sets the pace for the rest of the world. In spite of this, however, when individuals want to learn about social manners, they often look to the British to lead by example. During the Victorian period, England was considered the epiphany of moral standards. However, it was in fact simply a country that had been whitewashed with protocol and norms. Several Victorians writers deemed it their responsibility to expose the hypocrisy of this wealthy society.
The Victorian Era lasted from 1837 until 1901. This was a period of great industrial advancement: an age when England witnessed great prosperity and also when its elite adhered to strident moral laws. It was a time when prostitution and child labour were at their apex. Wallowing in their wealth, the wealthy just make-believed that all of England was affluent, and that poverty did not exist. The fact that young girls were prostituting themselves in order to survive, and that children were forced to work for as many as sixteen hours per day, was not the primary concern of the rich. One reason for this is that the upper classes never saw the areas of town in which such poverty existed. It is possible that the wealthy people turned away from the terrible things that were happening.
Even the women, who were supposed to be the more tender hearted sex, seemed to not be disturbed by such atrocities. So long as they were able to speak well, use the correct fork at dinner, and wear matching gloves and hats, nothing affected their world. The Victorian Era was a period of enhanced economy, and blatant pretence. Writers such as Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope had walked the streets of London had witnessed the inhumane conditions of the poor. These writers resolved to hold their wealthy bureaucrats accountable. Their satire writings became the voice of these unfortunate people. These writers refused to conform to the ethos of their time.
Throughout the century, the writers of the period grappled with the concrete problems of urban living such as overcrowding and the appearance of slums, pollution, inadequate sanitation, disease, and crime. Furthermore, they also attempted to analyse and describe the larger nature of this changed mode of existence and social relations, and to give shape and meaning to a completely unprecedented way of life (Baker & Womack).
Initially, writers of the Victorian period conformed to the rules of the Victorians; they wrote for entertainment, and their works were sometimes acted out on stage. As industrial England and its elite prospered, they began to realize the inequality of the Victorian society. Once this happened, the tone of their writings became more serious, albeit satirical. Some of the writers had experienced the life of the underprivileged and could not look the other way. They were watching what could have been their own plight, and this made them unable to ignore the less fortunate. Dickens, one of the most significant Victorian writers, had a great love for children as is depicted in his novels. This affection may have been the reason for his mockery of the Victorian society. He was infuriated by seeing the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. Dickens was not afraid of pathos and cruelty of the Industrial Revolution of the Victorian age.
Unlike Dickens and others who wrote in order to disclose the abuse of the poor and children in Victorian society, Emily Bronte and Mary Ann Evans used a different approach to show their contempt. They rocked their pseudo-moral Victorians as they became not just writers, but Gothic writers.
Bronte was not rich. Nonetheless, she was the daughter of the vicar, and was therefore expected to behave in a manner befitting a girl in her position. Victorian women were supposed to be dainty, and were expected to wait on their husbands and children, if they were not wealthy enough to have maids. Loeb (1964) states that the women of the English middle-class of the Victorian era spent their time acquiring room after room of over-stuffed furniture, pottery, paintings and photographs. Their walls were covered with wallpapers, their floors with luxurious oriental carpets, and their windows adorned with intricate lace curtains. The only fellow human beings they recognized were their societal peers.
No one expected such women to have many feelings. However, not only did Bronte have feelings, she was determined to express them. She was aware that publishers would not want to deviate from the ethos of their Victorian ways. Therefore, she posed as a man, Ellis Bell, when she submitted her novel, Wuthering Heights, for publication. Bronte’s use of a pseudonym was not borne from fear. On the contrary, she was dauntless; the first rejection of her book did not prevent her from trying again. Inez Calender says this about Emily Bronte:
“Her singular novel was published under the pen name of Ellis Bell. Female Victorian writers were expected to present highly moral themes in their work. The issues presented by women writers of that time were expected to be resolved in a manner that offered readers a moral lesson and positive outcome. .. Socially inappropriate behaviour was depicted in a judgmental fashion and the protagonists of Victorian novels, in general, were supposed to learn a valuable lesson.”
Calender continues to say that Wuthering Heights was not accepted even with Bell as its author; in fact, critics met it with stern objection. Reviewers were unready to accept that the characters of Wuthering Heights could be natural. One reviewer was so morally correct that he could not conceive of how anyone could consider such a tale and still be sane. Publishers were afraid to tarnish their reputation by publishing a novel that goes against the logos of society. In her novel, though fiction, Bronte uses her protagonist Heathcliff, to unmask the sins of the Victorian era.
No one has ever said that other women writers became audacious in the wake of Emily Bronte. Nevertheless, there is no record that there was a trail blazer before her. Following in her stride was Mary Ann Evans, who was far more daring than Bronte. She broke every rule of Victorian society; she gave up her parents’ religion and lived openly with two different married mean. Moreover, she started writing Gothic novels. Evans was a free spirit who did what made her happy, with wanton disregard to gossip. In her essay, Anikka Hughes says:
“George Eliot was one of the most famous and acclaimed English writers during the Victorian era. Yet, George Eliot only existed on paper. Mary Ann Evans used the pen name George Eliot to write her novels in a time when female novelists were seen as only romantic authors. Mary Ann wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, so a man’s name got her the credit. She lived her life her way; she was not the typical Victorian woman.”
The Lifted Veil was a short story involving clairvoyance and attempted murder, an experiment of blood transfusion from a corpse. This, more than any of her other writings, was totally tabooed. This sanguineous section of the book was atrocious, even for the most modern writers. Her publishers were afraid to touch her book; they were wary of ruffling the feathers of their sanctimonious society, or of tainting their good name. This book was unlikely to sit well with the pathos of their society.
In England, the industrial revolution made the rich richer, and it also made them snobs. They were cold and selfish and were not afraid to exploit the poor. The government of the era should have been imprisoned for allowing such evil practices to continue. The poor were crying out while living in their over-crowded homes. The government were oblivious to the death cries of their fellow human beings. The website, The Victoria Era, says that the Industrial revolution saw a great number of technological advances and was able to supply more than half of the coal, iron, and cotton that was needed. Unfortunately, the economy boomed and the conscience of the government died; for many, poverty increased so did slum housing, poor houses and the use of child labour.
Finally, the poor were pitied and somewhere between 1833 and 1844 the Factory Act was passed, preventing children under the age of nine from working. The taboo is misplaced; child labour should have never been an issue in such a flourishing society. It makes one wonder whether, when these little children come to clean the chimneys, did the rich home owners watch them, or did they hide their faces. Charles Dickens’ well overused quote sums up the Victorian age:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . . it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . . in short, the period was so far like the present period.”
The Victorian period was so named after the reigning queen, Queen Victoria. This era carries a great irony as it was a period named after a woman, yet it was barbaric. A more deserving name for this period would have been Hitlerian. It may never be proven, but I strongly believe that had it not been for the satire of the English writers like Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope, a child labour act would not have been enacted as soon as it did. Albeit Evans and Bronte did not fight for a cause. They lived the way they wanted to live and refused to be governed by the dictates of their society.
The Victorian era, with all its wealth, was a society full of rich hypocrites. With its nose always turned up, it refused to look down from its lofty pinnacle and show compassion for the poor. I once heard someone say that when Queen Victoria fretted about her wedding night, she was told to have no fear, just think of her riches and then she would be all right. This is the motto of a cold, unfeeling society.
Baker, William and Kenneth Womack. A Companion to the Victorian Novel. 2002. Print.
London, Greenwood Press.
Calender, Inez. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Web. 3 Sept 2011
Hughes, Annika. Mary Ann Evans and George Eliot: One Woman. Web. 3 Sept 2011
Lock, Lori Ann. Consuming Angels. 1994. Print. New York. Oxford University Press.
The Victoria Era. Web. 3 Sept 2011.