Monday, May 23, 2011

The Development of the Victorian Era- The Early Days

The Victorian Era is a long, lovely, interesting time in history with changes taking place rapidly, decade after decade. It was a time of elegant society, but also a time of harsh realities, some of which I have touched on in past posts. What was behind the changing customs, the attitudes and the times? I will be doing a series of posts on the Victorian times here; I hope you will find it interesting!

Queen Victoria herself was probably never meant to be. She was the product of an emergency! The only heir of King George IV, Charlotte of Wales, died in childbirth as did her heir. Though George IV had brothers, none of them yet had legitimate children. George himself was succeeded upon the throne by his brother William IV while they all rushed around abandoning their mistresses and snatching up princesses to marry in order to provide a legitimate heir of the royal blood. The first to be born was Victoria, the daughter of the Duke of Kent and his wife, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg. She became the heir apparent of William. Her father died soon after she was born, and her mother raised her fairly isolated from the public eye. Her mother did not get along with the king, and Victoria was the center of much family feuding. She came to the throne at age eighteen, after a succession of old men, amid much rejoicing of the people.
Victoria personally was very interested in the welfare of the poor people of her country, but the ministers of government had set up the degrading, life-destroying workhouse arrangement, called the New Poor Law, in 1834, before Victoria came to the throne. They could not be much bothered with the poor beyond that for many years. I will post more extensively in the future on the workhouses. The change from an agricultural to an industrial society created many working poor, from children on up, who put in lengthy hours for low pay. Living in crowded cities, these workers could not grow much in the way of food and were at the mercy of their often unscrupulous employers to be able to survive at all.

Early forces behind the early Victorian era included:
A) The Duke of Wellington's victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, which brought on an atmosphere of national pride.
B) The Industrial Revolution, which transformed England from an agricultural nation to an industrial power, making it the world's greatest economic power for most of the century.
C) The Reform Bill of 1832, which doubled the number of men eligible to vote. A gradual progression toward democratic rule and governmental responsibility for the safety and well-being of the citizens was a result. Although Victoria did not ascend the throne until 1837, many scholars consider this Bill to be the starting point of the Victorian Era. It was certainly a strong influence on the society of her time.

When Victoria was crowned, the majority of people lived in the countryside and few of them traveled more than 10 miles from the place they were born. Nothing moved faster than the horses that carried them. Only half the population could read or write, and even five year old children worked in coal mines and dangerous factories. Power was in the hands of a small minority- men who held property.

Women had no rights at all. A woman was the property of her husband. Any property, even clothing, that she held on her wedding day became his. Should he die, she could only hope that his will, if he had one, provided for her in some way, or that family would take over her care. Even her children were not then hers, and Chancery Court would settle, hopefully, on some male family member to raise and care for them. Chancery operated very slowly, much to the harm of the children.

Styles in dress were frequently changing. Just a few years after the Regency era with its Empire cut dresses, which had no waistline but just under the bust and tiny puffy sleeves, early Victorian women wore off the shoulder dresses with a v-shaped waist and long puffy or billowing sleeves. They were truly elegant. A man's shirt collar came up to cover his neck, and his vest was low cut. No one would be seen out of doors without a hat. It just wasn't respectable. Even the workhouse inmates wore a hat, though it might be quite ragged. Gentlemen's hats were very tall top hats; they were quite difficult in windy weather. Women wore a pretty bonnet. Stylish women had their hair parted down the middle with ringlets or braids in front of their ears.

There was much transition during the sixty four years of Queen Victoria's reign. I will go into more detail in coming posts.

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