VICTORIAN ESSAYISTS

The term “Victorian” is applied to England during Queen Victoria’s reign to describe the self-righteous, repressive and authoritarian culture of the middle classes who prided themselves on the wealth and position the nation achieved through the industrial revolution and on Britain’s leading position in the world as the major industrial power, major sea and colonial power. Thomas Babington Macauley (1800-59) was a politician and historian. His History of England on the 17th century is a proud narration of the nation’s progress, which is seen in terms of its wealth and technology, whose perpetuity he confidently predicts. The price paid for this progress by the many is not the theme. He spent some years in India in an official position, where he set up a system of education designed to make Indians useful civil servants. His programmatic Minute on Education of 1835 is imbued with a blind faith in the supremacy of British culture and contempt for the Indian; it became the blueprint of colonial education.

Cracks began to appear in the intellectual temple of Victorianism. Matthew Arnold (1822-88) poet, educationalist and clergyman, spent his life contending in rather solemn and humourless writing against the philistinism of the nation. He saw middle class religiosity as narrow and hollow conventionalism and deplored the shallowness of prevailing literary taste. John Stuart Mill (1806-73) worked for the East India Company; he wrote on political economy, on logic, on positivism and in 1869 an essay against The Subjection of Women.

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was a brilliantly original Scottish writer greatly influenced by German Literature and philosophy. he denounced the destructive profiteering of the rich, the dominance of money in modern society, and held up the medieval world with its fixed structures and stability as an organic and healthier form of community. He was highly skeptical about democracy, believing that history is made by heroic individuals, by great men of vision such as Cromwell, Napoleon and Frederick II, who may rule despotically but do so in the interest of the people, whereas elected politicians manipulate their ignorant voters and rule to safeguard their selfish interests, thus, condoning injustice and putting the nation at risk of serious social conflict.

John Ruskin(1819-1900), an influential art critic, believed that the arts were the most powerful remedy against the fetish on money. William Morris(1834-96) was a critic of the shoddiness of mass produced goods and the founder of a style of new simplicity and art in everyday life. He designed everything from houses to wallpaper, and his name became synonymous for elegant handcrafted products which differed pleasantly from the bombast of cluttered Victorian interiors with their heavy furniture, triple curtains and grand pianos draped with plush lest the legs should give rise to improper associations.

The painters of the Pre-Raphaelite school rejected classical art as their model; they turned to the artist living before Raphael, as he did the corresponding German school, the Nazarene, and sought to emulate the piety, craftsmanship and simplicity of the medieval painters of the Holy Family. Dante Gabriel Rosetti(1828-82), the son of an Italian professor, founded the school in London in 1848. John Evret Millais (1829-96), Edward Burne-Jones(1833-98) paid meticulous attention to historical accuracy of costume and scene; the craftsmanship is remarkable; a strange combination of sentimentality, sensuality and morbidity is typical of their work. This was to influence continental art nouveau or Jugendstil. These artists were faced with a very difficult task: to represent spirituality in a King Midas situation, where everything the English middle class touched seemed to turn into gold. Their solution was to turn their backs on that reality. The result was that movement degenerated into ornamental style, fulfilling a purely decorative function, painting life in glowing colours to gloss over the coldness and harshness of the world.

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