The Victorian Era, which lasted from June of 1837, when Victoria was crowned, to January 1901, when she died, has the reputation of being a proper, prosperous, moral, conformist, and etiquette-conscious society. Yet even with its popularity, the question that presents itself is whether this image is really valid. This question can be evaluated by examining several facets of Victorian society, including the class system of the era, crime and violence, religion and morality, and Queen Victoria herself, to see whether society reflected its reputation.
First of all, the society of the Victorian era was divided into three classes: upper class, middle class, and working class. The upper class was separated into the aristocracy and the gentry. The aristocratic upper class was made up mostly of large landowners, known as dukes and duchesses. During the late Victorian period, (1873-1901), there were 200-300 aristocrats in England with estates of more than 10,000 acres (Harrison, Late Victorian Britain 29). The duke of Sutherland owned an estate of 1,358,000 acres, an area larger than the counties of Bedfordshire, Berkshire, and Buckinghamshire put together (Hibbert 6). In late Victorian Britain, four-fifths of the land in the United Kingdom was owned by the approximately 7,000 members of the aristocracy and the gentry, a small portion of the total population of 31 million (Late Victorian Britain 29). Aristocrats had an average income of between 10,000 and 50,000 pounds (Harrison, The Early Victorians 90). Those who were not as rich found wealth usually by marrying a woman with a large estate or vast wealth. To ensure that there would be surviving heirs to inherit the family's wealth, a married couple could expect to have five or six births, out of which perhaps two would survive. There were between thirty-two and thirty-three deaths per 1,000 births during the 1840's. Although the rate of infant deaths seems high, it was lower than in preceding decades and than in the mid-Victorian period (1851-1873) (Harrison, The Early Victorians 3).
The upper class emphasized the Victorian ideal of propriety and good manners. The lifestyle was more leisurely than that of the middle and working classes. Often the ladies gave dinner parties, with seven or eight course meals. They changed clothes several times a day: for each meal, tea, riding, playing sports (such as tennis), and for paying a visit to another lady's house. Their dresses were complicated, uncomfortable clothes, made up of a corset, which was often the culprit behind fainting spells, and many layers of skirts. A gentleman always dressed in long, tubular trousers that covered his boot-heels, a frock coat and black waistcoat, a tall black top hat, and a silk cravat. When smoking, a gentleman wore a smoking jacket and cap. Smoking was considered a vulgar habit by most, and even Queen Victoria despised it. She only allowed guests who smoked to do so in the billiard room.
This strict observance of manners also had its downside. When seating guests at a dinner party, the hostess had to make certain that the guests were seated and served according to rank, and the preparation of fine foods seemed unending. Aristocrats almost never married for love, as the Romantic writings of the era would have one believe.
Members of the upper class whose yearly income fell between 1,000 and 10,000 pounds were known as gentry. Their estates were usually anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 acres (Harrison, The Early Victorians 91). In the late Victorian era, there were 1,000 members of the gentry who owned 3,000-10,000 acres, and 2,000 squires (lesser gentry) who had 1,000-3,000 acres (Harrison, Late Victorian Britain 29). Unlike aristocrats, who lived in mansions in the countryside and in townhouses in the city, the gentry occupied manor houses, and lived on their estates year round. The gentry followed the aristocratic tradition of handing down wealth to the eldest child. Rather than working, gentlemen lived off of their inheritances, and spent their time visiting and dining with friends, attending balls and other social festivities, and playing field sports, such as hunting, fishing, racing, and shooting (Harrison, The Early Victorians 92). The ladies occupied themselves with organizing balls and parties, and lived similarly to aristocratic ladies. Therefore, in terms of propriety, etiquette-consciousness, and conventionality, the upper class conformed to the Victorian ideal.
Not everyone could afford to live the leisurely lifestyle of the upper class. The middle and working classes consisted of people who worked. The middle class, a small minority of a few hundreds of thousands, was divided into an upper middle class, and a lower middle class (Lerner 58). The middle, or professional, class included judges, lawyers, the clergy, factory owners, physicians, school teachers, governesses, and civil and mechanical engineers. The top of the hierarchy of those who worked was the upper middle class. The group was sub-divided into the haute bourgeoisie, the financiers and merchants of London, who, being among the wealthiest in the country, enjoyed a high social status and lived on terms of familiarity with the upper class aristocrats (Harrison, Late Victorian Britain 50). The other group in the upper middle class was composed of the manufacturers and factory owners of the North and Midlands, who, though well off, were rarely as wealthy as the haute bourgeoisie (Harrison, Late Victorian Britain 50). Some historians, such as Lerner, argue that an intellectual middle class also existed, which included social scientists, writers, journalists, academics, civil servants, and politicians (94).
Within the lower middle class, there were also two groups, the shopkeepers and small businessmen, and the white-collar workers, like teachers and clerks (Lerner 59). The members of the lower middle class usually earned between £150 and £300 per annum (Lerner 59). Some were no better off than the members of the working class were. Single men, for example, often lived in shabby lodgings above their shops, with a low income and long hours of work (Lerner 64).
The middle class flowered during the mid-Victorian period as a result of continuing industrial, commercial, and financial development expanded salaries and profits (Lerner 93). Between 1851 and 1871, the affluent minority who reported incomes from employment of between £200 and £999 (£1,000 marked gentry level) grew by 88 percent and their aggregate incomes by 90 percent (Lerner 94). Although they only represented two and a half percent of the labor force in 1861, by 1901 the professional class made up four percent (Gourvish and O’Day 19).
The middle class family, although still considered poor by the aristocrats, was fairly prosperous, and had its own society. Those belonging to the upper middle class often intermarried with aristocrats, which was a common way to gain status and prestige (Harrison, The Early Victorians 101). The father, who was the sole provider, headed the middle class family. Unlike an upper class father, who provided his sons with an inheritance after his death, the aim of the middle class father was to provide his sons with the education, deportment, and business connections to establish their independence while he was still alive (Harris 70). While the father worked during the day, the house was cleaned, meals were prepared, and servants looked after children. The wife had only a few things, such as sewing, embroidery, and playing the piano, to occupy her all day long. This often led to boredom. Even so, marriage was seen as the highest goal for unwed girls. This was because of the pressures of social conformity, and perhaps due to the fact that the only alternative to marriage was disliked. This alternative was being a spinster. A spinster had to live with her parents and nurse them until the end of their days, or live with a brother or sister's family, and watch after the children. It was difficult for a spinster not to get in the way of the mistress of the household (Harrison, The Early Victorians 117). Those who remained unmarried and were fortunate became governesses or teachers. Middle class women, therefore, were concerned with running “proper” households.
Propriety was very important to the members of the middle class. Female modesty extended even to the same sex: a woman was not to be seen by anyone in anything below her petticoat (Harrison, Late Victorian Britain 54). The middle class was also characterized by its habits of thrift and prudence. Leisure was supposed to be respectable, productive, and rational (Clark). Common leisure activities included walks in the park, tennis, rugby, golf, and cricket (Clark). The middle class was preoccupied with education as well. The middle class established private and grammar schools modeled on the public schools of the upper classes (Lerner 93).
The middle class still attempted to imitate the comfortable, conventional ideal portrayed by the upper class. Depending on the amount of wealth a family had, a middle class home could be a six-roomed terrace house or a villa with ten or more rooms and servants as well. The middle class was sometimes referred to as the servant-keeping class, because of the abundance of domestic help kept to increase comfort and status (Harrison, Late Victorian Britain 57). Comfort was important, and furnishings, such as marble washstands, were often elaborate. Owning a carriage was more of a status symbol than a necessity (Harrison, The Early Victorians 108). Having access to personal transport, houses with sanitary service, education, and regular holidays distinguished the middle class from the working class (Harrison, Late Victorian Britain 58).
The working class consisted of an upper, or skilled, working class, a semi-skilled working class, and an unskilled working class. Approximately 80 percent of the population fell into the category of working class (Burnett). The upper working class was made up of skilled craftsmen who had manual dexterity and acquired knowledge. They had a high degree of control over their finished product, relatively high wages, and regular employment (Burnett). This group of highly skilled artisans earned 30 to 40 shillings a week (Harrison, The Early Victorians 24). They were mostly handicraftsmen who had served a long apprenticeship. They had become carpenters, watchmakers, hatters, shipwrights, tailors, shoemakers, and printing compositors (Harrison, The Early Victorians 24).
The semi-skilled segment of the working class was composed of factory operatives, who worked on a machine, and earned 14 to 22 shillings per week (Harrison, The Early Victorians 28). This job involved a short period of training rather than a long apprenticeship (Burnett). The largest single employment for women, and the second largest for men and women was domestic service (working as a servant) (Burnett). Other members of the semi-skilled class included miners and textile mill workers. In general, semi-skilled workers earned 20 to 30 shillings a week (Harrison, The Early Victorians 28). When combined with the earnings of their children and wife, the weekly family income would be raised to at least 30 shillings (Harrison, The Early Victorians 28). A man's earnings suggested the state of other aspects of his life. Overall, an average artisan who made 40 shillings a week was probably a skilled man with a steady job in a city. On the other hand, if a man earned ten shillings or less a week, chances were that he was unskilled, periodically unemployed, and lacking education (Harrison, The Early Victorians 22). Finally, at the bottom level of the working class were the unskilled workers, among who were the laborers, railway porters, construction workers, and crossing sweepers (Burnett).
The working class was the extreme opposite of the upper class, and the lifestyle of the people who belonged to it reveals many things that serve to prove the leisurely, comfortable image of the Victorian Era wrong. The poor condition of life for the working class was largely a result of the industrialization and urbanization that characterized the period. As machines were developed in Great Britain, new jobs opened up in factories in the cities. This led to an influx of people from rural areas to the city. The extent of the growth of cities can be seen by the fact that in 1831, 1,900,000 people lived in Greater London, and by 1851, 2,600,000 people lived in London (Harrison, The Early Victorians 4). Urbanization was also the result of natural increase, (surplus of births over deaths), and immigration from Ireland (particularly during the Irish potato famine of 1845-1850). As more people moved to the city, the number of workers in factories increased, and production eventually soared. Even so, the largest industry was still agriculture, since over one and three-quarter million people were directly involved in it (Harrison, The Early Victorians 10).
Industrialization led to miserable conditions for workers. For example, as soon as a working class child was four or five years old, he was sent to work in a factory. Children in a Derbyshire textile mill worked 15 to 16 hours a day, six days a week, for a weekly wage of half a crown (Hibbert 72). They came home so exhausted that they just fell asleep. As for those who lived in the city, the majority were called the "laboring poor,” and included everyone except a minority of gentry, industrialists, commercial and professional men. A poor man was someone who had to work to support himself and his family. Poverty was the lot of many, especially the majority of the early Victorians (1832-1851) (Burnett).
In the Victorian era, one was born into a class, and there was not much hope of "moving up in the world," unless one married someone who belonged to a higher social class, which did not happen often. The Cycle of Poverty imprisoned most people in the working class. Harrison provides the following illustration: boy grows up in a poor family. When he becomes a man, he marries, and for a while he can enjoy a modest income, since he and his wife both work. But when their children are born, and the wife stays home to take care of them, the family is poor again. As the children grow, they become old enough to begin working and soon the family has some prosperity again. Eventually, though, the children marry and move away, and the man has to spend his old age in the workhouse. Most embarrassing of all is that when the man dies, he will only have a pauper's funeral. The Cycle of Poverty is not easily broken (Harrison, The Early Victorians 23).
Due to urbanization, conditions at home were just as bad as in the factories. For the sake of cheapness, thousands of one-room cottages were built back to back. Often twenty people lived in a room, and slept in the midst of filth on straw. The air was always thick with the smoke of the nearby factories. It was hard to sleep, since the room was literally crawling with rats and fleas (Hibbert 72).To read more, a subscription is needed: Click here to subscribe