Characteristics During the Victorian Era
When imagining the Victorian Age, royalty, fancy lifestyles, and elaborate living often come to mind. However, during this same era, other lifestyles and conditions of a completely different nature were occurring. Many of the English people lived in poverty. Charles Dickens, one of the great writers of this period, described how it was to live during the Victorian Era. Although England grew from an agricultural to an industrial society, not all citizens benefited from this change. In addition, the undesirable health and medical environment plagued both the wealthy and the poor.
Charles Dickens was a profound British writer who composed novels, short stories, dramatic works, poetry, and essays (?Charles Dickens? 1). He was born on February 7, 1812 in Portsmouth England where he was the second of eight children (Perdue 1). His father John was a minor government official as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office: he was then transferred to Somerset House in London. The family moved to Chatham in the Medway Valley, where Charles experienced the most glorious part of his childhood (Perdue 1). After moving back to London, John Dickens had a tendency to live beyond his needs, spending all the money he earned, and was sent to Marshalsea debtor?s prison in 1824 (?Charles (John Huffam) Dickens? 2). Starting at an early age, Dickens was taught at home by his mother Elizabeth, and later attended a Dame school in Chatham. Even though he had received a decent education, he felt very unsuccessful since his sister Frances was winning awards studying at The Royal Academy of Music, while he was still a mere boy (?Charles (John Huffam) Dickens? 2). According to David Perdue, Charles was removed from school and sent to work at a boot-blacking factory earning six shillings a week to help support the family. Charles considered this the worst time in his life, which would later influence much of his writings. In a fragmentary autobiography Dickens wrote:
?It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age?.My father and mother were quite satisfied?.My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life. (Perdue 1)
Charles Dickens first love was Maria Beadnell. Their love for each other failed deeply from what he thought was their difference in social classes. This rejection scarred Dickens, causing him to burn his works and anything else that reminded him of Maria. (?Charles Dickens? 1). Dickens creates characters and events that connect people and places from his lifetime into his literary works. For example, he depicts Maria as the cold hearted Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, who burns to death in compensation for her cold heart.
Roughly two years later, he met Catherine Hogarth the daughter of newspaper editor George Hogarth. In 1836 they are married and had ten children; their marriage ended in 1858 (Perdue 1). Within two years, he was involved with Ellen Turnan, an actress he met while interested in theatre. Ellen was 27 years younger then Dickens, which represents the ?happy, later life couple? Joe and Biddy, from Great Expectations (?Charles (John Huffam) Dickens? 2). This relationship was kept a secret until Dickens? daughter revealed it after his death (?Charles Dickens? 2).
Many experiences in an author?s life usually impact upon their style of writing. As a child, Dickens read many 18th century novels and gothic tales, which helped to shape much his own works (?Great Expectations? 1). Furthermore, his writings came in three contained periods. The first of which was his early period, that included the works Sketches, Pickwick and Oliver Twist. Dickens became more and more concerned with greed in what is considered his middle period, with writings such as A Christmas Carol, depicting characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge. His late period started with the powerfully negative Bleak house, which portrayed a society in decay and the lifestyles that revolved around it (?Charles (John Huffam) Dickens? 3). The Mystery of Edwin Drood was the last novel Dickens started to write, left unfinished at his death. He died on June 18, 1870 of a paralytic stroke in Gads Hill, Kent England. The public was greatly saddened by his death and his tombstone read: ?He was a sympathizer with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed, and by his death, one of England?s greatest poets is lost to the world? (Perdue 1).
Struggling to survive during the time period of Dickens? writing, health and medicine were at the worst in most areas of England, but had the potential for improving. Rural people usually lived longer then city dwellers: the upper classes were healthier and lived longer then the lower working classes. This was due to the different living conditions that each class had faced (Mitchell 83). Since medicine was not available for everyone, numerous diseases spread throughout the crowded towns, infesting and killing many. Most citizens relied on traditional remedies and cures like herbal medicine, homemade prescriptions, and health advice that had been passed through families and elderly women. There were many generalities made as to why certain people would get ill, or how to keep him or herself from getting sick. Some said that members of the upper class could not digest all the coarse foods that the working people ate. (Mitchell 84). It was also known that men and women were too old to work at the age of forty due to poor nutrition, working too hard for too long, and physical stress they had put on themselves. There were some theories on how to promote better health, mostly for the upper class. They were told to clean their drains and live in a house on high ground so the bad city air would stay away from them. It was said that if you seal up your house and kept it closed, that the bad air would stay out?but in reality, it actually spread the bacteria that was already inside (Mitchell 85).
Medical practitioners became increasingly professionalized during this time. (Stevenson). People could practice and prescribe medicine without having any professional qualifications. Apothecaries sold drugs, gave prescriptions and practiced medicine; surgeons set bones, pulled teeth, and treated numerous wounds (Mitchell 85). Medical schooling was not very widespread, so the way people learned was from someone already in the field. Apothecaries went through a five-year apprenticeship, which included six months of hospital work. Only men were doctors, and were allowed to have a ?paying pupil? who would read his books, watch him work, and assist him in what needed to be done. The Medical Act of 1858 prevented women from becoming licensed, requiring that medical qualifications be earned in the United Kingdom. By the end of the century many women had conquered the feat of medical school and made their way into the profession (Mitchell 86).
Sally Mitchell stated, ?The most significant Victorian Medical achievement lay not in individual treatments or the discovery of cures, but through legislating effective measures for public health.? It was very evident that urban people were sickly, and as a consequence of some investigations, the Public Health Act of 1848 created agencies that began many new programs to improve living conditions (Stevenson). Sewers were built, pure water was supplied, the tax on soap was abolished, standards of purity were applied to food products, and school health examinations began. Diseases that contaminated food and people such as Cholera and diarrhea, slowly diminished. (Stevenson). Although public health investigations were not completely finished by the end of the century, people were living longer and were in better physical condition then ever before (Mitchell 93).
Food, money, and conditions were poor for the farmers during the 1800?s in Victorian England. Small farmers were barely making a living from the few acres of land they farmed. Working all day, they did not partake in many other activities such as running local affairs since they had no interest (Reader 99). W. J. Reader explains that farmers who owned their own land had decent food, adequate housing, and simple entertainment, but their lack of education made them unqualified to be social or political leaders. The attitude toward education and schooling was very negative, which did not help in the family life. Most farmers and laborers were illiterate because until the Act of 1870 made provision for children to go to school if there was one within reach, it was a matter of chance whether a country child could get to school or not. After this, many squires demanded that schools were built, often at their own expense (Stevenson). Taking care of the house, husband, and children, women played no other major roles, simply because it was not their purpose in life. Eventually people tried to escape the life of laboring or farming, many of which resided to enlistment, emigration, or becoming a servant (Reader 102).
A major change that was taking place in the late 18th century was the transition from agriculture to industry. The textile revolution was the work of a wholly new order of men, raised from the ranks by their energy in seizing the opportunities of the new industrial revolution (Trevelyan 104). Before the Factory Acts came into play, the working conditions for women and children were truly horrific. They would work 12-15 hour days in unsanitary conditions receiving extremely low pay. George Macaulay Trevelyan quoted that ?In his 1854 novel Hard Times, a satire of industrial society and utilitarianism, Charles Dickens creates the fictitious but recognizable Coketown, notable for its grim ugliness and the inhumane conditions its inhabitants endure.?
The Victorian Era was definitely a time of growth and development, helping people and times progress into a better condition. Dickens himself brought about many characteristics during the time, having experienced first hand, both rich and poor lifestyles. Even though no major breakthroughs in medicine, or change in working environments were extremely prevalent, the transformation that did occur facilitated growth and prosperity of England.
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