"All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their own peril."--by Oscar Wilde, Preface, "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
The Victorian Period revolves around the political career of Queen Victoria. She was crowned in 1837 and died in 1901 (which put a definite end to her political career). A great deal of change took place during this period--brought about because of the Industrial Revolution; so it's not surprising that the literature of the period is often concerned with social reform. As Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) wrote, "The time for levity, insincerity, and idle babble and play-acting, in all kinds, is gone by; it is a serious, grave time."
Of course, in the literature from this period, we see a duality, or double standard, between the concerns for the individual (the exploitation and corruption both at home and abroad) and national success--in what is often referred to as the Victorian Compromise. In reference to Tennyson, Browning and Arnold, E. D. H. Johnson argues: "Their writings... locate the centers of authority not in the existing social order but within the resources of individual being."
Against the backdrop of technological, political, and socioeconomic change, the Victorian Period was bound to be a volatile time, even without the added complications of the religious and institutional challenges brought by Charles Darwin and other thinkers, writers, and doers.
Victorian Period: Early & Late
The Period is often divided into two parts: the early Victorian Period (ending around 1870) and the late Victorian Period. Writers associated with the early period are: Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), Robert Browning (1812-1889), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), Emily Bronte (1818-1848), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), George Eliot (1819-1880), Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870).
Writers associated with the late Victorian Period include: George Meredith (1828-1909), Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), Oscar Wilde (1856-1900), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), A.E. Housman (1859-1936), and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).
While Tennyson and Browning represented pillars in Victorian poetry, Dickens and Eliot contributed to the development of the English novel. Perhaps the most quintessentially Victorian poetic works of the period is: Tennyson's "In Memorium" (1850), which mourns the loss of his friend. Henry James describes Eliot's "Middlemarch" (1872) as "organized, moulded, balanced composition, gratifying the reader with the sense of design and construction."
It was a time of change, a time of great upheaval, but also a time of GREAT literature!