The Victorian Era
Alexandrina Victoria (1819-1901), Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1819-1901) was born in the same year as George Eliot. Victoria’s reign lasted from 1837 until her death. Because her life span and reign came to characterize this period in history, it came to be known as the “Victorian” Era. Victorian England is associated with restrictive moral attitudes and repressive standards of social behavior. There was, however, a strong element of criticism of these standards among many prominent writers and intellectuals of the time.
The Industrial Revolution
The 19th Century can now be seen as a period of transition from a pre-industrial economy to an industrial economy in most of the Western world. In England, the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by great political and cultural changes, as well as scientific advances. The development of railroads was seen by many to indicate a major change, while various reform bills marked a shift in the political, economic and social structure of the culture. These changes produced new class formations and a new class consciousness in England. The Great Exhibition of 1851, which brought visitors from all over Europe, showcased industrial machines by way of celebrating England’s lead in the industrial revolution.
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859)
In 1859 (the same year “The Lifted Veil” was published) Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in which he put forth his theory of evolution through natural selection, known as Darwinism. Theorizing that humans are descendants of apes, Darwinism was controversial, in that it posed a challenge to existing Christian ideas about the origin of life. However, among most scientists, Darwinism was readily received and quickly accepted. Herbert Spencer, a close friend of George Eliot, was an influential thinker and leading proponent of Darwinism.
Mesmerism, Phrenology and Clairvoyance
There were many areas of “pseudo-science” which piqued the interest of intellectuals and others in Victorian England. Phrenology was a theory that one could determine a person’s character and ability based on a close examination of the shape and size of their head. (Phrenology has been debunked in the 20th Century as a pseudo-science, used to support racist ideas). Mesmerism, based on the practices of the physician Charles Mesmer, was the precursor to modern practices of hypnotism. Clairvoyance referred to having knowledge beyond that of everyday thought and perceptions, a phenomenon now commonly referred to as extrasensory perception (ESP).
Women in Victorian England
The rights of women in Victorian England were severely restricted. Women writers and novelists often chose a male penname, for fear that public knowledge of their sex would either restrict their publication options, negatively effect the response of critics or cause social disgrace. The rights of women were also severely restricted in terms of marriage laws. Divorce was difficult or impossible to obtain legally and looked down upon socially. A woman and man living together out of wedlock resulted in severe social stricture, often cutting off ties to family and friends. In the realm of higher education, women had few, if any, options.
The mid-1850s saw two distinct trends in English literature—realism and Gothic romance. Eliot is widely considered to have mastered the realist novel through most of her works of fiction. Anthony Trollope, a contemporary of Eliot, is also known for his style of realist novel. The Gothic novel, meanwhile, was developed through such works as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Gothic fiction, which borrowed its name from the style of medieval architecture, was characterized by dark tales, often delving into the realm of the supernatural, and grotesque images. In the United States, Gothic fiction was mastered by Edgar Allan Poe, in such short stories as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his collection of stories, Twice-Told Tales.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, George Eliot, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.