When I was nine years old, I read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I think this was the start of my love of Victorian literature and the Victorian Era; my interests later expanded to include the Regency Period when I discovered the novels of Jane Austen, and then even more of British and American literature, but the Victorians captured my imagination from the start.
The combination of idyllic pastoral life and overcrowded city dwelling, of horse-drawn carts next to steam-powered trains, of personal workmanship next to mass-produced goods, created a dramatic tension in the literature of the day. The nostalgia and idealization of the past mixed with the ideas that industry and innovation were the only ways to improve the human condition.
To me—this dichotomy is fascinating. To have two world views so diametrically opposite share the same “stage” openly during the era creates a wonderful opportunity for fiction to thrive. Just look at some of the writers from this era: The Bronte Sisters, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Bram Stoker, Alfred Tennyson, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. The output of this time period is amazing.
Steampunk is often set in an alternate version of this era (or in an alternate version of the American West. I may write about this in another posting someday.) It has that same diametric opposition that the Victorians explored.
As a reader, it has always been important to me to understand the culture and the development of a society; this influences an author in the creation of his/her narrative. As a writer, this understanding is important for creating a story world. For example—the juxtaposition of the rural and the industrial ages didn’t just “happen” in Victorian England. There is a history and cultural development distinctive to that age that comes across to readers of Victorian fiction. By researching this era and its influences, I can have a better understanding of the forces that should be influencing my own story worlds. The Victorian model is a great first step toward building a Steampunk setting.
In Britain, in the first half of the 19th Century, a technological revolution occurred that would change the life of almost every person on the planet. Using the power of steam to power engines, the British built railways, steamships, and machines that made their small island nation the workshop of the world.
As Richard D. Altick explains in Victorian People and Ideas (1973), in 1819, the year Queen Victoria was born, the world was closer to the world of the Romans than the world of today. Most people lived in an agricultural community. Machines were powered by wind, water, or, more commonly, horses. “Horsepower” established the limit of speed. Farmers used horses to clear the land, plow the fields, and haul produce. Horse-drawn carriages were the fastest means of public transportation and traveled at no more than 10 miles per hour.
The first steam locomotives heralded a revolution that would give Britain a decisive lead over its trading rivals, but also shake its social and political stability to the core. By 1829 the world’s first public Rail Road was completed, linking the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. The general public could now travel at an astonishing 35 miles per hour and both materials and goods could be shipped with remarkable speed.
In Pax Britannia, Jan Morris (1980) explains that the British of the time were not only masters of production but also of the means of distribution. The items that they made were shipped all over the world. That gave them a “magical” type of feeling, as if they had acquired the promethean fire. They were able to do things that no one else could do, or had ever done.
In Greek Mythology, Prometheus brings mankind the gift of fire. For this act, he pays a terrible price of eternal torment at the hands of the gods. The British, viewing the steam engine as a gift of that magnitude, soon found that it also came at a terrible price. There was social upheaval, as the railways joined with the factories to move the economy from a rural/cottage-industry to a city/factory-industry. There were physical hardships, as the lower class was packed into overcrowded cities. There was also desperate squalor as pollution from the factories destroyed the air and the environment.
As Altick (1973) relates, the compact town surrounded by green hills and golden fields became a thing of the past. In 1800 there was one city—London—with a population over 100,000. By the mid-century there were nine cities that housed over 100,000 souls. In 1891 that number jumped to twenty-three. Banks and warehouses dominated the view, and even in the fashionable areas the smokestacks from the mills and engineering works pumped noxious chemicals into the air. The buildings were covered with soot and pitted and eroded by fumes.
In the slums, as Altick (1973) notes, the cities’ density and expanse bred a sense of captivity. Vice, pollution, and disease filled these areas. Unlike the small towns of the past, where people would know their neighboring families for generations, rootless, indifferent strangers who were focused on their own survival crowed on top of one another. Altick (1973, pp. 77-78) explains:
“Paradoxically, the closer people were brought together physically, as in
mill or slum, the farther apart they drifted in any social or spiritual sense;
in the midst of crowds they were alone. . .There was a grim
appropriateness in the fact that Gustave Dore, having done a set of
illustrations for the Divine Comedy, should have gone on to portray mid-
Victorian London in terms powerfully suggestive of Purgatory and Hell.”
There was never enough housing in the slums. The poor conditions, industrial accidents, and disease lead to early deaths. In fact, most lower class people did not live past the age of 45. Lower class children worked in the factories and mines, as early as the age of 4. Orphans were sold to factory owners. Middle class children who were orphaned were often shipped off to “schools” where they could be trained as servants and governesses, generally under very harsh conditions.
Altick (1973) believes that these circumstances led to the loss of personal identity. A worker was a part of a shift, a group of other workers who performed the same function. Each person came and went at the sound of a bell. The work, monotonous to the extreme, was a mere fragment of the whole. Unlike artisans who worked in cottage industries and created fully integrated products, these workers were, for the first time, making interchangeable parts with no room for a personal touch or expression. Altick (1973, pp. 242-243) writes:
“After his long shift, the worker went home to a congested slum where
again his sense of identity was erased by the sheer numerousness of the
people around him. More subtle but no less destructive was the loss of
any belief that he could command his destiny. The wage he received, in
deed whether or not he worked at all, was at the mercy of so-called
economic laws, often interpreted by the employer for his own
This was the world that Victoria inherited when she was crowned Queen of England at the age of eighteen.
(To be continued in future postings . . .)
Altick, R. D. (1973). Victorian people and ideas. New York: Norton.
Morris, J. (1980). Pax Britannia. New York: Hardcourt.