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On Writing: Victorian Influences and Modern-Day Steampunk Part 2

The Crystal Palace

To recap from my first posting on this topic: 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 literature There is a history and cultural development distinctive to that age that comes across to readers of their 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.

Queen Victoria

When Victoria inherited the throne at the age of eighteen, Britain had moved from a primarily agricultural system to one based in manufacturing. The lower class were abandoning the farms and moving to the cities in droves. The country was in the throes of the first industrial revolution in world history. It would see the birth of the factory system, the production line, and the machine age. It would change not only the nature of industry, but the nature of the society as well.

The factory town slums were far removed from the world of the young queen in her palace with her servants. Victoria knew little of the people who lived in such places and of the machines around which their lives were centered.

At the age of twenty, Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert. PBS Empires: Queen Victoria provides details of their “courtship:”

“Prince Albert’s father, Duke Ernest of Coburg, was a brother of Queen
Victoria’s mother, the widowed Duchess of Kent. Since Albert was a
second son, he would have no inheritance and no occupation. The family
conspired almost from his birth in August 1819, three months after that of
Victoria, to link the first cousins in marriage”(“Prince Albert,” n.d.).

Victoria proposed (which was necessary because she was sovereign) and Albert accepted. However, many of Victoria’s subjects viewed her choice of husband with dismay, primarily because Albert was foreign. From the early days of Victoria’s reign a marked distrust of foreigners grew and developed even further as England became a global super-power. In part it was a sense of national pride—in the superiority of the English way of life—that created this mistrust of foreign people and their cultures and customs. Jan Morris explains:

“It’s hard to generalize it by a British attitude, isn’t it? But the attitude of
those people who were thinking about it or in a position to do anything
about it was, I think, that they . . . were masters, not only of industrial
production, but of the means of distributing the things they made around
the world. They were really on top of the world, and it gave them I’m sure
a kind of magical feeling . . .”(“Interview with Jan Morris,” n.d.).

Parliament reflected the mood of the general public and refused to grant Albert any type of a title. Yet the ministers to the Queen noted that he had more patience in dealing with complex matters of state and encouraged Victoria to include her new husband in their daily briefings. Slowly their relationship developed into a co-monarchy. Albert was discharging the duties of a king, in reality if still not in title.

Because Albert had a lively interest in industry and invention, the queen was introduced to new developments in technology. He tried to open her eyes to the ideas and opinions that were still uprooting the old agriculturally-based world around them. Albert focused on technological change as a way to improve the lives of all people, not just the upper and middle class. He wanted the standard of life of the working class improved, he wanted wealth to be more evenly distributed, and he wanted more people to have the advantages of the new inventions.

Crystal Palace

One of Albert’s greatest successes—The Great Exhibition of The Works of Industry of All Nations (informally known as the Crystal Palace)—almost failed because of the British nationalist attitudes. Protests were lodged in Parliament to the Exhibition because of the influx of foreigners that it would attract. Political enemies of the Prince focused on every aspect of the event, complaining relentlessly in Parliament and in the press about the construction of the building that would house the Exhibition, the perceived negative impact that it would have on the economy, and the folly of the Queen for allowing her foreign-born husband to bring such disorder to London. Despite all of the protests, it was an unparalleled success:

“On May 1, 1851 the Great Exhibition opened at the Crystal Palace, an
engineering marvel itself, on the southeastern edge of Hyde Park. A
wonder of iron and glass, it was the first substantial prefabricated building,
and housed a staggering sampling of the new developments in
engineering, manufactures and the arts. Its impetus in fostering change
would be enormous, and the setting, with light streaming through its
293,655 panes of glass, awesome. Six million visitors were recorded,
equal to a third of the kingdom. Charlotte Brontë wrote to her father,
‘Whatever human industry has created, you will find there.'” (“Engines of
Change,” n.d.).

Inexpensive tickets allowed many of the working class to attend the Exhibition. People from the Continent and as far away as America journeyed to London to visit the Crystal Palace. Yet, even when the crowds topped over 100,000 visitors a day, there was no disorder. For many, it was the first time they could glimpse the technological pre-eminence of Britain and it generated feelings of awe and wonderment (“Engines of Change, n.d.).

Crystal Palace

However wonderful the new technology seemed, it also brought about negative results as well. The new technology was akin to the gift of the Promethean fire: the benefits were numerous—almost unlimited it seemed—but there was a price to be paid as well, and it was inevitably paid through human suffering.

To be continued . . .

Engines of Change. (n.d.) PBS Empires: Queen Victoria. Retrieved
Interview with Jan Morris. (n.d.) PBS Empires: Queen Victoria. Retrieved
Prince Albert. (n.d.) PBS Empires: Queen Victoria. Retrieved from

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