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Archive for July, 2012

Like our own era, the Victorian age was a time of great change. For some it was an age of  prosperity, for others it was an age of desperation. This was the first age of consumerism and the Industrial Revolution was in many ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. Mass production and increased international trade made more and more products available and affordable for those who could pay.  And with the growth in industry and trade, the middle classes grew in number and wealth, and wanted to buy as much as possible of what was on offer.

These first lines from “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens are certainly amongst the best openings to a novel ever written. But not only do they set the tone and atmosphere of the book and give a flavour of what is to come, they also capture a taste of the challenges and uncertainties of the Victorian era.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

While the Wealthy and the new Middle Classes prospered in the Victorian era, the Working Class did not.  Work, whether in factories, sweat-shops and mines was invariably dirty and dangerous; hours were long and poorly paid. Children had to work, in order for families to survive, and working conditions were often worse for children than they were for their parents. Towns and cities grew quickly to house the workers, but much of the housing was poor quality and overcrowded. Vast slum areas sprung up, putting pressures on water supplies and the disposal of waste. Coal fires and factories filled the air with smoke and other pollutants. The reaction to living conditions and the gap between the haves and have-nots generated rebellion  in many parts of Europe, as people fought for basic human rights in bloody revolutions. In Britain any signs of revolution were ruthlessly suppressed.

Drunkenness was common amongst the working poor, as alcohol was one of the few affordable escapes from hard lives. It was seen by the better off as a reason for poverty, rather than a symptom. Meanwhile opium and a range of other drugs were used by brewers to strengthen beer while keeping down costs. Drugs were also readily available in Victorian times for the better-off. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes injects cocaine when there are no stimulating cases to occupy his mind, much to the disapproval of Dr Watson. Opium dens also feature in Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Yet the real drugs “problem” in Victorian times was not with the illicit drugs that were largely frowned upon, but the propriety medicines that were consumed in great quantities, but little spoken of. Numerous popular household remedies and tonics contained substantial amounts of opium and yet could be bought over the counter. These included “Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne” a general nerve tonic, “Dover’s Powder” used to treat a wide variety of common complaints and “Godfrey’s Cordial” which was commonly given to children and infants to “help” them sleep – and of course the ever popular, “laudanum.”

Nowhere were these contradictions in Society more obvious than in the Morality of the Victorians. They say the Victorians invented Childhood, treating the child as someone who needed to be protected and nurtured, and yet children as young as five were working in mines and factories, quite legally, during much of Queen Victoria’s long reign. Women too, in the middle-class household were regarded almost as saints, “protected” from anything that might offend or morally corrupt. Yet they were often little more than prisoners in their own homes with few freedoms in terms of what they could own, or how they could behave; while  outside the home, prostitution and pornography were rife.

Great play is made of the philanthropy of the Victorians and the fine public buildings often financed from private fortunes; and indeed there were many genuine philanthropists. Yet this philanthropy also masks in some ways the incredible wealth-divide between the haves and have-nots and the terrible working and living conditions of the vast majority of the population. Yet gradually awareness of the plight of the poor spread. Not least of the factors in this growing awareness was the writing of Charles Dickens. Dickens’ novels had an undoubted impact on Victorian society by giving faces and voices to the poor and proclaiming their humanity. He perhaps more than any other writer changed his world and helped shape the future.

Over the course of Victoria’s reign Britain changed; the right to vote was extended and with greater democracy came improvements in working conditions, housing and education. Yet it leaves me wondering how much of this was down to “Victorian Values” as opposed to the long and sometimes bloody struggle for the basic human rights, that we now sometimes take for granted. We are now in the midst of a Technological Revolution, a new age of consumerism. the world is shrinking again as communication and transport get ever faster. And yet looking around that shrinking world it’s obvious that many millions are going through the worst ravages of the Victorian Industrial Revolution. The opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities” remains as relevant now as it was when it was written.

Much of this post was hosted on the FLY HIGH website on 26th June 2012, but I thought I’d post it here too. In writing my first novel, “Avon Street,” I have tried to bring the Victorian era to life, with all its contradictions and its similarities to modern life. “Avon Street” takes the reader on a journey behind the fine Georgian facades of Bath to expose the darker side of the city.

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