A Survey of British Art and Literature of the Nineteenth Century

by Rhea Vidrine

In the novels Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen, Oliver Twist (1838) by Charles Dickens and The Picture of Dorian Grey (1891) by Oscar Wilde and the paintings by William Powell Frith (1818-1909), Ford Maddox Brown (1821-1893), and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), the modern viewer can gain a greater appreciation for the rich and diverse culture of nineteenth-century Britain.

Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) expresses the concern with social status and morality that prevailed early in the century. Through the trials of Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, the reader learns that high social status does not always guarantee high moral character. In the novel, Mr. Darcy does not believe that Mr. Bingley is a proper suitor for Elizabeth because he is superior and therefore she is not of the appropriate social class. Mr. Darcy believes that anyone belonging to a lower social class is unworthy to marry someone with greater social prominence. Eventually Darcy sees how foolish it is to be prejudiced and it is he and Jane who marry.

The novel suggests that the wealthy do not always act admirably. Jane exhibits strong moral character. When Jane believes that Mr. Darcy stole money from Mr. Whikham, she refuses to associate with Mr. Darcy because she is disappointed by his lack of virtue. The characters portrayed in Pride and Prejudice give the reader a greater appreciation for the social and moral structure of life in towns such as Bath, the home of Austen.

Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) is a literary work that informs the reader of important social issues Londoners faced before mid-century. In his novel, Dickens brings to light the concerns of the working class. He reveals the worst conditions experienced by the urban poor. He especially criticizes the Poor Laws and depicts the deplorable conditions of the workhouses and the corruption of the government officials. Dickens graphically describes the horrendous conditions of the workhouse where Oliver is forced to work. In a famous scene, Oliver is given an insufficient amount of food, and when he asks for more, is punished.

The novel depicts the corruption in the city through the actions of Mr. Bumble, the Beadle of the parish. Mr. Bumble is easily influenced by money, power, and sex. Dickens also depicts the vast amount of crime in London through Oliver’s involvement with the criminals Fagin and Bill Sykes. Even though Oliver is forced into a life of crime to survive, the novel still conveys the traditional message of good triumphing over evil. Obviously, Dickens was greatly influenced by the reform efforts. Dickens describes the aspects of society that the more fortunate in society did not believe existed and gives the reader a more accurate depiction of the life of the lower classes in London.

Queen Victoria (1837-1901) held many of the same beliefs as the middle class, therefore undercutting the privilege of the aristocracy. During the Victorian age, the era given her name, there was greater social mobility as men from the bourgeoisie were able to work for aristocratic titles and women were allowed to marry into wealthy aristocratic families (“Class,” 167). The strict divisions between the upper and middle classes began to disappear. It was only the lives of those in the lower class that did not change significantly. Most workers faced dismal working conditions and had to overcome great poverty. The wages of the working class were so low that many laborers could not afford to feed their families or provide them with decent living conditions; many families were forced to live in the slums, where sanitation was poor. For those who could find work, the working conditions were often deplorable. Many workers were forced to perform strenuous labor that often led to injury. Workers were not provided with insurance or workers’ compensation; therefore, injured workers were often fired if they could not return immediately to work. Even women and children were forced to work in horrendous conditions. Within the mining industry, children were forced to work in the coal mines because of their small stature. These children were ordered to crawl into the small crevices of the mines and hold the lantern for the coal miners. The children often worked twelve hour days and were given minimal breaks for food and water. They were also in grave danger from collapsing mine shafts. Labor unions were formed for workers to improve working conditions. While these labor unions benefited the skilled workers, the unskilled workers, known as the “sunken people”, were still exploited (“Child Labor”).

The Poor Law Act of 1834 established workhouses for unskilled workers. In order to limit the numbers of those who received such aid, the workhouses provided little food and required participants to perform tedious tasks. Families were separated and the workers were separated by gender (Roberts, 176). The working class did see some change with the passage of the Reform Acts; however, the “sunken people” were never able to fully escape poverty and lived in a permanent state of despair.

The Victorian era is often considered a time of great contradictions. While many people were preaching about the need to develop high morals, many of the citizens were involved in lurid activities, such as prostitution. Queen Victoria stressed morality and tried to make the Victorian era a period of reform. Men and women were not permitted to speak openly about sex or childbirth. Women were not allowed to travel alone; they had to travel with a chaperon. Homosexuality was thought of as sinful and was illegal. The concern with morality can be seen in the clothing of the Victorian era. Proper women covered their entire body and were not even allowed to show their ankles. Even though Victorians spoke of the need to raise moral standards, the standards were not upheld by many (Nunn).

Figure1. Typical dress for women during the Victorian Era (Available: http://victorianweb.org/)

Literature of the Victorian era was greatly influenced by the morality of the time. Novels often depicted righteous characters being rewarded and villainous characters being punished. At the end of the century one finds the beginning of the aesthetic movement. Artists of the Aesthetic Movement believed in “Art for art’s sake” (Buckley, 159).

The Picture of Dorian Grey (1891) by Oscar Wilde reflects the values of the Aesthetic Movement. When the novel was first published, it was widely criticized because of its references to homosexuality (Buckley, 162). The novel was considered immoral by those used to the strict social and moral guidelines of the Victorians. Wilde expressed the beliefs of the Aesthetic Movement in The Picture of Dorian Grey, stating, “All art is quite useless.” Wilde firmly believed in the principle that art should be able to stand alone; it should not force emotions upon the viewer (Buckley, 164). Even though The Picture of Dorian Grey was considered immoral and was widely criticized, it expresses the principles of the Aesthetic Movement.

Art as well as literature reinforced the conventions of the British society, as can be seen in the oil paintings such as The Railway Station (1862) by William Powell Frith, Work (c 1852-65) by Ford Maddox Brown, and The Nocturne in Black and Gold (1875) by the American expatriate, James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Figure 2. Frith’s The Railway Station (Available http://www.york.ac.uk/)
Figure 3. Portrait of Frith’s family within the painting (Available: http://victorianweb.org/)
Figure 4. Work by Ford Maddox Brown (Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/)

Both The Railway Station by William Powell Frith and Work by Ford Maddox Brown reflect the distinct social classes and document the rise of the middle class during the 1850s and 1860s. In The Railway Station, Frith depicts the different social classes interacting at Paddington Station. In the center of the painting a family sends their son to boarding school; it is believed that this represents Frith’s family. He also depicts the wealthy portraying women in white gowns and men in top hats. By showing the two classes together, Frith depicts the dissolving barriers between the two classes.

Work by Ford Maddox Brown underscores the differences between the working class, the middle class, and the wealthy. Brown shows members of the lower class working diligently: the men in the center of the painting and the flower seller in the left foreground earn their money through hard work. In contrast to these workers, Brown shows the wealthy on horseback watching the workers suggesting that the upper class citizens unjustly have more money than the workers and waste it on luxuries.

Lastly, Brown depicts two scholarly gentlemen, Thomas Carlyle and Frederick Denison, to represent the highly educated, intellectual laborers (“Brown, Ford Maddox,”98) In Work, Brown successfully shows the disparity between the social classes: the lower class must work arduously for little money while the upper class does not perform manual labor and yet still receives greater compensation.

Figure 5. Nocturne in Black and Gold by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold from 1875 reflects the values of the Aesthetic Movement addressed in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. Whistler was a firm believer in “Art for art’s sake”. Whistler’s painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold, was greatly criticized by John Ruskin, who was a prominent art critic and a supporter of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group renowned for their highly detailed narrative paintings. Ruskin believed that Whistler’s painting was not true art; rather, it was paint splattered on a canvas (“Whistler, James Abbott McNeil”). Whistler defended his art, and noted like Wilde, that art should not force any emotions on the viewer; it should simply have aesthetic beauty.

During the nineteenth century, both art and literature represented social conventions and expressed different aesthetic philosophies. The work of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, William Powell Frith, Ford Maddox Brown, and James Whistler, the modern viewer is given a glimpse of the diversity of British culture as it was represented in literature and art.

Works Cited

Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. “The Aesthetic Eighties.” The Victorian Temper. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951: 159-165.

Cody, David. “Child Labor.” Victorian Web. 31 Aug 2008.

Cody David. “Social Class.” Victorian Web. 31 Aug 2008.

Mitchell, Sally (Ed.). “Brown, Ford Maddox.” Victorian Britain. New York: Garland Publishing, 1988: 98.

Mitchell, Sally (Ed.). “Class.” Victorian Britain. New York: Garland Publishing, 1988: 167-169.

“Nocturne in Black and Gold The Falling Rocket.” JSS Virtual Gallery. 31 Aug 2008

Nunn, Joan. “Fashion and Costume, 1850-1900: A Summary and Overview.” Victorian Web. 31 Aug 2008.

Roberts, Adam C. “Poor Laws.” Victorian Culture and Society The Essential Glossary. London: Arnold Publishers, 2003: 176.

“Whistler, James Abbott McNeil.” Webmuseum, Paris. 31 Aug 2008.