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Victorian Britain

Victorian Britain

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Victorian Britain

Course No. 8490
Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
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Course No. 8490
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  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 225 portraits, maps, and illustrations that take you back in time to Victorian England. Portraits include those of Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Florence Nightingale, and Charles Darwin; maps chart the spread of Victorian London's city streets and reveal the epic scope of the British Empire's colonial project in Africa; and illustrations and early photographs document everything from The Great Exhibition of 1851 to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Celebration. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

Darwin. Gladstone. Disraeli. Dickens. Meet the pioneering, paradoxical Britons of the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Through peaceful and gradual change they built one of the world's first industrial democracies—in a class-bound society with a powerful landed aristocracy and a negative view of business. They gloried in a globe-spanning and relatively humanely run empire—even as it distracted them from underlying economic weaknesses that presaged Britain's 20th-century decline. They were also intensely sentimental—yet ignored extreme squalor and hardship in their midst.Consider these other apparent contradictions:

  • They became history's first campaigners against slavery and pursued a host of reformist, often religiously inspired causes with zeal and vision—yet tolerated child labor and the Opium War.
  • They were quick to exploit new technologies, including the steam engine, cast-iron construction, and gas lighting—yet lost their economic leadership to Germany and America.
  • The Victorians created the cityscape of modern Britain—visible today except for what was destroyed by bombing in World War II—while consciously trying to re-create earlier styles.
  • They faced rapid and sweeping scientific, historical, and technological shifts—yet avoided massive upheavals that tore at other European and Atlantic societies in their day.
  • And in their trademark style, the Victorians even reformed cricket, turning it from a riotous diversion for hard drinkers and gamblers into a byword for flannel-clad decency and goodhearted fair play that crossed class lines and brought together the best features of democracy and aristocracy.

Victorian Britain: Strengths and Foibles

This course is a chronological journey into the Victorian story with all its strengths and foibles and invites you to reflect on its lessons both positive and negative.

You move from the unexpected ascension to the throne of teenaged Princess Victoria in 1837 to her death in 1901 as the Boer War neared its end.

You learn about the lives of Victorian women; the situation facing working people and the rise of trade unionism; Victorian achievements in art, literature, architecture, and music; and what Leonard Woolf called "the seriousness of games" and of leisure-time activities as windows on Victorian life.

You discuss the important role played by Christianity as a force for both principled adherence to tradition and principled pursuit of change; and the influence of science and the debates over its impact that animated the Victorians.

You learn what the Victorians believed about education; the questions raised by Britain's rule over its Empire, the problems of poverty and crime; the discoveries of Victorian explorers in Africa; and more.

All in all, you will find it a remarkable tour of a remarkable age. And one of the highlights of it, as Professor Patrick N. Allitt explains, is something that never happened.

The Dog That Did Not Bark

Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about Sherlock Holmes are among the best-loved literary legacies from the Victorian age. In one of them, "Silver Blaze" (first published in London's Strand magazine in December 1892), a crucial piece of evidence is something that did not happen—what Holmes calls "the curious incident" of the dog that did not bark.

In Britain there was nothing like the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune, the Italian and German wars of unification, or the American Civil War.

Understanding how the British and their institutions managed peacefully to accommodate and manage the currents of change is one of the main themes in this course.

And the change was vast. With the culmination of the Industrial Revolution, Britain had gone decisively from being a mostly rural and agricultural society to being a land of large industrial cities.

Much of the credit, Professor Allitt argues, goes to able leaders.

Gladstone and Disraeli

"The first was Victoria herself," he says, "who came to the throne at a time when the monarchy was at a low ebb thanks to the foibles and derelictions of her predecessors. Her example of probity and assurance helped make the monarchy a symbol of stability and national unity that served Britain well. Therefore, the age deserves to be named after her for more than accidental reasons."

But above all were the two great prime ministers, the Liberal William Gladstone (1809-1898) and the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881). Between them they dominated the political landscape and played crucial roles in helping Britain absorb and creatively adapt to the massive changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy.

Each in his own way was a remarkable character, and their clashes and collaborations (whether overt or tacit) are justifiably the stuff of legend.

Victorian Firsts

Victorian Britain was the first society to:

  • go from majority illiterate to near-universal basic literacy
  • abolish public executions, in 1868
  • offer free universal public schooling, beginning with Prime Minister William Gladstone's Education Act of 1870
  • build railroads, steam-powered mills, and iron-hulled ships
  • create a public building lit by electric lights (the Savoy Theatre in London, custom-built for Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta productions in 1881).

British doctors such as Sir Joseph Lister were early advocates of such innovations as anesthesia and sterile procedure, while Florence Nightingale essentially invented modern nursing during the Crimean War.

British engineers and architects were the first to build with cast iron and plate glass, creating such magnificent structures as Scotland's Firth of Forth railroad bridge (still standing) and London's Crystal Palace.

A Chorus of Victorian Voices

One of the joys—and for professional historians, challenges—of studying Victorian history is the sheer wealth of sources. It was a literate age, and one of the first societies in which statistics were systematically collected, analyzed, and reported on.

Queen Victoria herself was a faithful diarist and kept up a huge and lively correspondence. Among the highlights quoted in these lectures are the 21-year-old queen's excited and warmly amorous impressions of her husband-to-be Prince Albert, her contrasting thoughts about Gladstone and Disraeli, and her touching and revealing letter of condolence to Mary Todd Lincoln, written only a few years after Victoria herself had been suddenly and tragically widowed—and from which she never recovered.

A Wealth of Information from a Well-Documented Era

Professor Allitt also cites:

  • Disraeli's tart opinion of Gladstone, as well as a letter of Disraeli's to the queen that stands as a minor masterpiece of artful flattery (no wonder she liked him best)
  • Gladstone's explanation of why he, as a devout Christian, favored the controversial step of seating an atheist member of Parliament
  • a clergyman's hilarious parody of the turgid prose of "social Darwinist" Herbert Spencer
  • Winston Churchill's description of what he experienced during the last full-dress cavalry charge in British military history at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898
  • recollections of affairs by the unknown author of My Secret Life, an 11-volume memoir of one middle-class man's travels through the sexual underworld
  • a Lancashire housemaid's remembrance of what Christmas was like for servants
  • a reforming journalist's heartrending account of hardship and deprivation among poor children in London
  • an Evangelical reformer's horrified account of the boisterous, alcohol-soaked festivities surrounding village holidays.

The End of an Era

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, she left behind a nation indelibly marked by the Victorian legacy, for good and for ill.

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36 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
Year Released: 2002
  • 1
    The Victorian Paradox
    Britain during the age of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) is a society very close to us in many ways, and one of the first to embody the characteristic modern paradoxes with which we still deal. This makes it especially worthwhile to study. x
  • 2
    Victoria’s Early Reign—1837-1861
    The teenage girl who ascended the throne upon her uncle's death had never expected to become queen. She was crowned at a time when the monarchy was at a low ebb, yet her authority and assurance would help make her name the byword for an age. x
  • 3
    The Industrial Revolution—1750-1830
    Political stability and improved farming methods helped make Britain the world's first industrial country. Wealth and squalor were both much in evidence as factories, steam engines, and time clocks imposed a new order on human life. x
  • 4
    Railways and Steamships
    Where were the first railways in Britain—and hence the world—built? What was the "parent" technology from which they were derived? And what other advances in transport did they help lead to? x
  • 5
    Parliamentary Reform and Chartism
    In 1830, only 1 in 20 Britons had the vote. There was no secret ballot, and Parliament was riddled with "rotten boroughs." The Reform Act of 1832 abolished many old constituencies, created new ones, and cautiously expanded the franchise. Chartists pushed for much more. x
  • 6
    The Upper- and Middle-Class Woman
    Courtship, marriage, and motherhood were central for women from the higher classes. Those eager for higher learning and careers faced many obstacles, but a determined few such as Florence Nightingale and George Eliot showed what could be done. x
  • 7
    The Working-Class Woman
    The stark contrasts in Victorian life are apparent in the lives of the poorer majority of women who had to work, almost always at difficult, low-paid, and unhealthy jobs. x
  • 8
    The State Church and Evangelical Revival
    Britain's established church, the Anglican Church or Church of England, felt currents of reform and evangelical revival even as it faced diverse challenges from new ideas and social conditions. x
  • 9
    The Oxford Movement and Catholicism
    In the 1830s and '40s, the Oxford Movement stressed the supernatural aspects of the Church of England. Two of its luminaries, Henry Manning and John Henry Newman, would become leaders of Roman Catholics in Britain. x
  • 10
    Work and Working-Class Life
    The Industrial Revolution did not sweep Britain evenly or all at once, though for most the mills, mines, and shops with their clocks, whistles, and machines meant a whole new—and not always welcome—way of thinking about labor and the use of time. x
  • 11
    Poverty and the “Hungry Forties”
    Industry and city life made poverty more visible and shocking. Utilitarianism, evangelicalism, and works of writers like Charles Dickens roused the conscience as never before. Private philanthropy strove to fill the gaps left by the New Poor Law and its system of dreaded workhouses. x
  • 12
    Ireland, Famine, and Robert Peel
    On "John Bull's Other Island," the potato blight that first struck in 1846 threw millions into near or absolute starvation; sparked mass migration to England, Canada, and the United States; and set off shock waves that crippled England's ruling Tory party for decades. x
  • 13
    Scotland and Wales
    Britain's "Celtic fringes" began to resemble England in crucial ways, witnessing the growth of industrial cities. At the same time, both the Scots and the Welsh showed a penchant for elaborate and sometimes fanciful national traditions. x
  • 14
    Progress and Optimism
    The Great Exhibition of 1851 and its centerpiece, the Crystal Palace, typified the Victorians' belief in improvement of all kinds, material and moral. So did Saltaire, the model workers' town built by the Yorkshire entrepreneur Titus Salt. x
  • 15
    China and the Opium War
    When the Manchu Dynasty barred British merchants from selling illegal but popular opium in China, the merchants called on British arms to force the trade between 1839 and 1842. x
  • 16
    The Crimean War—1854-1856
    Britain's first European war since Waterloo saw many "firsts." Get the inside story on the charge of the Light Brigade, the pioneering medical work of Florence Nightingale, and the investigative reporting of the London Times's W. H. Russell. x
  • 17
    The Indian Mutiny—1857
    In the mid-19th century, fewer than 50,000 British colonial troops and officials ruled 200 million Indians. What caused the famous sepoy rebellion? How did the British put it down? How did it change their policies toward India? x
  • 18
    Victorian Britain and the American Civil War
    The war pulled Britain several ways. Economic and diplomatic interests suggested alliance with the Confederacy, but religious and humanitarian feeling backed the Union, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation. x
  • 19
    The British in Africa—1840-1880
    Famous explorers such as Richard Burton and David Livingstone criss-crossed Africa seeking variously to increase knowledge, preach the Christian gospel, suppress the Arab slave traders, and develop economic opportunities. x
  • 20
    Victorian Literature I
    Several of the greatest and best-loved writers in the history of the English language were Victorians, including Dickens, George Eliot, Trollope, and the Brontë sisters. Their works gives us a vivid picture of Victorian life. x
  • 21
    Art and Music
    Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the great critics John Ruskin and Walter Pater, and the immortal Gilbert and Sullivan—whose gently satirical operettas are splendid windows on the age—are among the characters you will meet in this lecture. x
  • 22
    Science
    The prestige of science and technology grew, even as the works of geologist Charles Lyell and the biologist Charles Darwin stirred intense debates over the relationship between scientific research and religious belief. x
  • 23
    Medicine and Public Health
    The Victorian era was a time when death at any age was a common phenomenon. Medical advances were substantial, however, with doctors becoming professionals and anesthesia, sterile procedures, and public-sanitation measures pointing the way. x
  • 24
    Architecture
    How did Victorian architecture—so many examples of which can still be seen around the British Isles today—reflect Victorian life and the Victorian mind? Who were the great Victorian architects, and where can you see their masterpieces? x
  • 25
    Education
    Improved schooling was among the Victorians' great accomplishments: In 1830, more than half of all Britons could not read or write. By 1900, nearly everyone had at least some elementary literacy. x
  • 26
    Trade Unions and the Labour Party
    British workers felt a strong class solidarity out of which sprang unions and later the Labour Party, founded in 1900. Eight years earlier, unionists' votes had made Keir Hardie the first working-class MP. x
  • 27
    Crime and Punishment
    Crime was a grave problem for the Victorians. To deal with it, they founded the first modern police forces and prisons, and enacted reforms such as abolishing public executions and the jailing of debtors. x
  • 28
    Gladstone and Disraeli—1865-1881
    These two colossal figures bestrode the world of politics, setting the benchmark for all future prime ministers. Their skills enabled Britain to adjust to rapid change without the unrest that tore at other Western countries. x
  • 29
    Ireland and Home Rule
    Among the consequences of democratic political reforms was the rise of the Irish Home Rule Party and its charismatic leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell fell in an 1890 divorce scandal and died in 1891, but the Irish Question did not go away. x
  • 30
    Democracy and Its Discontents
    Gladstone and Lord Salisbury, Disraeli's successor, continued to handle Britain's growing democratization with skill. Meanwhile, the Empire grew apace, but its splendor masked underlying economic and other weaknesses. x
  • 31
    The British in Africa—1880-1901
    What drove Britain to become deeply involved politically from one end of the continent to the other? What did the Empire's difficult struggles with the Boer settlers of southern Africa presage? x
  • 32
    Later Victorian Literature
    The late Victorian years boasted an intense concentration of brilliant authors and a series of lively, even bitter, debates about the meaning of literary art and the place of morality in it. x
  • 33
    Leisure
    Among other things, this talk explains why informed reflection on cricket and seaside holidays is essential if one wants to understand the Victorian soul. By their pastimes shall ye know them. x
  • 34
    Domestic Servants
    Domestic service employed many men, and was the commonest type of job for women in Victorian Britain. What was it like to be "downstairs," and why did late Victorians so often lament that "you can't find good help nowadays?" x
  • 35
    Victoria After Albert—1861-1901
    The Queen's sorrow over losing her husband never left her. Yet she endured, and her golden (1887) and diamond (1897) jubilee celebrations occasioned great public celebrations and a festive, imperial mood in London. x
  • 36
    The Victorian Legacy
    Looking back at the whole period, what are some of the most striking things that leap out at us? What does reflecting on them tell us about the past, about our own day and age, and about the nature of historical understanding itself? x

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Patrick N. Allitt

About Your Professor

Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
Dr. Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt-an Oxford University graduate-has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow. He was the Director of Emory College's Center for Teaching...
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Rated 4.7 out of 5 by 63 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by enjoyable I found the course very interesting. The professor knows his material. I especially like his incorporation of Victorian literature into the lecture. There was a little overlap with his course on the Rise and Fall of the British Empire, but not too much. I still felt very engaged with the lectures. August 1, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fascinating and Informative Video: DVD This is a very interesting course. While the Victorians are not far removed from us in time, for many today they have a bad reputation. Professor Allitt brings Victorian Britain to the fore to help us understand what life was like in that era, exploring the many achievements and sometimes quite appalling shortcomings. It has been noted that the past is a foreign country, defying our assumptions and contemporary interests and sensibilities. Professor Allitt does a fine job in presenting us with the Victorians on their own terms and often in their own words. He provides excellent explanations of and numerous insights into key aspects of Victorian Britain. Especially noteworthy perhaps is that “For most people throughout the Victorian period, life was a matter of chronic anxiety. There was no ‘rags to riches’ mythology—no idealism about class mobility…” (Course Guidebook, Page 132). Though there is much in this course on industry, religion, politics, social strata, science and medicine, art and music, literature, education, trade, and wars, Professor Allitt brings home in many of the lectures this aspect of “anxiety”, showing us how hard life was for many and the related attempts at amelioration. With all of this as background, Professor Allitt ably explains why Britain quite surprisingly did not experience a revolution or civil war as did most European nations during the period. This is not an in-depth course, but a fine survey and introduction to Victorian Britain. I have done a fair amount of reading about the period (including Kellow Chesney’s 1970 ‘The Victorian Underworld’, which Professor Allitt relies upon considerably in discussion of crime), mostly in support of my interest in Victorian fiction. I especially like Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope (my favorite), and, at the time of this course viewing, was reading Henry James’ atypical 1886 “The Princess Casamassima”, much of which concerns the London poor and contemporary radical politics. From all of this, as far as I am concerned, Professor Allitt has it right. Professor Allitt has a wonderful delivery, including suitable irony, humor, and a good sense of when and what to quote. I am especially impressed with his crafting of the lectures, ensuring that he properly carries forward the narrative, weaving the facts and developments into a fine fabric. This is notably evident in his decision to leave Domestic Servants to lecture thirty-four, and his treatment of Victoria herself throughout the course. Though I enjoyed the video, audio would likely work well. I found, however, that though there is not an abundance of pictures and other illustrations, there is enough to make a difference for me in seeing pictures of people, places, and things discussed. It should be noted that in this 2002 video, illustrations seem poorly presented compared to those in more recent TC video courses. Also, for some reason, this course is not available for viewing via purchasers’ TC digital library. It would have been more convenient to view many of the lectures on my tablet rather than being tied to my DVD player. The course is accompanied by a 171-page guidebook. While many of the summaries are shorter than I would like, the guidebook has all of the other elements expected, including a fine annotated bibliography, biographical notes, and glossary. Highly recommended! July 20, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great Overview If you're ever been interested in Victorian Britain then this is the course for you. While the lecture lengths don't allow time to really drill down into a singular topic, the course covers a wide range of material is just enough detail to give someone a good sense of the period. If you're already an expert, than this may be a bit basic, but for someone like myself who's always been interested in the time period but didn't know a lot about it, this has just been perfect! June 15, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Queen's Era This course has two main ways of proceeding. The first part is composed of narrative lectures, which is followed loosely and has some degree of overlap. This brings us from the beginning of Victorian Britain to the end. The other part is made up of thematic lectures on the social characteristics of the period. I recently reviewed a course that was entirely sociologically orientated, and it made me question if it was even truly history. At other times, many of the courses have so little focus on the people that the history almost completely ignores that there is something beneath the layers of politics that are recorded. This course combines both elements with a great degree of competence, and shows how history can be, and should be, done. While there were times where I was frustrated by a lack of cohesive narrative, Professor Allitt was clear that this course would not clearly conform to such a narrative. Really, the only concrete complaint I have about this course is that Britain was not really put into context with respect to the rest of Europe. It was alluded to, but never properly addressed. Where do we go from here? Foundations of Western Civilization II puts the events happening in Victorian Britain into context, and greatly expands upon the narrative. A lot of it is surface material when focused on any one nation, but it is an invaluable next step to understanding the rest of the world. The history of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts focuses much more narrowly on the earlier periods of British history, though there is a bit of a gap concerning the Hanoverian Dynasty. The Conservative Tradition is a course from Allitt, and will teach you about the evolving nature of Anglo-American conservationism, provided this course sparked an interest the evolution of political ideas. One last note: professor Allitt can, at times, be an acquired taste. I do not mind him, but if you were not thrilled by him in this lecture series, you will find many of those same traits in his other courses. Likewise if you have purchased a course from him in the past, and are considering purchasing this one. March 28, 2016
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