The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

English Science and Culture in the 19th Century

Category: 19th century

The 19th century in English history crowned the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Capitalism made substantial progress. There was no mistaking that great material changes had taken place. The sight of new agricultural machinery in the fields and the flaring passage of trains across the countryside were both reminders of the progress of the century, while over the towns a constant pall of smoke bore witness to the growth of industry. The situation in England was conducive to further development of natural sciences and technological inventions. There were many important scientific discoveries made in the 19th century which were precisely what was required by capitalist industry. Engineering could only develop if there was progress in science. The latter began to break down the old conceptions of the world.

A second phase of the Industrial Revolution emerged based on Henry Bessemer’s process which made possible the mass production of steel and Michael Faraday’s earlier discoveries of electro-magnetic induction. Other important discoveries were made in physics. In 1865 James Maxwell discovered the nature of electromagnetic effects and worked out the theory of the electromagnetic field. He proved the existence of electromagnetic waves which served as a foundation for radio communication. James Jowle introduced his caloric theory and James Thomson laid the foundation for the electronic theory. Of tremendous importance for the further development of science was the discovery of the periodic laws of the chemical elements by the Russian scientist Dmitry Mendeleev.

The revolution in natural science was associated with the name of Charles Darwin (1809—82), whose creative genius, industry and love of scientific truth enabled him to create a materialistic theory of evolution. In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a long and scientific treatise which made a shocking discovery: that man and all the other species of life had evolved from a common source — that there were similarities in fact between human beings and apes! Darwin noted that Man with all his noble qualities, still bore in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. Darwin’s theory had a great significance not only for biological science but also for the spiritual and intellectual life of England. It was an open challenge to the biblical story of creation and the reactionary clergy launched a fierce attack against the author of the new theory. Despite these frenzied attacks Darwinism — the idea of the historical evolution of the organic world — began to be widely accepted by the end of the 19th century.

Political economy reflected the changes which occurred in English society. In this respect most typical were the views of John Stuart Mill (1806 — 73), a bourgeois liberal economist who accepting capitalism as a basically ideal system advocated the necessity of limited redistribution of the wealth created by labour for the benefit of the toilers. Expressing the aspirations of his time Mill in his works On Liberty, Speculation on Representative Management declared freedoms of speech, thinking and the press to be the loftiest values of humankind. However, these privileges were to be enjoyed by the bourgeoisie, for he opposed universal suffrage and the secret ballot. Herbert Spenser (1820—1903) was another philosopher and sociologist of renown. He became one of the most eminent adherents of positivism, whose works had a serious influence on philosophical thinking in both England and the USA. Biological law in his view determined the division of capitalist society into exploiters and the exploited. Hence revolution was detrimental whereas evolution was a contributing factor of the same liking as the organic changes which occur in the human body. His biological approach of human society led him to such reactionary assumptions that handicapped nations were doomed to extinction whereas the Anglo-Saxon species was born to dominate the world. Thus social darwinism evolved into outward racism.

As for the development of scientific concepts of nature and society in the 19th century they all experienced directly or indirectly the influence of the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Marxist ideas of nature and society were winning over more and more supporters, despite fierce opposition from bourgeois ideologists. This fully applied to the English social scene.

The English school of painting in the 19th century was best represented by John Constable, J. M. W. Turner, Thomas Lawrence and the Preraphaelites, architecture by Charles Barry, Augustus Pugin, John Nash, William Railton, John Soane, sculpture by John Flaxman, Landseer, Foley, music by Gilbert and Sullivan.

It was a period of romanticism influenced by the industrial and social revolution. The Medieval ages were a source of inspiration. Hence Gothic in combination with the traditions of Tudor England was considered the true national style. This taste was fully expressed in the new buildings of the palace of Westminster, the seat of the British Parliament. On October 16, 1834 several cart loads of notched tally sticks which had been preserved as forms of account in the Exchequer tally room were taken to the House of Lords for burning in its furnace. Overheating resulted; the entire building caught fire, and 24 hours later most of the palace was a smoking and blackened ruin. The new palace, designed by Charles Barry, assisted by Augustus Pugin, was begun in 1840, and finally completed in 1860. The result of this collaboration was a triumph: Barry built in the symmetrical style of late Perpendicular, and Pugin enlivened Barry’s structure with innumerable details, many in earlier Gothic traditions. The work of many sculptors, painters, mosaic-workers, tile-makers, wood-carvers, ironfounders, goldsmiths and silversmiths, provided internal decoration of incredible elaboration and, on the whole, of distinguished craftsmanship.

William Railton designed the Nelson memorial in 1841 as a Corinthian column with bronze bas-reliefs at the foot of the column representing Nelson’s four great naval victories and the admiral’s statue at the top by E. H. Bailey. The four bronze lions at the base by Landseer were added in 1867. The famous Albert Memorial in memory of Queen Victoria’s husband was the work of George Scott. It was unveiled in 1872 and it epitomized the 19th century Gothic revival. Under the spired canopy is the statue of the prince by the sculptor J. H. Foley. Another prominent sculptor of the period was John Flaxman. Patriotism was one of the virtues, which he tried to instil in monuments such as his Lord Howe and Nelson in St Paul’s Cathedral. Flaxman’s Howe was one of the first monuments to be erected in St Paul’s, to commemorate the heroes of the war against France.

At the beginning of the 19th century John Soane, surveyor of the Bank of England, began to transform the City of London in the neoclassical style with the arch, dome and different medallions. Much transformation work in London and in its streets was also done by his exact contemporary, John Nash. His name is associated with Regent Street, Oxford and Piccadilly Circus. He also began a conversion of old Buckingham House into Buckingham Palace. Robert Smirke rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre in Greek Doric and in 1823 he gave the British Museum its interminable rows of giant Ionic pillars. Neoclassical eclecticism led to architectural eccentricity and confusion.

Nineteenth-century art cannot be fully understood or appreciated unless account is taken of certain fundamental artists, J. Constable (1776—1837) among them. He devoted himself to landscape painting, almost to the exclusion of all other forms of art, and it was in landscape that he sought the values of man. His painting was of an extreme moral rigour, holding firmly to fact, and entirely devoted to the study of truth and nature. When The Hay Wain was exhibited in Paris in 1824 it caused a sensation. Constable was thenceforward to enjoy a continuously high reputation in 19th century France. And yet the English public took little account of him until long after his death. Ironically, he is now regarded as in many ways the most ‘national’ of English artists — certainly the supreme painter of the English scene. Among his best works are The Valley Farm, the Flatford Mill.

One of the most prominent landscade painters of the century was J. M. W. Turner (1775 —1851). He made a name for himself in the acceptable art of topographical watercolour painting. His early oil-paintings, such as Calais Pier, are in the highest degree dramatic. His vast travels abroad gave him an enormous range of subjects. He produced many characteristic and inimitable works, including the Snowstorm, The Approach to Venice and Rain, Steam and Speed where nature was painted with such passionate entensity and understanding. The prominent critic of his time Ruskin was fascinated by Turner’s paintings considering him to be the greatest of all painters in England.

Despite the Romantic revolution, the classical tradition of British portraiture in the manner of Reynolds survived. In London the boy from Bath, Thomas Lawrence (1769—1830), was the darling of society, and in 1792, at the age of 23, he succeeded Reynolds as the principal portrait painter to George III. Successful as he was agreeable, he painted the royalty and nobility of Europe as well as of England. His works were distinguished for their courtliness and social elegance. In this respect the best are his famous portrait of Mrs Farren later the Countess of Derby and his series the Holy Alliance.

In 1848 seven young artists, calling themselves Pre-Raphaelites formed their Brotherhood, among them were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais. They looked back to the early Renaissance as their chosen name suggests. They found there a forthright, unmannered approach to nature, an honest style and technique and a devoted treatment of serious themes. Naturalism, purity of style and motive and a moral seriousness, these were their ideals. Though their views were basically democratic they were far from being revolutionary. The Brotherhood as such only survived for five years but they had many supporters, among them John Ruskin, who ardently defended them in his work Modern Painters. However, when later he saw that they were turning to decadence he broke off with them. William Morris (1834 — 96), a future socialist, won wide renown as a poet and artist.

His Utopian novel News from Nowhere was a marked social event. Inspired by the democratic trends of the Preraphaelites, he nevertheless rejected their decadent traits. Morris later turned to decorative art which he hoped would cultivate artistic tastes among the working people. He got down to practical work by founding a firm for the making of furniture, wall paper, etc. The movement won many supporters and sympathizers.

The hypocrisy and drabness of life in Victorian England affected the theatre negatively. George Barnwell, a tragi-comedy, devoted to domestic life written by George Lilo was a welcoming diversion. The brilliant acting of Edmund Kean, one of the greatest romantic actors of his time was another positive event which varied the life of the theatre. The comedies of Oscar Wilde An Ideal Husband, A Woman of No Importance, The Importance of Being Earnest were most popular with the audiences which enjoyed his wit, cleverness and audacity, though they were far from the principles of critical realism advocated by Dickens and Thackeray.

Though there was good music to be heard in England during the 19th century, such as the music of Henry Purcell or the widely acclaimed light operas by Gilbert and Sullivan, it was mainly composed and performed by foreigners: Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, Mendelssohn — mainly from Germany.

Nineteenth-century English literature began with romanticism. Karl Marx noted that this trend emerged as an ideological reaction to the French revolution and the Enlightenment. The romanticists contrasted their romantic ideal to the prosaic reality of bourgeois hypocrisy and boredom. There were two trends within the movement: on the one hand, the supporters of the patriarchal past and of medieval attitudes, on the other, the progressive or revolutionary romanticists, who welcomed the French revolution and dreamt of social justice in bourgeois England. The latter was not homogeneous. One group, including William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Robert Southey (1774—1843) came to be known as the Lake School (after the Lake District where they lived and which they idealized in their poetry).

Initially they praised the life of the peasantry, protested against the inhumanity of capitalist industrialization, emphasized the benign influence of nature on man. They hailed the French revolution, but later frightened by its scope they rejected its principles and like Wordsworth ended as extreme conservatives.

In their joint work, the Lyrical Ballads (1798) Wordsworth and Coleridge rejected the conventions and restraints of 18th century poetry, its metrical forms and poetic diction. They insisted on a new freedom of matter and manner, a selection of language really used by men. Coleridge wrote that it was his object to make the supernatural appear credible, whereas Wordsworth’s was ‘to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom’. On the whole the representatives of this literary group expressed the ideas of conservative romanticism. Typical in this respect were Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and Wordsworth’s Goody Blake, the Thorn, the Idiot Boy.

Thomas Moore (1779—1852) and Walter Savage Landor (1775 —1864) were romanticists of another colouring: they dealt with the theme of national liberation. Thomas Moore in his Irish Melodies fascinated the reader by charming descriptions of Irish nature. The composer John Stevenson made Moore’s Irish Melodies into songs with piano accompaniment, which won immense popularity. Moore was himself a charming singer, and wrote many of his lyrics to fit old Irish tunes.

However, the greatest of revolutionary romanticists were George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).

Byron’s poetry expressed the contrast between the romantic ideal and the conventionalism of bourgeois reality. A tour on the Continent in 1809—11 furnished the materials for the first two Cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which scored an immense success. Byron wrote with almost incredible facility, and his work is not only very voluminous, but also very varied. His strength lies in description, satire, mockery, ingenious rhyming, and humorous bathos, above all in Don Juan. He took an active part in the liberation movement in Greece where he died. Shelley was the champion of liberty. He voiced socialist aspirations and the interests of workers. A revolutionary idealist, he wrote of man’s liberation in the lyrical allegory Prometheus Unbound (1820). He dreamt of happiness, peace and fraternity. He had, as he confessed, a passion for reforming the world, and this passion blazed out again and again in his matchlessly pure poetry. Shelley influenced the Chartists. His poem Queen Mab (1813) was called the Bible of the Chartists. During the Chartist movement a group of poets boldly expressed the workers’ cause and openly challenged the rule of the rich. The most prominent of the Chartist poets were William James Linton (1812 — 97), Ernest Jones (1819—69) and Gerald Massey (1828 — 1907). The Song of the Lower Classes by Ernest Jones is well known to the British working class to this very day.

Nineteenth-century English literature is represented by a galaxy of outstanding writers who belonged to the school of critical realism. They are Charles Dickens (1812-70), William Makepeace Thackeray (1811—63), Charlotte Bronte (1816—55), Elizabeth Gaskell (1810—65). The realistic social novel created by these masters of English prose gave a varied and realistic portrayal of the vices and evils of capitalism. The social significance of their creative activities was summarized by Karl Marx, who wrote: ‘The present brilliant school of novelists in England, whose graphic and eloquent descriptions have revealed more political and social truths to the world than have all the politicians, publicists and moralists added together, has pictured all sections of the middle class’.

The second half of the nineteenth century was also associated with such outstanding literary names as Alfred Tennyson (1809—92), Robert Browning (1812—89), Charles Algernon Swinburne (1837 — 1909) who created beautiful poetry of humanism. Tennyson was noteworthy for the even perfection of his style, his wonderful mastery of language at once simple and ornate, and the exquisite and varied music of his verse. In contrast with Tennyson, Browning was bold, rugged and altogether unconventional in matter and style. A master of psychological insight Browning’s credo was reactionary: he was an uncompromising foe of scientific materialism. Swinburne was extremely prolific and versatile, he wrote Greek tragedies, long narrative poems of great passion and beauty, a large body of political poems, the revolutionary fervour of which was strongly influenced by one of the writer’s chief masters, Victor Hugo, odes of many kinds. However, he was primarily a lyrist in which he showed almost unparalleled mastery over the resources of language and metre.

At the end of the 19th century realistic and anti-realistic trends developed in English literature. The former was represented by such names as George Meredith (1828— 1909), Samuel Butler (1835—1902), Thomas Hardy (1840—1928). The latter by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850—94) and Oscar Wilde (1854—1900). The two were no less talented, especially in plot and language, but their works were devoid of urgent social problems. Anti-realistic developments in literature reflected the crisis of bourgeois culture in the period of the emergence of imperialism.

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