The human and artistic concerns of both the Romantic and Victorian ages are similar to our own concerns; the response to those concerns- given by poets, novelists, dramatists and artists- can help us live fuller, more meaningful and creative lives in our own time.
I remember reading the outline for this unit over three months ago feeling overwhelmed by the list of novels, poems and short stories that we would be covering. From Austen to Tolstoy, Dickens and Eliot we were going to explore some of the greatest works of literature over the course of 12 short weeks. But as I type my final blog post, 5 days away from the end of semester, I have come to realise that while the actions of Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times or Emma in Jane Austen’s novel seem farfetched in our context, the underlying concerns and issues of the Romantic and Victorian Era remain relevant centuries on. Thus, the response given by these great poets, novelists, dramatists and artists can help us to live fuller, more meaningful and creative lives.
Over the course of the semester, one of the fundamental concerns in the texts that we studied was the rise of utilitarianism and its consequent impacts on human interactions and nature. This concern is still relevant, if not more prevalent today as people are consumed with wealth, growing industrialism and increasing technologies. Matthew Arnold in his short story The Scholar Gypsy adopts an anti-industrialisation stance expressing strong feelings against modernity and its effect on the condition of England. Arnold suggests that humans can escape the monotonous disease of modern life by reflecting on the beauty and purity of nature. Eugene von Guerard exquisitely depicts the calmness and serenity provided by nature in his romantic artwork Milford Sound. William Wordsworth too, in his poem The Tables Turned articulately describes the importance of nature in overcoming modernisation and its corruption of the soul. He concludes that there is a kind of beauty in nature that cannot be recreated, one only captured when we allow nature to become a part of us.
Class structure and the issues created through a rigid class hierarchy was an underlying concern of the Romantic and Victorian Era and one that remains relevant to some extent in our time. Charles Dickens criticises this class divide and focuses on the plight of the lower class. Dickens challenges the corrupt, self-serving methods of the higher class and their fact-centred approach. Louisa has money. However, she is deprived of something that is worth so much more; she is deprived of emotional connections and the ability to wonder and imagine. Louisa is forced into a loveless marriage with a man twice her age based on social class and economics. In contrast, the world of the lower class circus people is chaotic and disordered, but they exhibit qualities which Mr Gradgrind has so callously robbed his children of, they exhibit warmth, love and compassion.
Similarly, Marner assumes that he has lost everything when his gold; a symbol of wealth and prestige is stolen. But when he finds Eppie, he discovers that the key to living a fuller, more meaningful life is locked in his relationship with his adopted daughter and the community in Raveloe. Both Dicken’s and Eliot condemn the self-serving approach of the higher classes in the Romantic and Victorian Era, concluding that the value of one’s relationships is more precious than any currency or social status.
Overall, all the poets, novelists, dramatists and artists studied during the semester use their work as a means of responding to the concerns of the Romantic and Victorian Era. Centuries on, these responses can help us to live fuller, more meaningful and creative lives in our own time.