From Georgian to Victorian: Nicholas Dixon Asks Whether There Was a Radical Transition between the Two Eras

By Dixon, Nicholas | History Review, December 2010 | Go to article overview

From Georgian to Victorian: Nicholas Dixon Asks Whether There Was a Radical Transition between the Two Eras


Dixon, Nicholas, History Review


The transition between what are commonly termed the Georgian and Victorian eras is one of the great turning points of British history. The dividing line is often considered to be either 1830 (the death of George IV) or 1837 (the accession of Queen Victoria), but there is no real consensus, for alterations to an entire mindset were beyond the mere dates of a monarch's reign. I intend to assess the cultural, intellectual and religious factors which represented what can be considered a significant change, and then to evaluate the wider consequences of the transition. Less emphasis will be placed on political, social or economic factors.

A convenient starting point is to consider the Coronation Sermons given for King William IV and Queen Victoria by the Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield. The 1831 sermon has a distinctly late Georgian air of rational utilitarianism:

   A sense of mutual dependence, and
   the prospect of common advantage,
   are the basis upon which human
   reason has erected the fabric of civil
   society, The principles which regulate
   the intercourse of man with man,
   as members of the same community,
   are to be found in the constitution
   of our nature. The form which these
   principles assume, when embodied in
   the laws and customs of social life, is
   varied by the peculiar circumstances
   under which different nations have
   constructed their system of polity ...
   The Supreme Ruler of the world has
   not prescribed to his subjects any particular
   form of government; but has
   given the sanction of his approval
   and the authority of his will to those
   which are so administered, as to answer
   the great ends of his own providential
   economy.

As an anonymous reviewer in the Westminster Review noted, such sentiments are remarkable when one considers the 1838 homily:

   From utilitarian, this most versatile
   prelate has become theocratic. Instead
   of Archdeacon Paley, we have
   Archbishop Laud ... The ceremony
   which, in 1831, was a mere ceremony,
   a thing 'intended to remind'--has
   now grown into a reality, an 'investiture
   by the hands of God's minister.'
   The people are called upon to 'accept
   their lawful sovereign as given them
   by God to rule over them.' Instead
   of the rationalism of 'human reason
   erecting the fabric of civil society
   on the basis of a sense of mutual dependence
   and a prospect of common
   advantage,' we have the mysticism of
   the 'diadem bespeaking a majesty of a
   more exalted and transcendent kind
   than any human agency can confer.'
   The preacher ... forgets the whole of
   the British constitution--'charter',
   'contract,' and all; blinks the most
   palpable facts in our social state and
   polity; and, as if ministerial responsibility
   and representative legislation
   were absolute nonentities, quietly
   tells Englishmen that their only security
   for just and good government lies
   in their king and queen being so good
   as to remember that his or her power
   is of God.

The difference is not simply one of constitutional theory, but of an entire culture. The bishop seems to have judged the Zeitgeist at both points and responded accordingly, albeit with considerable inconsistency. It is a transformation that can be witnessed at all levels during this period: from the rational to the mystic, from the classical to the romantic. The irony is that the Reform Act came in between these two sermons, a piece of legislation that would theoretically seem to be far closer to the former sermon. Such facts indicate that, given the more symbolic role of the monarchy in the 19th century, the terms 'Georgian' and 'Victorian' can only be profitably used in a cultural context.

Religion

The sphere in which the end of the Georgian Era can be mostly clearly witnessed is within the Church of England. The influence of both Tractarianism and its illegitimate child Ritualism on English religion was profound. …

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