THE period with which these volumes deal might be variously defined. In political history, it is the age of the ten-pound householder, who rose to power with the Reform Act of 1832 and took a larger electorate into partnership by the Act of 1867. Industrially, it opens with the invention of railway transport and ends with a railway system practically complete. It saw the transformation of the individualist England of the Georges into a modern administrative state. On a larger view, it is the age of expansion, and the British North America Act of 1867 closes one phase of history and opens another of which the end is not yet in sight. The same period includes the transition from sail to steam and the invention of the electric telegraph; it covers the golden age of English agriculture, the summer afternoon of aristocracy. If it had been the Queen and not Prince Albert who died in 1861, the process of English history would have been easier to apprehend. The long life of the Sovereign, the long careers of her most famous subjects, created an illusion which the word Victorian enshrines. The sixties are a decade of swift, decisive transformation. In front of them lies the world in which we were born. Behind them is a world which has passed out of memory, and which it is the purpose of these chapters to call back to life.
The history of the period, in the ordinary sense of the word history, has often been written. The object of the contributors to these volumes has been rather to provide the background of ideas and habits, to recall the sights and sounds of Early Victorian England, and so to create for the reader of the history or literature of the time the atmosphere which will bring their details into perspective or relief. The amount of information available is so vast that it would be far easier to compile an encyclopaedia of the period than to write a book about it; and there are topics, Law being the most conspicuous, which, as they could not be adequately treated without overrunning the limit assigned, are, reluctantly but necessarily, omitted. This is how the age appears