A Half-Century of Greatness: The Creative Imagination of Europe, 1848-1884

By Frederic Ewen; Jeffrey Wollock | Go to book overview

Chapter One
The Battle for Reform

Magnificent edifices, surpassing in number, value, use-
fulness, and ingenuity of construction, the boasted monu-
ments of Asiatic, Egyptian and Roman despotism, have,
within the short period of fifty years, risen up in this
Kingdom, to show to what extent capital, industry, and
science may augment the resources of the state, while
they meliorate the condition of its citizens; such is the
factory system, replete with prodigies in mechanics and
political economy, which promises in its future growth
to become the great minister of civilization to the ter-
raqueous globe, enabling this country, as its heart, to dif-
fuse along with its commerce the life-blood and religion
to myriads of people still lying 'in the region and shadow
of death.'

—Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufacture, 1835

There is a King, and a ruthless King,
Not a King of the poet's dream;
But a tyrant fell, while slaves know him well,
And that ruthless King is Steam.

He hath an arm, an iron arm,
And tho' he hath but one,
In that mighty arm there is a charm,
That millions hath undone …
—“King Steam,” by Edward P. Mean, 1843

Though Victoria did not come to the throne of England until 1837, the “Age of Victoria”—a term which was coined somewhat later—actually commenced in 1830, with the great struggles over the reform of Parliament. “Victorianism” has become a word of many colors and patches, dyed and cut to many patterns. Each of these contains its seed of truth, but such partial elements frequently tend to obscure the larger essence. Though, for example, terms like “Victorian compromise,” “propriety and discretion,” “prudishness,” “dilemma,” all pinpoint certain aspects of the era, the central kernel of the age may be succinctly described as a dual conflict: “Compromise” on one hand; and an agonizing battle against it. The “Compromise” that triumphed was to be of the greatest import both for Britain and the rest of the world. It was the accommodation

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