How might the concerns of Victorian writers be perceived from a modern perspective?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Writers during the Victorian period were often concerned with a variety of issues that now tend to be perceived in different ways that they were during the reign of Queen Victoria.  Among those issues are the ones listed below.

THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION. Charles Darwin’s theory that human beings had evolved from earlier forms of animals troubled many people during the Victorian people (including, to some extent, Darwin himself). The theory seemed to contradict Biblical accounts of creation and of the age of the planet. The theory was therefore seen by many as a challenge to the Christian religion, which was the religion of most British people during this period.  Today, the theory of evolution is more or less taken for granted by most educated people. It is still a subject of some controversy, to be sure, but it is basically uncontroversial among biologist, paleontologists, and other educated authorities. Even many Christians accept it and are untroubled by it; these Christians tend not to take every single word of the Bible literally, and so they see no necessary conflict between their religious beliefs and their beliefs about the history of life on earth.

THE DECLINE OF CHRISTIANITY. Many people during the Victorian period were troubled by an apparent decline in the influence of Christianity. Some people, however, actually celebrated any such decline. There was a growing skepticism during this period about most religious beliefs (a skepticism caused, in part, by Darwin’s theories). Atheism and agnosticism were on the rise, and some people, such as the poet Matthew Arnold, were troubled by and/or melancholy about the loss of confidence in the old religious verities. Thus, in Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach,” the speaker proclaims that

The Sea of Faith 
Was once . . . at the full, and round earth's shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world.

Today, many people would be (and are) less troubled by a decline in religious faith than were many people in Arnold’s era. Many people today are non-religious; many are actively hostile toward religion; many are uncertain about religious claims; many are indifferent. Even among people who are religious, there is such a variety of religious beliefs that a decline in Christianity would not necessarily be seen by them as a bad development.

A CONCERN TO MAINTAIN BRITISH POWER. Britain was perhaps the most powerful nation on earth during the reign of Queen Victoria. Many British people were proud of their nation’s vast empire and were anxious to uphold and perhaps even extend British influence throughout the world.  Today, the British Empire is mostly a thing of the past, at least in any real, practical sense. Even the most ardent British patriots today would probably not want the Empire to be reestablished, even if it could be. So the concern with British power in the world today is much more modest than it once was.