Victorian Britain

Course No. 8490
Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
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Course No. 8490
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  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 225 portraits, maps, and illustrations that take you back in time to Victorian England. Portraits include those of Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Florence Nightingale, and Charles Darwin; maps chart the spread of Victorian London's city streets and reveal the epic scope of the British Empire's colonial project in Africa; and illustrations and early photographs document everything from The Great Exhibition of 1851 to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Celebration. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

Darwin. Gladstone. Disraeli. Dickens. Meet the pioneering, paradoxical Britons of the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Through peaceful and gradual change they built one of the world's first industrial democracies—in a class-bound society with a powerful landed aristocracy and a negative view of business. They gloried in a globe-spanning and relatively humanely run empire—even as it distracted them from underlying economic weaknesses that presaged Britain's 20th-century decline. They were also intensely sentimental—yet ignored extreme squalor and hardship in their midst.Consider these other apparent contradictions:

  • They became history's first campaigners against slavery and pursued a host of reformist, often religiously inspired causes with zeal and vision—yet tolerated child labor and the Opium War.
  • They were quick to exploit new technologies, including the steam engine, cast-iron construction, and gas lighting—yet lost their economic leadership to Germany and America.
  • The Victorians created the cityscape of modern Britain—visible today except for what was destroyed by bombing in World War II—while consciously trying to re-create earlier styles.
  • They faced rapid and sweeping scientific, historical, and technological shifts—yet avoided massive upheavals that tore at other European and Atlantic societies in their day.
  • And in their trademark style, the Victorians even reformed cricket, turning it from a riotous diversion for hard drinkers and gamblers into a byword for flannel-clad decency and goodhearted fair play that crossed class lines and brought together the best features of democracy and aristocracy.

Victorian Britain: Strengths and Foibles

This course is a chronological journey into the Victorian story with all its strengths and foibles and invites you to reflect on its lessons both positive and negative.

You move from the unexpected ascension to the throne of teenaged Princess Victoria in 1837 to her death in 1901 as the Boer War neared its end.

You learn about the lives of Victorian women; the situation facing working people and the rise of trade unionism; Victorian achievements in art, literature, architecture, and music; and what Leonard Woolf called "the seriousness of games" and of leisure-time activities as windows on Victorian life.

You discuss the important role played by Christianity as a force for both principled adherence to tradition and principled pursuit of change; and the influence of science and the debates over its impact that animated the Victorians.

You learn what the Victorians believed about education; the questions raised by Britain's rule over its Empire, the problems of poverty and crime; the discoveries of Victorian explorers in Africa; and more.

All in all, you will find it a remarkable tour of a remarkable age. And one of the highlights of it, as Professor Patrick N. Allitt explains, is something that never happened.

The Dog That Did Not Bark

Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about Sherlock Holmes are among the best-loved literary legacies from the Victorian age. In one of them, "Silver Blaze" (first published in London's Strand magazine in December 1892), a crucial piece of evidence is something that did not happen—what Holmes calls "the curious incident" of the dog that did not bark.

In Britain there was nothing like the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune, the Italian and German wars of unification, or the American Civil War.

Understanding how the British and their institutions managed peacefully to accommodate and manage the currents of change is one of the main themes in this course.

And the change was vast. With the culmination of the Industrial Revolution, Britain had gone decisively from being a mostly rural and agricultural society to being a land of large industrial cities.

Much of the credit, Professor Allitt argues, goes to able leaders.

Gladstone and Disraeli

"The first was Victoria herself," he says, "who came to the throne at a time when the monarchy was at a low ebb thanks to the foibles and derelictions of her predecessors. Her example of probity and assurance helped make the monarchy a symbol of stability and national unity that served Britain well. Therefore, the age deserves to be named after her for more than accidental reasons."

But above all were the two great prime ministers, the Liberal William Gladstone (1809-1898) and the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881). Between them they dominated the political landscape and played crucial roles in helping Britain absorb and creatively adapt to the massive changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy.

Each in his own way was a remarkable character, and their clashes and collaborations (whether overt or tacit) are justifiably the stuff of legend.

Victorian Firsts

Victorian Britain was the first society to:

  • go from majority illiterate to near-universal basic literacy
  • abolish public executions, in 1868
  • offer free universal public schooling, beginning with Prime Minister William Gladstone's Education Act of 1870
  • build railroads, steam-powered mills, and iron-hulled ships
  • create a public building lit by electric lights (the Savoy Theatre in London, custom-built for Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta productions in 1881).

British doctors such as Sir Joseph Lister were early advocates of such innovations as anesthesia and sterile procedure, while Florence Nightingale essentially invented modern nursing during the Crimean War.

British engineers and architects were the first to build with cast iron and plate glass, creating such magnificent structures as Scotland's Firth of Forth railroad bridge (still standing) and London's Crystal Palace.

A Chorus of Victorian Voices

One of the joys—and for professional historians, challenges—of studying Victorian history is the sheer wealth of sources. It was a literate age, and one of the first societies in which statistics were systematically collected, analyzed, and reported on.

Queen Victoria herself was a faithful diarist and kept up a huge and lively correspondence. Among the highlights quoted in these lectures are the 21-year-old queen's excited and warmly amorous impressions of her husband-to-be Prince Albert, her contrasting thoughts about Gladstone and Disraeli, and her touching and revealing letter of condolence to Mary Todd Lincoln, written only a few years after Victoria herself had been suddenly and tragically widowed—and from which she never recovered.

A Wealth of Information from a Well-Documented Era

Professor Allitt also cites:

  • Disraeli's tart opinion of Gladstone, as well as a letter of Disraeli's to the queen that stands as a minor masterpiece of artful flattery (no wonder she liked him best)
  • Gladstone's explanation of why he, as a devout Christian, favored the controversial step of seating an atheist member of Parliament
  • a clergyman's hilarious parody of the turgid prose of "social Darwinist" Herbert Spencer
  • Winston Churchill's description of what he experienced during the last full-dress cavalry charge in British military history at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898
  • recollections of affairs by the unknown author of My Secret Life, an 11-volume memoir of one middle-class man's travels through the sexual underworld
  • a Lancashire housemaid's remembrance of what Christmas was like for servants
  • a reforming journalist's heartrending account of hardship and deprivation among poor children in London
  • an Evangelical reformer's horrified account of the boisterous, alcohol-soaked festivities surrounding village holidays.

The End of an Era

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, she left behind a nation indelibly marked by the Victorian legacy, for good and for ill.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Victorian Paradox
    Britain during the age of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) is a society very close to us in many ways, and one of the first to embody the characteristic modern paradoxes with which we still deal. This makes it especially worthwhile to study. x
  • 2
    Victoria’s Early Reign—1837-1861
    The teenage girl who ascended the throne upon her uncle's death had never expected to become queen. She was crowned at a time when the monarchy was at a low ebb, yet her authority and assurance would help make her name the byword for an age. x
  • 3
    The Industrial Revolution—1750-1830
    Political stability and improved farming methods helped make Britain the world's first industrial country. Wealth and squalor were both much in evidence as factories, steam engines, and time clocks imposed a new order on human life. x
  • 4
    Railways and Steamships
    Where were the first railways in Britain—and hence the world—built? What was the "parent" technology from which they were derived? And what other advances in transport did they help lead to? x
  • 5
    Parliamentary Reform and Chartism
    In 1830, only 1 in 20 Britons had the vote. There was no secret ballot, and Parliament was riddled with "rotten boroughs." The Reform Act of 1832 abolished many old constituencies, created new ones, and cautiously expanded the franchise. Chartists pushed for much more. x
  • 6
    The Upper- and Middle-Class Woman
    Courtship, marriage, and motherhood were central for women from the higher classes. Those eager for higher learning and careers faced many obstacles, but a determined few such as Florence Nightingale and George Eliot showed what could be done. x
  • 7
    The Working-Class Woman
    The stark contrasts in Victorian life are apparent in the lives of the poorer majority of women who had to work, almost always at difficult, low-paid, and unhealthy jobs. x
  • 8
    The State Church and Evangelical Revival
    Britain's established church, the Anglican Church or Church of England, felt currents of reform and evangelical revival even as it faced diverse challenges from new ideas and social conditions. x
  • 9
    The Oxford Movement and Catholicism
    In the 1830s and '40s, the Oxford Movement stressed the supernatural aspects of the Church of England. Two of its luminaries, Henry Manning and John Henry Newman, would become leaders of Roman Catholics in Britain. x
  • 10
    Work and Working-Class Life
    The Industrial Revolution did not sweep Britain evenly or all at once, though for most the mills, mines, and shops with their clocks, whistles, and machines meant a whole new—and not always welcome—way of thinking about labor and the use of time. x
  • 11
    Poverty and the “Hungry Forties”
    Industry and city life made poverty more visible and shocking. Utilitarianism, evangelicalism, and works of writers like Charles Dickens roused the conscience as never before. Private philanthropy strove to fill the gaps left by the New Poor Law and its system of dreaded workhouses. x
  • 12
    Ireland, Famine, and Robert Peel
    On "John Bull's Other Island," the potato blight that first struck in 1846 threw millions into near or absolute starvation; sparked mass migration to England, Canada, and the United States; and set off shock waves that crippled England's ruling Tory party for decades. x
  • 13
    Scotland and Wales
    Britain's "Celtic fringes" began to resemble England in crucial ways, witnessing the growth of industrial cities. At the same time, both the Scots and the Welsh showed a penchant for elaborate and sometimes fanciful national traditions. x
  • 14
    Progress and Optimism
    The Great Exhibition of 1851 and its centerpiece, the Crystal Palace, typified the Victorians' belief in improvement of all kinds, material and moral. So did Saltaire, the model workers' town built by the Yorkshire entrepreneur Titus Salt. x
  • 15
    China and the Opium War
    When the Manchu Dynasty barred British merchants from selling illegal but popular opium in China, the merchants called on British arms to force the trade between 1839 and 1842. x
  • 16
    The Crimean War—1854-1856
    Britain's first European war since Waterloo saw many "firsts." Get the inside story on the charge of the Light Brigade, the pioneering medical work of Florence Nightingale, and the investigative reporting of the London Times's W. H. Russell. x
  • 17
    The Indian Mutiny—1857
    In the mid-19th century, fewer than 50,000 British colonial troops and officials ruled 200 million Indians. What caused the famous sepoy rebellion? How did the British put it down? How did it change their policies toward India? x
  • 18
    Victorian Britain and the American Civil War
    The war pulled Britain several ways. Economic and diplomatic interests suggested alliance with the Confederacy, but religious and humanitarian feeling backed the Union, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation. x
  • 19
    The British in Africa—1840-1880
    Famous explorers such as Richard Burton and David Livingstone criss-crossed Africa seeking variously to increase knowledge, preach the Christian gospel, suppress the Arab slave traders, and develop economic opportunities. x
  • 20
    Victorian Literature I
    Several of the greatest and best-loved writers in the history of the English language were Victorians, including Dickens, George Eliot, Trollope, and the Brontë sisters. Their works gives us a vivid picture of Victorian life. x
  • 21
    Art and Music
    Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the great critics John Ruskin and Walter Pater, and the immortal Gilbert and Sullivan—whose gently satirical operettas are splendid windows on the age—are among the characters you will meet in this lecture. x
  • 22
    Science
    The prestige of science and technology grew, even as the works of geologist Charles Lyell and the biologist Charles Darwin stirred intense debates over the relationship between scientific research and religious belief. x
  • 23
    Medicine and Public Health
    The Victorian era was a time when death at any age was a common phenomenon. Medical advances were substantial, however, with doctors becoming professionals and anesthesia, sterile procedures, and public-sanitation measures pointing the way. x
  • 24
    Architecture
    How did Victorian architecture—so many examples of which can still be seen around the British Isles today—reflect Victorian life and the Victorian mind? Who were the great Victorian architects, and where can you see their masterpieces? x
  • 25
    Education
    Improved schooling was among the Victorians' great accomplishments: In 1830, more than half of all Britons could not read or write. By 1900, nearly everyone had at least some elementary literacy. x
  • 26
    Trade Unions and the Labour Party
    British workers felt a strong class solidarity out of which sprang unions and later the Labour Party, founded in 1900. Eight years earlier, unionists' votes had made Keir Hardie the first working-class MP. x
  • 27
    Crime and Punishment
    Crime was a grave problem for the Victorians. To deal with it, they founded the first modern police forces and prisons, and enacted reforms such as abolishing public executions and the jailing of debtors. x
  • 28
    Gladstone and Disraeli—1865-1881
    These two colossal figures bestrode the world of politics, setting the benchmark for all future prime ministers. Their skills enabled Britain to adjust to rapid change without the unrest that tore at other Western countries. x
  • 29
    Ireland and Home Rule
    Among the consequences of democratic political reforms was the rise of the Irish Home Rule Party and its charismatic leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell fell in an 1890 divorce scandal and died in 1891, but the Irish Question did not go away. x
  • 30
    Democracy and Its Discontents
    Gladstone and Lord Salisbury, Disraeli's successor, continued to handle Britain's growing democratization with skill. Meanwhile, the Empire grew apace, but its splendor masked underlying economic and other weaknesses. x
  • 31
    The British in Africa—1880-1901
    What drove Britain to become deeply involved politically from one end of the continent to the other? What did the Empire's difficult struggles with the Boer settlers of southern Africa presage? x
  • 32
    Later Victorian Literature
    The late Victorian years boasted an intense concentration of brilliant authors and a series of lively, even bitter, debates about the meaning of literary art and the place of morality in it. x
  • 33
    Leisure
    Among other things, this talk explains why informed reflection on cricket and seaside holidays is essential if one wants to understand the Victorian soul. By their pastimes shall ye know them. x
  • 34
    Domestic Servants
    Domestic service employed many men, and was the commonest type of job for women in Victorian Britain. What was it like to be "downstairs," and why did late Victorians so often lament that "you can't find good help nowadays?" x
  • 35
    Victoria After Albert—1861-1901
    The Queen's sorrow over losing her husband never left her. Yet she endured, and her golden (1887) and diamond (1897) jubilee celebrations occasioned great public celebrations and a festive, imperial mood in London. x
  • 36
    The Victorian Legacy
    Looking back at the whole period, what are some of the most striking things that leap out at us? What does reflecting on them tell us about the past, about our own day and age, and about the nature of historical understanding itself? x

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Your professor

Patrick N. Allitt

About Your Professor

Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
Dr. Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt-an Oxford University graduate-has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow. He was the Director of Emory College's Center for Teaching...
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Victorian Britain is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 83.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Death by Quotation This is my third course by Professor Allitt. "History of the United States" did not draw me in but I thought "The Rise and Fall of the British Empire" was wonderfully done. So I suppose this course was going to be the tiebreaker/rubber match in some respects. Unfortunately, it did not deliver according to my expectations. I think the best way I can sum up my assessment is a comment from another reviewer: this course felt like one long collection of antcedotes. It seemed to be lacking in "teaching" and narrating political history. Instead it was like the professor just wanted to share a number of stories he had collected concerning first hand accounts of very specific individuals vs. providing general information on a topic or event. His summary comments of what these quotes were supposed to illustrate seemed forced or squeezed in at the last minute like they were secondary to what one specific person thought about something and had written. While I think some of the recitations certainly helped paint the picture of what life was like, the sheer number of them and the time dedicated to the quotations left me wondering if I had purchased a course on "Short Story Accounts of Victorian Britions". It felt like a majority of the lecture times were spent reading someone's quotes and the endless flow caused me to forget what topic was being discussed or what point the professor was trying to illustrate with the quote. I would've preferred more analysis/conclusions/teaching. Another shortcoming was the way the professor opened and closed lectures. He would start off each lecture by providing a preview of a major historical event or time period that he was going to discuss in more detail later in the lecture. But he wouldn’t frame it as such which resulted in me thinking that was the one and only time he’d describe something and I was left wondering why he didn’t provide more meat to the event and why he was moving to the next item so fast. If he would’ve explained it was a preview and he would get into further detail later in the lecture then some of the relation of the events wouldn’t feel so disjointed. This approach wouldn’t leave any real drama relating to the result of the event to hold your attention (such as which side would win a major battle) so it was like you had all the answers in a minute and all that was left was repeating it by providing details The professor often concluded his lectures in a somewhat abrupt manner: there wasn’t much summation of the key points of the lecture or a preview of what the next lecture had in store so there were times when the professor would make a point and suddenly there’d be applause to mark the end of the lecture without any warning that it was winding down! I understand 30 minutes is short and less time on summation means more can be squeezed in but how long does it take for one to mention "in summary..." or "in conclusion..."? 30 seconds? Small price to pay to avoid those abrupt endings/annoying applause at weird times. There were highlights: lectures 1-5, 12, 15-19, 29, 31, and 35. Specifically I thought his analysis on British attitudes towards the American Civil War was excellently done and well worth my time. My goal going in was to get a sense of the political history of this period, what everyday society was like, how the nation was transforming, and what factors actually constitute "Victorian Britain" (i.e. what makes it different from other periods). While I think most of those goals were met (a little less on the last one), the way we got here was not what I'd expected at all. But every professor has their own style and this one may resonate with you. For my money though if you are looking for information on this time period I would recommend Professor Allitt's other course: "The Rise and Fall of the British Empire" and "Foundations of Western Civilization II - A History of the Modern Western World" by Professor Robert Bucholz.
Date published: 2018-07-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Victorian Britain in the Round Professor Allitt has constructed a wonderfully well-rounded course, as you can see from the lecture list. It covers British politics, industrialization, poverty, sanitation, religion, women’s lives, social class, crime, trade unions, colonial wars, art, architecture, literature, leisure and sports. With one exception that I’ll mention later, it is hard to imagine anything else he might have included. As Allitt points out, 19th century Britain was a place and time of stunning contrasts. Commerce and industry generated immense fortunes for the new economic elite while the masses wallowed in squalor and filth, though their lot gradually improved after 1850. The worst case was 1840s Ireland, where the potato blight killed the potatoes, starved to death at least a million people, and forced most of the rest to leave the country forever. Evangelical preachers led the middle class into a new era of strict morality while London streets teemed with ladies of the evening. Middle-class readers little affected by the hardships of ordinary life learned all about them from the new mass literature. Liberal politicians promised that global free trade would make war unnecessary even as the British government beat down Chinese, Indian, African and Boer armies to secure itself the benefits of that trade, most infamously in opium for the Chinese market. In 1851 British industry dominated the world, loudly advertising itself at the London Crystal Palace, yet in less than fifty years it began an irreversible slide into obsolescence and decline. The second strength of this course is its many biographies. Those of you who have had some history courses in college will likely have heard of prime ministers Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, Irish nationalist Charles Parnell, scientists Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, nursing pioneer and sanitary reformer Florence Nightingale, novelists Charles Dickens, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and Thomas Hardy, playwright Oscar Wilde, poet and colonial advocate Rudyard Kipling, explorer David Livingstone and of course Queen Victoria. But there are many others here who deserve to be well known and are not, at least not in the US. For example, there are the railroad entrepreneurs George Stephenson and Isembard Brunel, the latter also a great steamship builder, the Anglican apologist John Henry Newman, who converted to Roman Catholicism, the self-help writer Samuel Smiles, the explorer John Speke, who with Richard Burton was the first-known European to see Lake Victoria and correctly identified it as the source of the Nile River, and Victoria’s favorite personal servant Abdul Kareem, a/k/a “the Munshi,” who in the 1890s may have been passing state secrets to Muslim militants in India. I have just a few objections. The domestic servants lecture is very good, but it should have immediately followed Lectures 6 and 7 on women rather than being tacked on near the end as number 34. Professor Allitt is too easily dismissive of Irish nationalists’ arguments that the British (read English) government callously allowed Ireland to starve. Worse, he completely ignores the great two Indian famines of the late 19th century that dwarfed Ireland’s. For more on this topic, see Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts, published the year (2001) before this course came out. In delivering his lectures, Allitt sometimes stumbles and hesitates as he generally does not in his other, later courses. On the other hand, I really like his use of contemporary literature to illustrate social conditions, and I love his discussion of criminal jargon in Lecture 27, like “skinning” for stealing children’s clothing, “divers” for housebreakers, “rampsmen” for muggers, and “baby farmers” for something you may not want to know about. Despite a bit of overlap I can also highly recommend Allitt’s course on the Industrial Revolution. There is also one on the British Empire, though I found it somewhat disappointing. For more English history, there are also Jennifer Paxton’s The Story of Medieval England: From King Arthur to the Tudor Conquest, Robert Bucholz’s History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts and his History of London, all excellent. Teaching Company, we need two more courses on England, one to cover the period from 1714 to 1815 and another for the 20th century!
Date published: 2018-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good topics Learned a lot about the Victorian Age. Found it interesting and enjoyed taking the course.
Date published: 2018-07-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Little Like Reading a 19th Century Novel Have thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Allitt's ramble through Victorian England. This seems to be a relatively old course, so it suffers from what many of the Great Courses do, missed opportunity to use graphics (even maps) to enliven the lecture. Yes, there are a few maps and a few portraits, but given the wealth of material available, not enough to make the course superb instead of merely good. Dr. Allitt has an impish sense of humor and is a master of finding the right quote from a Victorian to illustrate any given situation. He has apparently read not only history but almost all source material and does a good job of recommending the most valuable primary sources for further study. The course is well organized and is very easy viewing. The only minus is perhaps the abruptness of the close of each session--if you're not watching the time and expecting it, there's not much summation. But that's a minor flaw. Again, thoroughly enjoyable.
Date published: 2018-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and entertaining! It is fun to learn about a period that has so influenced the current era. How interesting that Prince Albert found interesting, important ways to contribute to Victoria's monarchy.
Date published: 2018-05-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Victoria and Victorian Britain I watched this course while also watching the PBS Masterpiece series Victoria. While the latter, of course, took some dramatic license, they were a wonderful compliment to each other. I highly recommend both. As others have noted, the professor is an excellent presenter, but the course may be due for a second edition update.
Date published: 2018-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lectures The lectures are excellent, presented by an acknowledged expert in the Victorian world. My only concern is that they are a bit dated in delivery, from 2003. The addition of pertinent graphics and illustrations can certainly enhance several concepts.
Date published: 2018-02-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Awful professor Worst professor I've had in 30 or so GC's. Will be returned.
Date published: 2018-02-13
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