The Victorian era may be heavily represented in pop culture, through stately period dramas, rollicking novels, and gritty television series, but it's also one of the most misunderstood periods in history. From prudish queens to macabre mourners, myths about the Victorian era persist. These myths and inaccuracies oversimplify a ridiculously complex historical era, as well as its inhabitants.
The Victorian era was so named because of Queen Victoria's reign over the United Kingdom, which lasted from 1837 until 1901 - an era in which the United Kingdom headed a vast empire that generated both great wealth and great inequality. The Victorian era was indeed rife with contradictions: it was a time of heightened morality, elaborate clothing, and new rituals surrounding the departed; it was also a time of bawdy jokes, technological innovation, and amplified debates regarding human intimacy.
Myths about the Victorian era, whether they stem from fiction or inaccurate readings of the past, tend to interpret the era in very limited terms. Debunking Victorian myths allows for a closer, more accurate look at one of history's most misunderstood eras.
The Reality: The United Kingdom has been racially diverse for centuries. Romans relied on soldiers from across the empire - including Africa - to staff forts and outposts in Britannia. Such diversity was also visible in the Victorian era when people from across the empire came to the British Isles, willingly or unwillingly. For example, enslaved Africans were brought to the UK by planters and government officials. Some stayed on as domestic housekeepers and butlers.
Why The Myth: Following WWII, the UK recruited former colonial subjects to immigrate and ease the labor crisis. Popular memory assumes there was no racial diversity in the country before the arrival of these immigrants, who hailed from places such as Jamaica and India. While the UK certainly became a more diverse country following WWII, Victorians of color were a small but not insignificant part of British history.
The Reality: Victorians did idealize childhood and emphasize youth in a fresh way; they believed children were innocents who needed to be protected from the corruption of the outside world. Children's literature, for example, grew from the middle of the 18th-century and into the 19th-century, highlighting cultural shifts in how Britons perceived children and childhood. This romanticization of childhood was an ideal more than a reality, however, and working-class children in particular faced added pressures. Unlike their middle- and upper-class counterparts, they often labored to help support their families and had to confront life's hardships at young ages.
Why The Myth: The care of children - especially in middle- and upper-class families - was often entrusted to nurses and governesses. This fact eventually gave rise to the myth that Victorian parents kept their children at arm's length and relegated them to the sidelines of the family.
The Reality: Illicit substances were widely available in Victorian Britain, as they often had medical uses and were found in common medications. Despite this availability, the country was not brimming with opium dens, although such establishments could be found around the docks of eastern London.
Why The Myth: Dependency-inducing substances became increasingly taboo throughout the 19th-century and eventually became associated with depravity and decay. Popular writers, such as Charles Dickens, seized upon this theme, and fiction exaggerated the presence of these dens in Britain.
The Reality: Victorian women were heavily involved in the public sphere. Women in the working classes supported themselves and their families, often through factory labor. Even middle- and upper-class women did not always live within the confines of the home. Victorian women engaged in philanthropy, served as missionaries, published books, pursued scientific and technological advancements, and petitioned for their own political voice.
Why The Myth: While it is true that traditional gender roles were explicit in the Victorian era, these were perceived ideals rather than reflections of reality. "The Angel in the House," a poem published in the middle of the 19th-century, emphasized the idea that women were domestic beings. This ideal eventually wrought real-world implications: many men and women alike used this model to justify women's exclusion from official forms of public life. Women lacked many rights in the Victorian era - such as the right to vote - and were legally subordinate to men.