Engraved portrait of Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria. Getty Images

The adjective Victorian is used to described something from the period of the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria. And, as Victoria was on the throne for more than 60 years, from 1837 to 1901, the term is also used to describe things from the 19th century in general.

The word is used to describe a wide variety of items, such as Victorian authors or Victorian architecture or even Victorian clothing and fashion. But in its most common usage the word is used to describe social attitudes, implying an emphasis on moral rigidity, priggishness, and prudery.

Queen Victoria herself was often perceived as being overly serious and possessing little or no sense of humor. This was due in part to her having been widowed at a relatively young age. The loss of her husband, Prince Albert, was devastating, and for the rest of her life she wore black mourning clothes.

Surprising Victorian Attitudes

The concept of the Victorian era as repressive is true to some extent, of course. Society at the time was much more formal. But many advances were made during Victorian times, especially in the fields of industry and technology. And a number of societal reforms also took place.

One sign of great technological progress would be the enormous technology show held in London, the Great Exhibition of 1851. Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, organized it, and Queen Victoria herself visited the displays of new inventions in the Crystal Palace on numerous occasions.

And social reformers were also a factor in Victorian life. Florence Nightingale became a British hero by introducing her reforms to the nursing profession. And the novelist Charles Dickens created plots highlighting problems in British society.

Dickens had gotten disgusted with the plight of the working poor in Britain during the period of industrialization. And his classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol, was written specifically as a protest against the treatment of workers by an increasingly greedy upper class.

A Victorian Empire

The Victorian Era was a peak time for the British Empire, and the concept of Victorians being repressive is more true in dealings internationally. For instance, a bloody uprising by native troops in India, the Sepoy Mutiny, was brutally put down.

And in Britain's closest colony in the 19th century, Ireland, periodic rebellions were put down. The British also fought in many other places, including two wars in Afghanistan.

Despite troubles in many places, the British Empire held together during Victoria's reign. And when she celebrated her 60th anniversary on the throne in 1897, troops from across the empire paraded during the massive celebrations in London.

The Meaning of "Victorian"

Perhaps the most precise definition of the word Victorian would restrict it purely to the years of the late 1830s to the beginning of the 20th century. But, as it was a period of so much happening, the word has taken on many connotations, which vary from the notion of repression in society to great progress in technology. And as the Victorian Era was profoundly interesting, perhaps that is inevitable.

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McNamara, Robert. "Victorian." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Victorian. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Victorian." ThoughtCo. (accessed August 1, 2021).