Un collage de femmes et d'hommes côte à côte, représentant le progrès et la diversité de la civilisation britannique aux XIXe et XXe siècles.

British Civilisation and Literature: 19th and 20th centuries

  1. The 18th Century: the Age of Enlightenment
  2. The Gothic and the Fantastic
  3. The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature
  4. English Romanticism (1798-1832)
  5. 19th Century Literary Movements : Realism and Naturalism
  6. British Civilisation and Literature: 19th and 20th centuries

The Victorian Period: 1832-1900

The Victorian Period took place during the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Great Britain was then the first industrial, cultural and economic nation, with a thriving economy. It was a time of social and political stability and the colonies were a huge market for British products. The British population rose from 2 million people to 6.5 million people. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a demonstration of British power.

Yet, some social problems arose: trade unions were forbidden and this led to riots. The “Corn Laws” were used to keep the price of bread high. There was pauperism too: in 1864, the Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced to solve the problem of poverty with workhouses.

The Victorian Period was the age of two extremes: the poor working class and the middle classes, rich and comfortable. It was a 2-standard society. It was also an age marked by scientific and economic confidence and social and spiritual pessimism. Some great debates took place: intellectual activity and questioning on varied themes such as justice, liberty and progress. In 1859, Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”.

The Mid-Victorian society is still held together by Christian moral teachings. The stress was on the virtues of family life. Some saw the family as an agent of oppression, as an efficient means to maintain uniformity in society. It was also the time of the first real moves of the modern women’s movement. Yet, at the same time, there was a great respect for the matronly model provided by Queen Victoria herself: the stereotype of virtuous womanhood.

The 19th Century: the Great Age of the English novel and Gothic novel

With Charles Dickens, a new concern of the society emerged:

  • he was a clock (a huge worker)
  • his father was imprisoned for debt
  • he started working at the factory at 12

Dickens’ life inspired his novels: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, and Hard Times. They all revolve around the problems of society and the suffering of children.

He is never pathetic but sometimes humourous and ironic. Dickens’s depiction of the Victorian change of feelings from optimism and confidence at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837 to uncertainty and melancholy thirty years later.

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West to the Pacific photo

America: West to the Pacific

  1. Introduction to Puritanism and Expansionism
  2. Antebellum South
  3. Life in the Plantations
  4. USA: North and South
  5. O’Sullivan’s Manifest Destiny
  6. The social context of America in the early 19th century
  7. The American Civil War: 1861-1865
  8. America: The New Nation
  9. After the American Civil War: The Reconstruction
  10. America: West to the Pacific
  11. Years of Growth

A westward expansion

Expansion is both commercial and territorial. American expansion was always a sort of global attitude involving territorial growth and commercial expansion, exactly like a body that grows. America has always been perceived as a body.

The growth is so huge that nobody can do anything about it: unlimited development, though only extending to the West.

In 1800, the Western Boundary/Border was the Mississippi River. Beyond it, stood great areas of land, not very well known: 600 miles to the Rocky Mountains.

Louisiana was still a French territory (and France was then ruled by Napoleon). Napoleon sold Louisiana to the Americans for 15 million dollars to make war in Europe with Britain. As Louisiana was a huge territory, the American territories doubled over the night. Thanks, Napoleon!

Jefferson had sent explorers to the West to find an easy way to the Pacific. Louis and Clark left in 1804 and set off up the Missouri River. They marched for 10 weeks in the Rocky Mountains and ate their horses.

They finally reached the Columbia River, on which they floated down to the Pacific.

In December 1805, they reached the Pacific, after 4,000 miles. They failed to find an easy way but they showed the journey was possible and indirectly favoured expansion thanks to the useful information they brought back.

Oregon was a territory stretching from Alaska to California and to the Rocky Mountains to Louisiana.

In 1804, it was claimed by 4 countries: the US, Britain, Spain (owning California) and Russia (owning Alaska). The US and Britain had the strongest positions because they had sent people to scout to recognize the land and to settle trading posts.

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Birth of a Nation photo

USA: Birth of a Nation

  1. The Reformation in the British Isles
  2. English Expansionism
  3. The Glorious Revolution of 1688
  4. The American colonies : Religion and Politics
  5. USA: Birth of a Nation


After France’s defeat in Canada, Britain remained the only power left in Eastern North America. The colonies were now free to spread over the vast continent and increase their wealth.

Therefore, for the British Government, it was natural that the colonists, whose prosperity was increasing, should contribute to the British economy.

The financial measures affecting trade and the arbitrary taxes decided in London soon became intolerable to the colonists. They now have the opportunity and the financial means to stand on their own feet and manage their own affairs.

Instead of being treated as equal partners, the American colonists were considered by the Prime Minister as second-rate citizens or children :

“This is the mother country. They are the children, they must obey and we prescribe”.

William Pitt

More than a rebellion against patriarchal authority, the War of Independence, was the first modern political revolution.

It started with the universal democratic slogan: “No taxation without representation“.

By rising against Britain the colonists exploded the myth of English liberty while using at the same time the principles that the people of England themselves had established one century before in the Glorious Revolution.

Origins of the Revolution

Several circumstances had put a strain on Anglo-American relations in the 18th century.

First, Britain merchants manipulated the House of Commons into voting a series of protective acts that were detrimental to the colonial economy.

Further restrictions were imposed through arbitrary taxation decided in London.

Another dissatisfaction came from the costs of the British European wars to which they were forced to contribute.

1763: the Royal Proclamation prohibited any British settlement west of the Appalachians, which created a major land problem in the colonies and restricted economic expansion.

So economic and patriotic motivations were closely linked in creating a feeling of rebellion.

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The Glorious Revolution of 1688

The Glorious Revolution of 1688

  1. The Reformation in the British Isles
  2. English Expansionism
  3. The Glorious Revolution of 1688
  4. The American colonies : Religion and Politics
  5. USA: Birth of a Nation


Civic liberties and parliamentary institutions represent one of the major cultural legacies England left to the civilization of the world.

The first document protecting individual liberty and the prototype of the modern Parliament appeared in England as early as the 13th century. However, effective protection against arbitrary power and the first parliamentary regime emerged much later in the 17th.

However, the modern notion of democracy, which implies full political citizenship for everyone (no one deprived of the right to vote) took a much longer time to take route in Britain than elsewhere in the world.

The pioneer of Parliamentarism took the slow road to universal suffrage. As the American claim for independence and liberty showed in the late 19th century, English liberty celebrated by the most famous philosophers (Voltaire and Montesquieu) was more a myth than a reality.

Origins of Parliament and Civil Liberties

In Britain, there is no written constitution to protect civil liberties and define the rules of the political game. Yet, several traditions, constitutional agreements and political conventions exist and constitute the pillars of the regime.

One of those documents is the Magna Carta (Great Charter) granted by King John in 1215 under the pressure of his aristocracy and clergy. This document excluded very early in English history the practice of political absolutism and excessive use of the royal prerogative).

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The Affluent Society : poverty rediscovered ? photo

The Affluent Society : poverty rediscovered?

  1. The Poor Law Amendment Act (1834)
  2. Victorian philanthropy in 19th century England
  3. Electoral inequalities in Victorian England: the Road to Male Suffrage
  4. Ante Bellum, Inter Bella : Legislation and the Depression
  5. More electoral inequalities : the Road to Female Suffrage
  6. The Beveridge Report: a Revolution?
  7. The Welfare State: an end to poverty and inequality ?
  8. The Affluent Society : poverty rediscovered?
  9. Inequality and Race
  10. Inequality and Gender
  11. The Thatcher Years : the individual and society
  12. Inequalities in Britain today

Post-war Britain is characterised by Butskellism, a hybrid word formed from part of the names of the Conservative (Butler) and Labour (Gaitskell) Chancellors of the Exchequer.

This socio-economic policy was a compromise between private and public responsibility for the individual and was seen to describe a consensus between right and left which was to last until 1975 (for the Conservatives) and 1979 (for the Labour Party).

The 50s and 60s were years of the acceptance by both sides in British politics of a Welfare State, which looked after the individual “from the cradle to the grave”.

Economic and social changes

Received wisdom indicates an increase in the standard of living for the majority of British people. The average male weekly wage for men in 1952 was £8 14s, the equivalent of £36 in 1976 when the same average weekly wage had reached £65.

This represented an increase in real terms of 80% in 24 years. Or there again, considering the percentage of homes owned by their residents, the figure in the same period jumped from 29% to 54%, an increase of 86%.

For the first time in their lives, many working-class and lower-middle-class people benefited considerably from the “affluent society”. They could borrow money at low rates of interest and buy new consumer goods and services. In 1951 there were 48 cars and 103 telephones for 1,000 people. In 1976, the figures were 103 and 392 respectively.

However, it must be remembered that economic growth was slower in Britain than in most other capitalist countries. This is often referred to as “relative” economic decline.

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