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The Globe and Mail

British confidence high during Victorian and Edwardian age

Britain’s Queen Victoria, seen in this undated file photo, died peacefully on Jan. 22, 1901, at the age of 81.


Good old imperial days

"There was more to the Victorians than public-school floggings, big whiskers and a canting disapproval of sex," says The Times of London. "During the 80 years or so following Queen Victoria's accession, British national confidence was at an all-time high. The American colonies had wriggled free, but the British Empire still stretched across the globe, taking in nearly half a billion people. Steamships and telegraphs linked India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Burma and South Africa. The Royal Navy patrolled the seas unrivalled, enforcing the Pax Britannica. … The Victorian/Edwardian era overlapped with La Belle Époque in France and the Gilded Age in the U.S. Everyone was having a good time – except for the millions of poor and hungry people forced to submit to a foreign empire."

What did they do for us?

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"You are holding in your hand a highly popular newspaper [The Daily Mail]. Such a thing never existed before the Victorian Age," writes British author A.N. Wilson. "Unless you are an extraordinarily fastidious grower of your own turnips and knitter of your own socks, you probably buy most of your clothes, food, toys and furniture at large shops. You visit department stores. These, too, are Victorian inventions. … The likelihood is that you think it normal to spend at least part of every year on holiday – another Victorian invention."

Victorians' invasions

"In 1882, three eminent Victorians attempted to conquer America," says The Guardian. "One was a Channel Islander who had lost favour with her lover, the Prince of Wales, after dropping ice cream down his neck. The second was a seven-ton Sudanese who received 700 emotional letters on his departure, many enclosing buns. The third was a young Irish poet whose lectures on interior design and Gothic art formed an elaborate publicity stunt for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. All three have a claim on the cultural memory, but only one has guest-starred on The Simpsons. Lillie Langtry played to full houses, but failed to convince anyone she was an actor; Jumbo the elephant was killed by a freight train and cut into profitable chunks by P.T. Barnum; Oscar Wilde made landfall [as] an object of skeptical curiosity … and emerged in better condition than either. America was where Oscar Wilde became Oscar Wilde."

Stiff upper lips

Were the Victorians right with their stiff upper lip and their insistence on moderation or just not doing a lot of things, an Australian broadcaster asked Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength. The researcher replied: "I won't say they're completely right, but they were certainly on to something. … In our era we tend to make fun of the Victorians as overly controlled and so on, but they lived at a time where they thought morality had been declining and they wanted to restore the moral level of society. … We've reacted against [self-control] and rebelled against that to some degree, and probably to our detriment."

Will 2013 be Victorian?

"Based on an analysis of more than a half million public posts on message boards, blogs, social media sites and news sources, IBM predicts that 'steampunk,' a sub-genre inspired by the clothing, technology and social mores of Victorian society, will be a major trend to bubble up, and take hold, of the retail industry," says the Journal of Engineering . "Through its sentiment analysis, IBM has found that steampunk is evolving into a cultural 'meme' via a series of leaps across cultural domains." Steampunk, the journal says, "is a retro-futuristic style of fashion that is influenced by the works of Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla, H.G. Wells and more."

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Thought du jour

"I believe the future is only the past again, entered through another gate."

Arthur Wing Pinero, English dramatist (1855-1934)

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