historical & social context

Oscar Wilde spends much of The Importance of Being Earnest making jokes at the expense of the people he knew would be in the audience-- the British aristocracy in Victorian London. Wilde sets his play in "The Present," and it premiered in 1895. We can learn a lot about the strict code of etiquette and morality that the characters in the play are pushing against by looking back at life in England at the end of the 18th century.

Queen Victoria

An Age of Ideals


The British Empire

Tea Time


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Queen Victoria


Victoria was born at Kensington Palace, London, on 24 May 1819. She was the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of George III. Her father died shortly after her birth and she became heir to the throne because the three uncles who were ahead of her in the succession - George IV, Frederick Duke of York, and William IV - had no legitimate children who survived.


Warmhearted and lively, Victoria had a gift for drawing and painting; educated by a governess at home, she was a natural diarist and kept a regular journal throughout her life. On William IV's death in 1837, she became Queen at the age of 18.

Queen Victoria is associated with Britain's great age of industrial expansion, economic progress and, especially, empire. At her death, it was said, Britain had a worldwide empire on which the sun never set. In the early part of her reign, she was influenced by two men: her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, and then her husband, Prince Albert, whom she married in 1840. Both men taught her much about how to be a ruler in a 'constitutional monarchy', in which the monarch had very few powers but could use much influence.

Her marriage to Prince Albert produced nine children between 1840 and 1857. Most of her children married into other Royal families of Europe. Victoria was deeply attached to her husband and she sank into depression after he died, aged 42, in 1861. She had lost a devoted husband and her principal trusted adviser in affairs of state. For the rest of her reign she wore black. Seven attempts were made on Victoria's life, between 1840 and 1882 - her courageous attitude towards these attacks greatly strengthened her popularity.

In foreign policy, the Queen's influence during the middle years of her reign was generally used to support peace and reconciliation. In 1864, Victoria pressed her ministers not to intervene in the Prussia-Denmark war, and her letter to the German Emperor (whose son had married her daughter) in 1875 helped to avert a second Franco-German war.

On the Eastern Question in the 1870s - the issue of Britain's policy towards the declining Turkish Empire in Europe - Victoria (unlike Gladstone) believed that Britain, while pressing for necessary reforms, ought to uphold Turkish hegemony. Victoria's popularity grew with the increasing imperial sentiment from the 1870s onwards. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the government of India was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown, with the position of Governor General upgraded to Viceroy, and in 1877 Victoria became Empress of India under the Royal Titles Act passed by Disraeli's government.

During Victoria's long reign, direct political power moved away from the sovereign. A series of Acts broadened the social and economic base of the electorate.

It was during Victoria's reign that the modern idea of the constitutional monarch, whose role was to remain above political parties, began to evolve. But Victoria herself was not always non-partisan and she took the opportunity to give her opinions, sometimes very forcefully, in private. Although conservative in some respects - like many at the time she opposed giving women the vote - on social issues, she tended to favour measures to improve the lot of the poor, such as the Royal Commission on housing. She also supported many charities involved in education, hospitals and other areas.


Victoria and her family travelled and were seen on an unprecedented scale, thanks to transport improvements and other technical changes such as the spread of newspapers and the invention of photography. Victoria was the first reigning monarch to use trains - she made her first train journey in 1842.

In her later years, she became the symbol of the British Empire. Both the Golden (1887) and the Diamond (1897) Jubilees, held to celebrate the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Queen's accession, were marked with great displays and public ceremonies.

Victoria died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, on 22 January 1901 after a reign which lasted almost 64 years, then the longest in British history. Her son, Edward VII succeeded her. She was buried at Windsor beside Prince Albert, in the Frogmore Royal Mausoleum, which she had built for their final resting place.  (SOURCE)


The British Empire

An Age of Ideals

The 19th century saw large amounts of social change; slavery was abolished, and the Second Industrial Revolution led to massive urbanization and much higher levels of productivity, profit and prosperity. European imperialism brought much of Asia and almost all of Africa under colonial rule.

It was marked by the collapse of the Spanish, Zulu Kingdom, Napoleonic, Holy Roman and Mughal empires. This paved the way for the growing influence of the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the United States, the German Empire (essentially replacing the Holy Roman Empire), the French colonial empire and Meiji Japan, with the British boasting unchallenged dominance after 1815. After the defeat of the French Empire and its allies in the Napoleonic Wars, the British and Russian empires expanded greatly, becoming the world's leading powers. The British Empire grew rapidly in the first half of the century, especially with the expansion of vast territories in Canada, Australia, South Africa and heavily populated India, and in the last two decades of the century in Africa. By the end of the century, the British Empire controlled a fifth of the world's land and one quarter of the world's population. During the post-Napoleonic era, it enforced what became known as the Pax Britannica, which had ushered in unprecedented globalization and economic integration on a massive scale.

The 19th century also saw the birth of science as a profession; the term scientist was coined in 1833 by William Whewell, which soon replaced the older term of (natural) philosopher. Among the most influential ideas of the 19th century were those of Charles Darwin (alongside the independent researches of Alfred Russel Wallace), who in 1859 published the book The Origin of Species, which introduced the idea of evolution by natural selection. Another important landmark in medicine and biology were the successful efforts to prove the germ theory of disease.


Following this, Louis Pasteur made the first vaccine against rabies, and also made many discoveries in the field of chemistry, including the asymmetry of crystals. In chemistry, Dmitri Mendeleev, following the atomic theory of John Dalton, created the first periodic table of elements. In physics, the experiments, theories and discoveries of Michael Faraday, André-Marie Ampère, James Clerk Maxwell, and their contemporaries led to the creation of electromagnetism as a new branch of science. Thermodynamics led to an understanding of heat and the notion of energy was defined. Other highlights include the discoveries unveiling the nature of atomic structure and matter, simultaneously with chemistry – and of new kinds of radiation. In astronomy, the planet Neptune was discovered. In mathematics, the notion of complex numbers finally matured and led to a subsequent analytical theory; they also began the use of hypercomplex numbers. Karl Weierstrass and others carried out the arithmetization of analysis for functions of real and complex variables. It also saw rise to new progress in geometry beyond those classical theories of Euclid, after a period of nearly two thousand years. The mathematical science of logic likewise had revolutionary breakthroughs after a similarly long period of stagnation.


But the most important step in science at this time were the ideas formulated by the creators of electrical science. Their work changed the face of physics and made possible for new technology to come about: Thomas Alva Edison gave the world a practical everyday lightbulb. Nikola Tesla pioneered the induction motor, high frequency transmission of electricity, and remote control. Other new inventions were electrical telegraphy and the telephone (SOURCE)


During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the globe, and in the process established large overseas empires. Envious of the great wealth these empires generated, England, France, and the Netherlands began to establish colonies and trade networks of their own in the Americas and Asia. A series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France left England and then, following union between England and Scotland in 1707, Great Britain, the dominant colonial power in North America. It then became the dominant power in the Indian subcontinent after the East India Company's conquest of Mughal Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

The independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America in 1783 after the American War of Independence caused Britain to lose some of its oldest and most populous colonies. British attention soon turned towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. After the defeat of France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), Britain emerged as the principal naval and imperial power of the 19th century. Unchallenged at sea, British dominance was later described as Pax Britannica ("British Peace"), a period of relative peace in Europe and the world (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon and adopted the role of global policeman. In the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution began to transform Britain; so that by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, the country was described as the "workshop of the world". The British Empire expanded to include most of India, large parts of Africa and many other territories throughout the world. Alongside the formal control that Britain exerted over its own colonies, its dominance of much of world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many regions, such as Asia and Latin America.

During the 19th century, Britain's population increased at a dramatic rate, accompanied by rapid urbanisation, which caused significant social and economic stresses.[15] To seek new markets and sources of raw materials, the British government under Benjamin Disraeli initiated a period of imperial expansion in Egypt, South Africa, and elsewhere. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand became self-governing dominions. (SOURCE)

India, often declared "the jewel in the crown" for the Empire, had won its independence just five years before. In 1952, British troops were fighting independence movements in Egypt and Kenya. They would go on to lose both, and many others.

By 1979, the British empire was reduced to a few pockets around the world. The shrinking didn't stop, however. When Hong Kong was transferred to China in 1997, Queen Elizabeth's son Prince Charles himself dubbed it the "end of the Empire." In 2015, Britain has 14 overseas territories left. Outside of Britain's land in the Antarctic, which is vast but mostly unpopulated, the largest remaining British overseas territory is the Falkland Islands. At 4,700 square miles, the islands are a little smaller than Connecticut.

It's a far cry from the days when the sun never set on the Empire: In 1921, at the empire's peak, the British ruled around a quarter of the land on Earth.


Tea Time

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Henry James, The Portrait Of A Lady, (1880)

Tea became the nation’s beverage during Queen Victoria’s reign. Lower taxes on tea and the expansion of plantations in India (the plant had originated in China) meant there was more affordable tea than ever before, making it accessible to more levels of society.The working classes bought hot sweet tea from street vendors and tea drinking crops up in many of Charles Dickens’ stories. 

The custom of afternoon tea came about as a necessity to fill a hunger gap. In previous centuries dinner had been served early to mid afternoon but towards the end of the Georgian era it had slipped back to 5 or 6 o’clock. By Victoria’s reign it was not uncommon for dinner to be served at 7pm or even later on important occasions.

Some sustenance was needed to bridge the gap between breakfast and dinner and so the habit of taking tea in the afternoon was born, often served around 5pm. According to Mrs Beeton afternoon tea “seems to the feminine mind almost a necessity where dinner is late.”

Tea alone would not have satisfied this peckishness so it was customary to serve something along side the drink. Mrs Beeton notes that wealthier families could afford “a great variety of dainty eatables and drinkables” whereas the less fashionable (i.e. poorer) folk may just serve bread or toast and butter. (SOURCE)



The fashion capital of Britain was the city of London. The women’s fashion underwent rapid changes. In the mid-1800s, women basically wore corsets, balloonish sleeves and crinolines. These crinolines flourished during the 1850s and 1860s. The bustle became popular in the 1870s. The women used to wear dresses with big padded shoulders to show off their class and poise.


These dresses had a long or a short sleeve depending upon the season. During the Victorian period, women would completely cover their legs by wearing black stockings. In the later years, pants replaced the items that were used earlier. The skirts which had a straight fitting were now spread over large hoops. However, during the last few years of the era, hoop lost its hold and was immediately replaced by skimmer skirts. There was also a change in the sleeves of the dresses. The sleeves changed from slim to leg o' mutton sleeves at the end of Victorian times. The corset was also an essential element in the women’s outfit and the purpose of this corset never changed. For a woman to be able to wear a Victorian outfit, she had to have a cinched- in waist. The Victorian women belonging to the upper and middle class had some liberty in respect of the evening. For evening apparel, women could bear the shoulders and upper part of the chest. 


Men’s fashion did not undergo any radical change. Men wore Stovepipe pants during the initial years of the century. The men’s costumes were to be formal, sober and elegant during the work hours and otherwise. The basic feature of the Victorian men’s clothing was clean and basic lines, use of dark color and a detailed work of the costume. Men also wore corsets and with time, cinching of the waist was replaced by easy breathing loose jackets. During the Victorian era, men wore coats, vests and hats except when they were doing hard labor jobs. Any costume less than this was considered unsuitable. It was essential for a man to have a waistcoat or vest. These vests could be bright colors or dark shades and were used as an accessory to change the tone of the suit. Hats were considered as an integral part of the men’s clothes. There were a variety of hats to suit different occasions. Even men wore an accessory that suited their clothes. Men wore ties, pocket watches, a walking stick and adding to the outfit were gloves. Men’s trousers initially had legs covering in tight fitting cloth but, the fashion gradually changed to a loose tubular style. Straight slacks, with a crease in front & back were commonly seen by the end of the century. There was also a variation in the Day coats worn by men. These coats had changed into long frock coats, mostly in black color.

Waistcoats or vests made from wool were commonly used for day wear or as an office wear. The 16th century witnessed the invention of lace which was used for men’s costume. The men’s clothes in the early years of the Victorian era were a bit subtle but were kind of colorful. (SOURCE)


City vs. Country

Although the Industrial Revolution had already begun, Britain in 1800 had changed little in centuries. It was a rural country, dominated by agriculture. For most, the world was restricted to their village - where their family had probably lived for generations - and the nearest market town, not surprising when the fastest thing on earth was a galloping horse, covering 100 miles a day at best. If you lived in Somerset, London was almost foreign, much as it had been in 1600. You wouldn't even have been using the same time - with the sun rising around ten minutes later than in London, Bristol clocks ran ten minutes behind.

Horizons were limited and life was slow. It was horsepower or nothing, and daylight and the seasons ruled the countryside. But all that was about to change. Although the steam engine was first invented in 1769 by James Watt, for decades his monopoly had prevented significant development and kept prices high. It was only in the nineteenth century that the real impact of steam would be fully felt.

And what an impact. Steam changed everything. It was faster, more powerful, and could work independently of natural power sources, such as water. Traction engines saw fields ploughed twenty times faster than before, and factories could be anywhere. They chose towns and cities. At a time of massive population expansion in Britain (from 9 million in 1801 to 36 million in 1911), cities were expanding even faster. Once islands in a sea of fields, needing the agricultural economy to sustain them, they forged ahead as farmworkers made redundant by steam migrated to the nearest town to find work. Manchester and Sheffield quadrupled between 1801 and 1851, Bradford and Glasgow grew eightfold. Cities were the masters now. (SOURCE)

In contrast, London loomed large in the Victorian imagination as a metropolis of vice. With its many newspapers, journals, periodicals and circulating libraries, it also became an inspiration for literature (most notably, of course, for the novels of Charles Dickens) as well as a place where it was created and consumed in vast quantities. It was also the greatest city and port in the world, and not to mention centre of commerce and culture, in the world. As the seat of the court and of society, it was increasingly a magnet for the rich of Europe, and later North America. (SOURCE)