Changes in Britain in the Victorian era

A changing way of living

During Christina Rossetti's lifetime, Britain underwent changes that transformed the lives of its people:

  • The population grew enormously, from around 12 million at the time of Rossetti's birth in 1830, to around 30 million at the time of her death in 1894
  • Living in London, Rossetti would have been affected by the growth of the cities, as more and more people moved away from the countryside and found jobs in the commercial and financial sector
  • The rail network, begun in the 1830s and largely completed by the 1870s, had a great effect not only on the accessibility of travel and speed of movement, but also on the appearance of the countryside. It also brought many visitors to London on day-trips and enabled many to leave the city for short breaks and holidays
  • British manufacturing became dominant in the world so trade and the financial sector also grew significantly
  • British power and influence overseas expanded.

The dangers of modern living

In her commentary called The Face of the Deep on the final book of the Bible, Revelation, Rossetti writes that England is ‘full of luxuries and thronged by stinted poor' (p. 422). She recognised the country's preoccupation with wealth, power and influence and felt that this focus was a dangerous ‘vanity'.

More on vanity: Vanity is a word that Rossetti uses repeatedly throughout her poetry to speak of the alluring but dangerous influences of the world. (Its original connotation in the Bible was that of ‘emptiness'.) Rossetti takes her emphasis on vanity from Ecclesiastes 1:2. In a sonnet, entitled The World, she uses the figure of an evil woman ‘with pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands' to describe the temptation of worldly influences. She thereby warns her readers not to depend on worldly comforts such as financial security but to instead trust in God.

Rossetti sought to highlight the social problems that needed addressing, by concentrating on the practical application of the biblical commandment to love one's neighbour (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 19:19). She longed for a society based on the biblical principles of assisting the poor and comforting the broken-hearted.

This can be seen to correspond with the emphasis placed on social reform by Tractarian leaders. Seeking to re-vitalise the Church, the Tractarians drew attention to the importance of the Bible for the nineteenth-century Christian and tried to find ways of addressing the problems that they felt were corrupting Victorian society.

More on Tractarianism: In 1833, a series of tracts (leaflets arguing a point of view) entitled Tracts for the Times were circulated at Oxford. Some of these were by John Keble, an Anglican clergyman who wanted an even stricter observance of the rituals set down in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The tracts, which continued to be published until 1841, wanted the Church of England to become more like the Roman Catholic Church (though not to accept the authority of the Pope, who was the Head of the Catholic Church.)

The Oxford Movement

An influential group of people accepted the challenge of the tracts. They became known as Tractarians, or Puseyites, after their leader, Edward Pusey. The movement was sometimes called the Oxford Movement. One of the early Tractarians and the writer of the very first tract was John Henry Newman.

Seeking to revitalise the Church, the Tractarians drew attention to the importance of the Bible for the nineteenth-century Christian and tried to find ways of addressing the problems that they felt were corrupting Victorian society.

The Crimean War

In July 1853, Russia occupied territories in the Crimea that had previously been controlled by Turkey. The British and the French governments were concerned about Russian expansion and attempted to negotiate with them for their withdrawal from the Crimea. However, Turkey was unwilling to grant a peaceful settlement and declared war on Russia. After the Russians destroyed a Turkish fleet in November 1853, Britain and France decided to join the war against Russia.

Florence NightingaleSoon after British soldiers arrived in Turkey, many became ill with cholera and malaria. Within a few weeks around 8,000 men were suffering from these two diseases. After reading about the terrible conditions that the British soldiers were facing, Florence Nightingale organised a team of nurses to travel to the Crimea to offer their assistance. In October 1854, she and 38 women volunteer nurses went to Turkey where the main British camp was based.

Rossetti was 24 in 1854 and had a keen desire to serve the wounded. She applied to join her Aunt Eliza as a nurse under the instruction of Florence Nightingale. However, she was turned down because of her youth and inexperience.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.