The human and artistic concerns of both the Romantic and Victorian Ages are similar to our own concerns; the response to those concerns- given by poets, novelists, dramatists and artists- can help us live fuller, more meaningful and creative lives in our own times.
During my studies this semester, what has fascinated me the most about the art and literature of the Romantic and Victorian Ages, is its enduring popularity. It is this popularity, that I believe reveals a similarity between the concerns of the 19th Century and the concerns of the 21st Century. Artists such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy began to explore the facets of the human experience and the deep inner working of the individual. This introspective obsession characterised the 19th Century, posing the questions we continue to question and define ourselves by today; what is the purpose of my life on earth?
In an eruption to the fabric of 18th Century society, Romanticism became the antithesis of Classicism and the Enlightenment Period, challenging the dominant values and ideology which had preceded it. The Romantic Period questioned 18th-century rationalism, with its emphasis on reason and intellect, instead focusing on the inner-self; believing that emotion and imagination, were the most powerful elements in human nature.
In some ways, this personal reflection has never left us. Today more than ever, human nature is guided by emotion and the fulfillment of the inner-self. Adam Gopnik, in his article ‘Finding the Self in the Selfie’, discusses our modern obsession with taking ‘selfies’. While Gopnik agrees there is a narcissistic element in our selfie fixation, he goes on to analyse the selfie as being an expression of the passing ecstatic moment, a moment in which we are glad to find ourselves where we are and wanting to see how we looked while we were, briefly, pleased with ourselves (Gopnik, 2015). The ‘selfie’ is a self-exploration, of what and who you are. This concept is similar to the works of Jane Austen, who explores the deep inner workings of the heart through the contextual framework of her own experiences. Through her characters Austen reflects the inner-self and presents a heightened examination of human personality and our moods and mental potentialities. (You can read more on Jane Austen in my Best Critical blog post)
The 19th Century was also characterised by a return to nature, whereby artists such as William Wordsworth and Charles dickens reject the indurstrialisation and urbanisation of the era. Similarly, our instagram feeds are filled with travel ‘inspo’ as we seek out the aesthetically perfect shot, finding the best light in a room, and looking at a view with a new perspective. Romantic and Victorian artists inspire our creativity, teaching us to exalt in the beauty of nature and offering a new perspective. Early on, Wordsworth’s poetry, which contains so much vivid nature imagery, became associated with the Lake District; as a result, mass tourism in the Lake District has been sparked by his writing for hundreds of years (Rothman, 2015)
We live in a culture in which self-presentation and social nuance are topics of keen interest. Our idolisation of celebrities, our obsession with the wealthy and the hysteria of keeping ‘upgraded’ grows as the economic status of the majority of the population remains flat. In critical defiance of this social mania George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, offer a different perspective, sharing a common exaltation of the working class. rejecting aristocracy and understanding the value of resilience, imagination and an honest living (An example of this can be seen in my Best Creative blog post). While close to the heart of the Romantic and Victorian ethos was the concept of the ‘hero’, this hero often attained freedom in defiance of society. Although it is difficult to remove ourselves form the perpetual social machine, the response of 19th Century artists in questioning high society allows us to understand our frivolous 21st century obsession for what it truly is, empowering us to live fuller more meaningful lives.
The 19th Century redefined the way in which we view ourselves and the world around us. Although artists created within the framework of their contextual experiences, their questions and values continue to find relevance in to the concerns of the 21st Century. Defying social construct, exploring the inner-self and rejecting materialism are movements which continue to influences the human experience. The response of Romantic and Victorian to the concerns of their era continue to influence the human experience, leading us to explore the inner-self, defy social construct and find meaning and value in our lives.
Gopnik, A. Finding the Self in a Selfie. The New Yorker, 2015
Lake District National Park. http://www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/visiting/localspecialities/famouswriters/wordsworth
Rothman, J. The Bizarre Complicated Formula for literary Fame. The New Yorker, 2015