The beginning of Victoria’s reign coincided with far reaching economic, social, scientific and literary changes which not only transformed English social life, but also had far-reaching impact on literature and literary criticism. Technological advancement ushered in the Industrial Revolutionwhich brought in its wake unprecedented material prosperity. But it also brought in the evils of unfettered capitalism, materialism and mammon-worship, in its worst form.
It meant over-crowding in big industrial cities and the consequent moral and social problems, the coexistence of the extremes of poverty and wealth, resulting in class tensions, the despoiling of the face of nature and the resulting loss of the sense of beauty. Therefore, despite the flow of wealth and imperialist expansion, despite faith in steady and unlimited progress, discontent and a feeling of social insecurity was widespread.
There was a “crisis of culture” and critics, like Matthew Arnold, pondered over the role of literary criticism in the present age. They felt that, as against the romantic criticism of the older generation, criticism in the new age must draw closer to life and make life nobler and better. Literary criticism to be worthwhile must serve the ends of life, and promote a better understanding of cultural values and thus bring about social regeneration.
Poetry must be, “criticism of life”, it must answer the question, ‘How to live?” which is, in essence, a moral question. Critics, like Ruskin and Carlyle, sought to give a religious and moral bias to literary criticism in order to overcome the current degradation and disintegration of values and ideals. Victorian Literature reflects Victorian life, and Victorian Literary criticism seeks to make that life better and nobler by propagating the best that was ever thought and written.