Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Myth 1: Everyone was blundering around in the fog

In this video our experts explore some of the possible limitations in our knowledge around the Victorians and the Victorian age.
I think the image of the Victorian period has obviously gone through a lot of changes in the 100-odd years since. Every era has their own version of the Victorians. The problem is this term Victorian. Victorian is not necessarily all that helpful, because it’s badging a very long period, which goes all the way from before the middle of the 19th century, right up until the dawn of the 20th century. Very big period. What people do, of course, is select the bits that they need to make their point! It also depends what’s been visualised. Victorian England, we’ve got these assumptions about Victorian England that are quite strong, now. I think it’s partly the fault of film itself.
Myths are perpetuated through imagery, and our generation learns stuff through film and TV and online stuff, so we think of Victorian films, there are certain things that repeat again and again. We think of Dickensian London and slums and very poor people and very rich people. We think of Jack the Ripper and the East End, and we think of fog, and everyone blundering around in this awful higgledy-piggledy place. Everybody very constrained, dressed up to the chin, buttoned up. Having to behave properly all the time, and everybody rather austere and grim. It’s a very black and white world, but of course none of this is true, whatsoever.
One of the great things about looking at these newly-available films is that we can begin to put more levels of complexity on Victorian England, and learn a bit more about it. When you come to think about the period when film was arriving, late in the 19th century, actually you’re talking about a somewhat different world. Some of the mistakes that I think people make include things like assuming that there’s really only two classes of people who exist in the Victorian period - the very, very poor working class, and the extremely rich, more or less aristocracy level class - whereas in fact, by the 1870s and the 1880s, you have a pretty large middle class, as well.
Another of the key things I think is that they often think of the Victorian environment in relation to the Victorian city, and by that, I really mean London. Actually, of course, the Victorian period is characterised by all sorts of environments; not just the city. Even within the city, by the 1870s and 1880s, it’s not all slums. You have a fairly advanced transport network. You’ve got trams, you’ve got omnibuses. It won’t be long into the 20th century before you have certain kinds of automobile beginning to make an appearance, and of course in the 1880s and 1890s, you have bicycles, which are everywhere, as well.
So actually, it’s an expanding space, even within a city like London, and it’s a very varied one. That plays out with the people, too, so there’s all kinds of careers, all kinds of professions. It’s not a world of chimney sweeps and industry bosses who are governing the picture. It’s a picture more similar to one which we would recognise today, I think. We probably best know the Victorians for their involvement in the industrial revolution, as leading the changes in industry and technology that helped to define the modern world. When we think about the Victorians, we often think about the heavy industries of coal and iron and the railways and the postal system.
However, it’s also worth remembering that Victorians experienced a new world of pleasure and technology. The same fascination with technology that created the railways, also helped to produce new media like photography, for example. With this, the Victorians were able to see the world around them in new detail for the first time. They were able to see themselves in new detail for the first time. There are people who wrote about Victorian life from the inside. I think that’s really valuable. We need more of that to be accessible to people, so that people can understand what a household budget was like. What the pattern of the day was like; getting up, going out, going to work, coming back and so forth.
These are the things we need to know to get a better handle on what Victorian life was like, because remember, film from the Victorian era only shows us outdoor activities. That’s already quite a big limitation. We’re only seeing what Victorians did out in the open air. We’re not seeing the rest of their lives, when they were in Underground trains, travelling around London, which they often were, or at home, or in all the interiors that really made up a large part of Victorian life. So, I think we need to remind ourselves of that and be prepared to take a wider view, and not to be too constrained by the label Victorian. It’s the end of the 19th century.
It’s the beginning of our era.
In this video our experts explore some of the possible limitations in our knowledge around the Victorians and the Victorian age.

While Ian Christie encourages us to reconsider the term ‘Victorian’, Bryony Dixon, John Plunkett and Joe Kember all highlight preconceptions about the age.

Do you agree with these assumptions? Do any of them match up to ideas or images you associate with the Victorians? Why do you think we develop assumptions or stereotypes about something?

Please use the comments section to share your thoughts.

As Bryony discusses in the video, depictions of the Victorian age on film, TV and the web can both influence our understanding and reinforce certain perspectives of what it was like to live during this period. At the same time, the BFI’s collection actually enables us to view this world for ourselves and make our own judgements about what we see.

This article is from the free online

The Living Picture Craze: An Introduction to Victorian Film

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now