The Victorian era, spanning from 1830–1901, was a period of dramatic change the world over, and especially in England, with the rapid extension of colonialism through large portions of Africa, Asia, and the West Indies, making England a preeminent center of world power and relocating the perceived center of Western Civilization from Paris to London. The rapid growth of London, with a population of 6.5 million by the time of Victoria's death, evidenced a marked change due to industrialization away from a way of life based on the ownership of land to a modern urban economy based on trade and manufacturing. Dramatic changes in manufacturing, rapid growth of the British economy, and seemingly continual expansion of England's colonized territories resulted in mixed sentiments, with some writers such as Thomas Babbington Macauley applauding change and the superior civilization of England and other writers such as Mathew Arnold and Thomas Carlyle expressing more trepidation and concern about this era of change. In addition to general economic and political change, there were advancements made in the promotion of women's rights, especially in terms of improving labor conditions and their rights in marriage.

The Victorian early period (1830–48) can be described as a time of dramatic change with the improvement of the railroads and the country's first Reform Parliament, but it was also a time of economic distress. Even with the Reform Bill of 1832, extending voting privileges to the lower middle classes and redistributing parliamentary representation to break up the conservative landowner's monopoly of power, England's economic troubles could not be entirely solved. By the end of this Time of Troubles, the Chartists, among others, succeeded in introducing important economic reforms, such as the repeal of the Corn Laws and the introduction of a system of Free Trade.

The historian Asa Briggs refers to the following period of the Victorian era as "The Age of Improvement. Although the mid- Victorian period (1848–70) was not free of the previous period's problems, it was a time of overall prosperity and general social satisfaction with further growth of the empire improving trade and economic conditions. This was also a period in which industry, technology, and science were celebrated with renewed vigor in such events as the Great Exhibition of Hyde Park. By this point, however, the Church of England had evolved into three major divisions, with conflicting beliefs about religious practice. There were also some rationalist challenges to religion, including Utilitarianism, developed by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, and science in the work of Thomas Henry Huxley and Charles Darwin. "Higher Criticism" had a similar effect in its perception of the Bible as a mere historical text.

The later period (1870–1901) was a time of changing attitudes about colonialism, industrialization, and scientific advancement. Rebellions and war in the colonial territories made the public increasingly more aware of the costs of empire. Various events challenged the sense of England's endless prosperity as a world power, such as the emergence of Bismarck's Germany and its threats to English naval and military positions and the expansion of the American grain industry, driving down the price of English grain. Socialist movements grew out of this discontentment, as well as a melancholy spirit in the writing of the end of the century. Oscar Wilde's making a pun of "earnest," a typical and sincerely used mid-Victorian word, is typical of a dying Victorianism.

In addition to social and economic changes, dramatically affecting the content of literature during the Victorian era, other technological changes in publishing shaped literary production in other ways. The conditions of publishing, including the prominence of the periodical press, dramatically shaped the form of literature. Serialization of novels, for example, allowed for an author to alter the shape of his narrative based on public response to earlier installments. In the later years of the era, authors started to position themselves in opposition to this broad reading public and serialization gave way to three-volume editions. The Victorian novel was primarily concerned with representing a social reality and the way a protagonist sought and defined a place within this reality. The increased popularity of periodicals also allowed nonfiction to become a widespread and popular literary genre. Victorian poetry was also published in periodicals and underwent its own dramatic changes during the era, with Victorian poets seeking to represent psychology in new ways. Theater, on the other hand, was a popular form of entertainment, but did not flourish aesthetically until the end of the Victorian era.

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