‘Thunders in the distance’: 1870–1900
The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw a reorganisation of literary life almost as complete as that which had occurred in the 1830s. The great figures of a mid-century rich in achievement and blessed with shared attitudes had reached their term, and the period which followed was, though fascinating, full of division and disharmony. This time, the advances in legislation and technology offered no solutions to aesthetic dilemmas; the late Victorian world seemed infinitely complex, fragmented into mutually hostile nations with their separate empires to protect, suspicious classes and political factions, sciences and arts beyond the grasp of the common man, with human beings alone in a post-Darwinian universe. The power and prestige of Palmerston’s Britain was becoming a fiction in a world where a European depression and the end of the American Civil War had made the United States an avidly successful industrial competitor, and where imperialist Prussia was taking the initiative in foreign policy. The increasingly desperate question of Ireland — more and more of an armed camp — engrossed and exhausted the energies of the English parliament where ‘politics was Ireland’, and the last chance to bring about constitutional Home Rule came and went with the 1893 defeat of Gladstone’s second bill in the Lords.
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