The Victorian era remains in many ways the most curious of our precursors, seeming almost a phantasmic preview of so many ideas, issues, and institutions. This vision has its darker sides -- the problem of poverty, and the question of social welfare; the need for a government role in providing or certifying sanitation, education, and hospitals; the difficulty of understanding or treating mental illness -- as well as its brighter ones: the expansion of railways and the enabling of travel over long distances to those of modest means; the rise of literacy and popular literature; and the birth of numerous technologies without which our world would seem hard to imagine: photography, the fax machine, the telephone, and the cinema.
For our purposes, the rise in literacy is perhaps the most significant social change of the era. In part due to the establishment of a system of schools for the poor, in part to the increasing size of the middle classes, and in both cases driven by economic need more than a desire to enlighten the masses; between 1840 and 1900 a largely illiterate Britain was transformed into a land of nearly universal literacy. The new and growing mass audience drove a revolution in print, with newspapers vastly increasing their circulation, and made a world in which a serialized popular author such as Dickens gained wealth and fame far beyond anything available to writers of earlier generations. For those who could not afford to purchase books to feed their appetites, there was Mudie's Library, the Netflix of its day; if Mudie's felt that a book would do well, they would purchase 2,000 to 3,000 copies at a stroke, greatly affecting the shape of popular literacy.
We ourselves, in fact, stand in an institution -- the former Rhode Island Normal School -- which was in many regards the equivalent of the Victorian teacher training schools. And, ironically enough, the great project of establishing and funding a public education for all, the offspring of this era (and of advocates such as Henry Barnard and Horace Mann) is now, once again, a problem child, with great debates raging on school reform and how to fix the system.
Exploitative labor, the other great social problem of the Victorian era, continues as well, though mostly out of sight of the middle-class consumers of today. We've outsourced our exploitation to China, the Philippines, and American Samoa, and hidden our piece-workers deep in the recesses of half-abandoned buildings. Those who harvest our crops are equally invisible, though there if we care to see them. So until such work can be completely automated -- or until, as Stephen Colbert has said, we can develop "vegetables that pick themselves," we too must address this still-neglected problem of human society.
All this calls into question another idea we inherited from the Victorians: progress. If, a hundred a nine years after the death of Queen Victoria, we're still struggling with the same old social issues, what can "progress" mean?