-The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Fin-de-Siècle Unease

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The last two decades of the nineteenth century, what are often called the fin-de-siècle, were years of psychic, cultural, and social unease in England. There were numerous sources and causes of this feeling, which can be seen in British domestic and foreign policies as well as in the literature and art of the time.

The nineteenth century was hardly a tranquil one for the Empire. The century began with anxieties about the Jacobin policies espoused by Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin (see: The Infernal Quixote: A Tale of the Day) and moved through worries about the negative aspects of modern industrial society (as seen in the “Condition of England” novels [see: The Invisible Man]) and worries about law, morality, and crime among the middle class (see: Sensation Novel). Through most of the century there were a number of certainties which most British held, but these certainties were faltering and disappearing in the last years of the century. During the Diamond Jubilee in 1897 Queen Victoria was lionized as the personification of the Empire, the mother of the country which ruled the world. But in 1897 Victoria she was seventy-eight years old and had been in increasingly poor health for several years. Her death seemed inevitable, but most of her subjects found that hard to conceive of. She had ruled over the Empire for so long that her symbolic importance to it was enormous, and the intelligentsia, policy-makers, and literati alike all feared her death and the changes it would bring.

Victoria ruled over the Empire as a figurehead, and the concentration of worry on her impending death covered a wide array of concerns. Domestically, there was a deep unease with and fear of the lower classes. Fears of a proletariat uprising had been around since the 1848 French revolution, but the 1871 Paris workers’ revolt, in which the Commune of Paris was declared in March and maintained until its bloody end in late May, inspired a new fear of a workers’ revolution in England. England was not alone in this–bourgeois America had many of the same fears, especially during the 1870s (see: The Deadwood Dick Adventures)–but the industrial revolution, city growth, and growth of the urban proletariat affected England’s major cities more than they did America’s. Riots in London in 1866 and 1886 gave the English middle class a glimpse at what a workers’ revolution would be like, and the middle class didn’t like what they saw. Combined with workers’ bitterness and uncertainty following the decrease in prices and wages and many business failures of the 1873-1896 “Long Depression,” and the possibility that the workers might join the anarchists, the proletariat seemed more dangerous than ever to the middle class.

Most of the English were aware of the economic difficulties facing the nation at the turn of the century. England was no longer the most powerful European industrial nation, and faced increasing competition abroad for its exports, especially from German and the United States, whose industrial technology was superior to England’s. Lingering labor unrest, the Long Depression, and increasing unemployment weakened both the unions (and embittered the workers) and the economy as a whole.

The change in the role of women in society was also deeply alarming to middle and upper-class moralists. The rise in feminism (see: The New Woman) was accompanied by the rise in education of women, a huge increase in the number of middle-class women entering the workforce, and a change in the sexual behavior of middle-class women all challenged the prevailing cultural orthodoxies. Men were losing their power over women, legally and symbolically (see: The New Woman).

Men were perceived to have changed as well. A rise in the awareness of homosexuality, especially in the wake of the September 1885 revelations of a male brothel on Cleveland Street in London, frequented by a Lord of the Realm, accompanied a fear that men were becoming passive, weak, and feminized. While women were seen to be acting in aggressive, “unwomanly” ways, men were thought to behave like women, to be prone to emotional outbursts and to be willing and even eager to submit to desire and pleasure rather than stoically resist them. 

The physical fitness of the English people was being called into question. Previous generations had been confident that the “Teutonic blood” of the “Anglo-Saxon races” would enable the Empire to reign eternal. But a racial decadence was perceived to have set in; infant mortality was thought to be on the rise in the 1890s, and at the turn of the century increasing numbers of men were judged too short or physically invalid for military service.1 

Along with this racial decadence a cultural decadence was thought to be afflicting English society. Cultural and moral codes were no longer matched by scientific and philosophical thought, from evolution to religion to economics to basic morality. A commonly expressed thought in the works of the Decadent writers of the time is that cultures, like living beings, decayed after they flowered, and many English thought that the Empire’s time of flowering had already passed.

Changes in technology were also alarming. Changes in industrial technology had not only altered the English landscape but had disrupted industry itself, creating widespread unemployment and forcing workers to learn new skills. Changes in military technology had created weapons of horrific destructive capabilities, from the Maxim machine gun (whose use was seen as un-English; see: Anarchists) to dynamite (the source of the “infernal machines” that the Fenians used to terrify England with; see: Anarchists), and it took little imagination to predict that weapons and wars of even more shocking destructiveness would arise in the near future. Another innovation of the time was the submarine, brought to the public’s attention in fiction in 1869 (see: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) and introduced as a reality of the near-future when the Swedish banker and munitions manufacturer Thorsten Nordenfelt (1842-1920) debuted his steam-powered submarine in the late 1880s.

Further anxiety came from the presence of large numbers of immigrants in England, partly out of Yellow Peril fears, partly because of the immigrants’ supposed association with anarchists, and partly because of a fear that the immigrants would contribute to the degeneration of the English race through miscegenation.

Thanks to the popular press the English public was more aware than ever before of crime and was under the impression that crime was taking place more often than ever before. Both the press and popular fiction gave the impression that no level of society was safe from crime, even the highest (see: The Gentleman Thief).

Improvements in education meant that more men and women could read than ever before, and the domestic press, focusing on all of these fears, whipped up popular nervousness and anxiety.

England’s relation with the rest of the world offered no comfort for policy-makers or the public. After decades of primacy the British Empire suddenly faced serious challengers. The younger nations–the United States, Germany–were on the rise, with better military and industrial technology and stronger economies. Competition for colonies gave rise to substantial friction with the Continental powers. England’s relationship with France continued to be a mixture of affection and exasperation. Germany’s ascendancy as the central power of Continental Europe–and therefore England’s rival–was not greeted with pleasure by England, a reaction made worse when Germany aligned itself with Russia at the Schönburg Convention in 1873 and when Germany began to compete in the “scramble for Africa.” Russia had fought England in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and had warred on England’s proxy, the Ottoman Empire, in 1877-1878. Russia’s imperial aims in China (see: The Ferrers Lord Adventures, “Voracious Albion”), Afghanistan (see: English Jack Amongst the Afghans), and Persia threatened English imperial properties in the Near and Far East. By the time of the Jubilee England had no reliable allies and was disliked by many in Europe and America, not least for its actions in maintaining the Empire, such as the Jameson Raid in South Africa in 1895, which was a failed attempt to overthrow the Afrikaner government. As well, England’s policy of not extraditing suspected terrorists continued to irritate the Continental powers (see: Anarchists).

The attitude of the English policy-makers toward the Empire also gave rise to anxiety. From 1870 onwards English foreign policy changed and became what historians have called “the new imperialism.” The English focused shifted from acquiring new territories for trade purposes to holding on to what had previously been acquired. The confident and almost belligerent expansionism of earlier decades was replaced with a defensive and even fearful preservationism, almost a siege mentality. The British military was projected to countless faraway locations, in the “Little Wars” across Africa and Asia. But by the end of the century the Empire’s military was over-extended and had suffered several shocking defeats, including the Battle of Isandhlwana in 1879, the Battle of Majuba in 1881, the loss of Khartoum in 1885 (with the death of General Gordon), the loss of the Khyber Pass in 1895, and nearly every battle in the first four months of the Second Boer War in 1899.

The death of Queen Victoria and the ascension of King Edward VII altered or diminished most of these concerns. The perceived threat of the lower classes and of liberated women decreased, Great Britain entered into a set of alliances with foreign powers which seemed to guarantee peace for the foreseeable future, and the angst of the late nineteenth century was replaced with a sanguine optimism.

For Further Research

Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. London: Quartet, 1979.


1 See, for example, Murray Buford Montague, “Science, the Occult, and the Conservative Project of Late Victorian and Edwardian British Mummy Fiction” (PhD diss., Ball State University, 2011), 53-55.