A term used 1) to designate broadly the literature written during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) or its characteristic qualities and attitudes; and 2) more narrowly, to suggest a certain complacency or hypocrisy or squeamishness more or less justly assumed to be traceable to or similar to prevailing Victorian attitudes. Pride in the growing power of England, optimism born of the new science, the dominance of Puritan ideals tenaciously held by the rising middle class, and the example of a royal court scrupulous in its adherence to high standards of "decency" and respectability combined to produce a spirit of moral earnestness linked with self-satisfaction which was protested against at the time and in the generations immediately to follow as hypocritical, false, complacent, and narrow. The cautious manner in which "mid-Victorian" writers in particular were prone to treat such matters as profanity and sex has been especially responsible for the common use of the term Victorian or "mid-Victorian," to indicate false modesty, empty respectability, or callous complacency. Though justified in part, this use of Victorian rests in some degree upon exaggeration, and at best fails to take into consideration the fact that even in the heart of the Victorian period a very large part of the literature either did not exhibit such traits or set itself flatly in protest against them. As a matter of fact, Victorian literature is many-sided and complex, and reflects both romantically and realistically the great changes that were going on in life and thought. The religious and philosophical doubts and hopes raised by the new science, the social problems arising from the new industrial conditions, the conscious resort of literary men and women to foreign sources of inspiration, and the rise of a new middle-class audience and new media of publication (the magazines) are among the forces which colored literature during Victoria's reign. Since there are marked differences between the literature written in the early years of Victoria's reign and that written in the later years, this Handbook treats the early years as a part of the Romantic Period and the later years as a part of the Realistic Period.

from A Handbook to Literature by C. Hugh Holman 4th ed.