II. - Victorian England

Culture, History, and Politics

Golden Aeon is a historical game.  To enter into a game set in England in 1899 without understanding the time, and the mindset of the people who were living would make much of the context of the game irrelevant.  Without its setting in Victorian England, Golden Aeon might just as well be a fantasy game, which it very much is not.   You may also already be familiar with the Victorian period.  I hope you'll read ahead anyway.  The Victorian period is sweeping, and though the late 90's are probably closest to our view of what would constitute "typical" Victorian attitudes, the fact is that the period is a diverse one.

To understand the time is to understand the characters, their fears, their motivations.   It is important to remember that few or none of the characters in this game are "upper class."  The Golden Dawn was a middle class phenomenon, and while some of its members - Gardner, Hornimann, even Florence Farr were of independent means, most were not vastly wealthy.  Throughout the history of the order matters of tens or hundreds of pounds (a few hundred or few thousand dollars today) colored the alliances and politics of the order.  While "MacGregor" Mathers might make pretensions to Jacobite nobility, the manners, and thoughts, of the majority of the members of the Golden Dawn were based in middle class Victoriana. 

Yet if the Victorian period is seen as a one dimensional tapestry of repressed and conservative sexuality, many of these characters do not make sense.  Who typifies Victorian sexuality - Annie Horniman, or Florence Farr? These social issues we'll explore in a later bluesheet.  Here we will lay the foundation for an understanding of the history, and life events of the characters. 

What Came Before - The Georgian Period 

To understand England of the late Victorian Era, it is necessary to understand the two periods that preceded it - the Georgian and Regency periods. 

The Georgian period was in many ways the perfection of the Enlightenment.  Issues that had been argued a century before were dead in the 1750s - Classical thought and culture had prevailed.  The medieval church was defeated and the educated classes embraced scientific rationalism.  Art, architecture, and music reflected classical themes.    The late Georgian period saw the opening shots of the Industrial Revolution.  Before the first decade of the 19th century industry had begun to change the British countryside, and mills foundries and other industrial sites were becoming the centers of growing urbanization. 

Georgian society would be the last English society in which a monied aristocracy would be the prevailing influence on popular thought.  Already a strong undercurrent was running against the aristocracy, and its power was checkmated again and again throughout the century. 

The American Revolution was a pinnacle of Georgian culture.  An alliance of bourgeoisie merchants and intellectual aristocratic farmers (for such were men like Jefferson and Washington) founded a new government based heavily on the classical principles of the Romans and Greeks.  This culture flourished in Britain and America.  Alexis de Tocqueville, touring the U.S. in the early 19th century was amazed that the common farmers avidly read not one but several newspapers.  The French farmer was, by an overwhelming statistic, illiterate.  The bizarre dichotomy by which the ideals of our founding fathers seem so much more elevated, lofty, and liberal than the ideals of the statesmen of the Victorian era is a perfect expression of the difference between Georgian, and Victorian, society. 

In context to our event, it should be noted that esotericism was a profound and vital undercurrent during the Georgian age.  Rosicrucianism had emerged in the Enlightenment, and blossomed during the Georgian era.  Freemasonry became an important political movement, linked with ideals of republicanism, egalitarianism, and intellectualism.   Not only were the overwhelming majority of the founding fathers of the United States Freemasons - the "enlightened" Hapsburg Emperor Franz-Jozef was a Freemason as well.  Movements such as the "Barvarian Illuminati" seem much less mysterious and clearer in this context - the concept that a benign class of educated intellectuals should rule over prosperous agrarian republics was the ideal of the Georgian farmer-intellectual.  In only one state did it see fruition - the United States of America which was ruled by farmer-intellectuals for twenty eight years from 1789-1817, save for the four years of John Adams' administration.  The writings, architecture, and University of Thomas Jefferson are the embodiment of this Georgian concept. 

If the Georgian period was liberal and intellectual, it was also corrupt and full of vice.  In the earlier and mid 18th century the illustrations of  William Hogarth give a vivid impression of the sordid side of society. Works such as Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" drew a vivid picture of the callow immorality of the aristocracy.  The most liberal of Georgian ladies led lives of splendor and decadence. 

The Regency

The Georgian Era was followed by the Regency in England.  The decadent Prince Regent, who eventually reigned as George IV, conveyed his lack of purpose and morality to the intellectual and aristocratic classes.  The British won their long war against the French, and quashed Napoleon's "Hundred Days," but a series of economic crises rocked England.  The proliferation of mechanical weaving frames threatened one of the last profitable cottage industries and spurred the "Luddite" movement which smashed weaving frames starting in 1813, in an attempt to obtain through force regulation that the government would not grant through law.  The Tory government of Lord Liverpool lived in fear of a Revolution along the lines of the French or American Revolution, and in 1819 at Peterloo in London fired into peaceful crowds. 

The collapse of Regency England followed.  A period of Reform stretched through the remainder of the Prince Regent's reign as King - by the time George IV died in 1837, Georgian thought had been swept away. 

The "Age of Reform"

The "Age of Reform" and the early Victorian period can be classified as an age of contradictions.  On one hand there was tremendous progress in democratic and judicial reform.  The conditions in which the average Englishman lived made some improvements - even the impoverished of the 1890s ate better and lived better than the impoverished of the 1790s. 

On the other hand there was much hypocrisy, and tremendous moral conservatism.  It is important to understand that in Britain, more than in America, the Georgian age missed the common man.  Enlightenment and rationalism were unknown concepts.  Strong faith in God, and a highly conservative personal morality were typical in the middle class English family.  In the Victorian age, for the first time, this morality was imposed on the upper class.  The Tories adopted it to try and live down the disgraces of the Regency. 

The period from 1819 to 1832 was turbulent and painful for England.   Middle class moralism swallowed up the old aristocratic class, culminating in the passage of the First Reform Act, which enfranchised a vast new class of voters.  However, the morality of the day was by no means hypocritical.  Vast strides were made in what we would today term "human rights."  Robert Peel introduced the modern "police force" - "Peelers" providing an alternative to anarchy or military rule in the growing urban regions.  The Tories plunged into disfavor and attempted reform as the "Conservative" party - eventually even many of the "Conservatives" would split ranks to the Liberals

The Victorian Era

By the time Victoria came to the throne, some stability had returned to England.  The Reform Act alleviated the more critical tensions of the 20's, and gave way to a series of moderate governments under Lamb and Peel. 

Traditionally in looking at the Victorian period we picture a long era of staunch conservatism and Imperial sentiment, punctuated by a watershed of reforms after the turn of the century.  In reality, nothing could be further from the case. 

Overwhelmingly, the Victorian period was liberal, and progressive.  Sexually and morally, it was middle-class.  And certainly there was plenty of hypocrisy.  The middle class that had fought for its rights in the 1820's grew wealthy and complacent with business, and middle class sons of middle class fathers formed their own rigid social structures.  Acutely conscious of their lack of aristocratic breeding, they were far more restrained and repressive than the Georgian aristocracy.  "Old money" was contrasted to "New Money."  Business became a religion of sorts.   Those who had made the grade had their choice of believing that God or Darwin rewarded the shrewd and aggressive, and that the poor suffered because they were unworthy or unmotivated. 

Charles Dickens shows us that side of the Victorian age.  The middle class businessman Scrooge ignores the poor, and mistreats his employees as viciously as a medieval baron. 

The Victorian period saw the real birth of the middle class as a force in politics and social structure.  A rising mercantile class had been prominent in Europe since the 13th century, and critical in the 18th century, but in the 19th century it swept away all but the most hollow vestiges of the ancien regime.  The age of the "common man" had come.   The working class climbed to new heights, and agitated for more.  The 19th century saw the writings of Marx and Engels congeal from political philosophy into political party doctrine.   By 1892 a Socialist from Lancashire would win election to the British Parliament. 

For the first time the middle class was not merely large, but a vast majority, sweeping every structure away in its path.  Morally and religiously conservative, it was unquestionably liberal in comparison to anything that had ever been seen before.  It brought with it a vast new prosperity, in the form of goods, services, and materials.   Overseas, Britian began the transition from mercantile colonial empire to the organized system of administration that would be the British Empire of the 20th century.  By the end of the century the "White man's burden" rather than casual profiteering, would drive the British Empire. 

The period from the 1860's to the 1880s was overall very liberal.  This was the classic period of the dandyish Conservative - Disraeli, and the commoner Liberal - Gladstone.   Victoria is reliably said to have hated Gladstone and considered him vulgar and potentially dangerous.  But Gladstone drove British politics for nearly three decades. 

Despite a Conservative Government from 1874-1880, the overall tone of the seventies was liberal, in terms of art, literature, and politics.  In Parliament liberal leadership shifted towards "near Socialists" like Joseph Chamberlain and Charles Wentworth Dilke 

The Eighties and Nineties - death of the Liberal Cause, and the Rise of the Liberal Unionists

The zenith of 19th century liberalism was the Gladstone government of  1880-1885, which called for such modern measures as  “graduated income tax, free education, improved housing for the poor, local government reform, and “three acres and a cow” for agricultural workers.  The Liberals sought "disestablishment" of the Church of England - that is the removal of the Church as an "official" facet of the state - a debate that was mostly educational.  At this point a tremendous amount of education was done parochial schools, and the Liberals sought to shift the flow of funds from parochial schools to "private" schools - those not affiliated with the Church of England. 

The Liberal era was not to last.  A series of defeats abroad injured national pride, and allowed the Conservatives to rally the British public on a nationalist platform.  In 1881 the British were defeated by Kruger in the First Boer War.  In 1884 General Gordon was killed by religious fanatics supporting the Mahdi in the Sudan.  It is suggested that “a Conservative rise reflected a growing disenchantment with social reform in the country and marked a new emphasis upon empire and foreign affairs." 

The Gladstone government collapsed over the issue of Irish Home Rule.  The Irish members of Parliament felt they had a better chance at Home Rule with the Conservatives, who courted their votes in Parliament.  Charles Parnell moved the Irish faction in Parliament to voting Conservative, and dissolved the government.  An interim Conservative government formed under Lord Salisbury. 

In the General Election, the Liberals managed to attain a majority but only with the support of the Irish members of Parliament.  Gladstone, at 77, returned to politics converted to Home Rule, and introduced the First Home Rule Bill in 1886 after the General Elections.  Lord Hartington's Whigs refused to join the Liberal Government.  Joseph Chamberlain's "Unionists" resigned.  The Home Rule bill failed and the Government collapsed again. 

In the following election, the Conservatives cooperated with Chamberlain's "Liberal Unionists" and formed a coalition government afterwards.  The result was a moderate Conservative government that would dominate England until 1906. 

Gladstone did return once more, in 1892, with the Second Home Rule bill.  The Bill passed Commons, but was voted down by the House of Lords by an overwhelming majority - the last real exercise of the power of Lords in the history of Great Britain.  Gladstone was forced to resign, and the more Imperialist and conservative Lord Rosebery became Prime Minister.  Shortly thereafter the Liberal-Conservative coalition returned Salisbury to power, and the party would remain in power until after the turn of the century. 

The Boer War

The outbreak of the(second)  Boer War was the last major political event in the 19th century.  The War was the "Vietnam" of the British Empire.  Launched with patriotic fervor and enthusiasm in 1899, the War was a costly success.  British forces at Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley were surrounded, and the British suffered several reversals and defeats.  In December of 1899, the War was going disastrously.   The British defeated Boer commandos in November at Belmont and Modder River, but Lord Meuthen took losses so severe he was forced to wait for reinforcements before relieving Kimberly.   Reinforced he attacked the Boers at Magersfontein and was bitterly repulsed. 

The ultimate humiliation came just a few days after our event...at Colenso, the British were forced to abandon their artillery and abort an attempt to cross the Tugela river.  On January 24, 1900 they were dealt another nasty defeat at  Spion Kop.  The War would drag on until 1902, with a British victory largely due to crushing numeric superiority. 

Art and Literature

No period exists without a counterculture.  During the mid and late Georgian period, poets, artists and painters began to hearken back to a period before Georgian rationalism.  Often preserving Catholic sentiments, they toyed with ideas of feudalism, religious awe, and emotion.  These were the Romantics, a literary school that found its final release in the works of  Byron, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley.   It has been suggested that "Enlightenment thinkers and artists assumed that humankind is essentially similar across all ages and geographic origins," while "romantics generally believed in the uniqueness of individual expression as it is constituted by life experience, an important dimension of which is frequently national character."  Romanticism as a movement prevailed from the late 18th century to the mid 19th century, perhaps reaching it's climax with Charles Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal

Romanticism is of profound interest to us, because it is linked heavily with the supernatural.  Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, was a romantic work, and supernatural elements formed a background element a great deal of romantic literature and art. 

A thread of Romanticism pervades the Victorian period.  The Pre-Raphaelite movement in the mid 19th century focused on similar ideals - primarily a visual arts movement, the Pre-Raphaelites left a literary legacy in the criticism of John Ruskin, of whom it has been said "his aesthetic theory was based on 'truth to nature,' but this was truth as apprehended by the imagination and not by the eye."   Dante Gabriel Rosetti is representative of the movement, and had what were probably the strongest supernatural influences. 

The 1870s saw the birth of  "Symbolism" in France, a poetic movement which was naturalistic (and thus inherently opposed to Victorian industrialism) and as with the Pre-Raphaelites focused on the emotional and irrational aspects of human existence.  Symbolism was linked to the "Art Nouveau" visual movement which flourished around the turn of the century, and was epitomized in England by Aubrey Beardsley

Literature saw a revival of romantic supernatural literature, including Bram Stoker's Dracula

On the continent the Impressionists had broken down the conformity of Victorian painting, and by the time of Golden Aeon, a new breed of artist was exploring new forms of representation that would provide the underpinnings of twentieth century abstract art.  Artists such as Cezanne and  Seraut typified this new school, which flourished from about 1880, but would be termed "postimpressionist" only in 1910. 

It is significant of all of these movements that they were "counter-movements" to the established art of the day.  Nevertheless they were powerful and meaningful, and in retrospect eclipse the "formal" art of the time. 


All of this bears on the attitudes and perceptions of the characters in our drama.   The Georgian influence will be obvious when we explore the occult origins of the dawn, steeped in Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. 

Within the Victorian era, it is no coincidence that the Golden Dawn was founded in 1888 - two years after the Liberal Collapse - and that it flourished throughout the placid Salisbury conservatism.  Allen has suggested that in periods of Conservatism, thought becomes introspective - intellectuals turn their thoughts toward the self rather than outwards towards the world or the political system.  The Occult lodge is certainly a product of this mindset.  The explorations of the 1870s became publicly unacceptable, and the Golden Dawn provided an outlet for fascination with Romantic subjects. 

The interest of the Golden Dawn members in the occult and supernatural is reflected in the profound Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite influences on the work of the Golden Dawn's most notable literary figure, William Butler Yeats - an influence that was softened only in the late Edwardian period under the influence of Ezra Pound.  The influence of Aubrey Beardsley on Moina Mathers can be clearly seen in her illustrations from society papers. 

Certainly the Golden Dawn picked up momentum and gained popularity almost in pace with the development of Art Noveau, and the acceptance of postimpressionism - eventually the order itself would disintegrate, but though its successors are not as well known, they were if anything more vital and active than the core order.   The troubles that ended the Golden Dawn were not a rejection of the occult arts, but rather a series of explosions in radically different directions on the part of its members.   In Golden Aeon we stand on the threshold of that explosion. 

There can be little doubt that the "rebellion" and cynicism of the summer of 1900 within the Golden Dawn was a reflection of the overall cynicism and disillusionment within Britain after the embarrassment of the first year of the Boer War.   But the movement was towards the rejection of autocratic rule, and the fantasy of "secret masters," not to a rejection of the basic principles of the Golden Dawn. 

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