For Queen and Country: Britain in the Victorian Age
The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture
The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After
There is something to be said for history that is not written by historians. One of the most original short histories of England ever written was by G.K. Chesterton. Margaret Drabble, who was once a moving amateur actress in her brilliant career as a student at Cambridge, and later made her name as a novelist, has not only the talents to reflect about the Victorian age but fewer inhibitions than professionals. In fact it is refreshing to read a piece of good old-fashioned Whig history written as if Namier and Butterfield had never anathematized it. She wants to tell her readers—she teaches at an adult education college in London—how the past became the present; how much we owe to the Victorians our notions of family life, tolerance, education—and advertising. Then it was that chairs became comfy. Then it was that many of the objects we use today, such as typewriters, were invented, then it was that the familiar tunnels and bridges were built, the houses we live in, the monuments we pass were erected. Then it was that the people gradually got the vote, and the movement for women’s rights began.
Moreover she wastes no time as professional historians would in pointing out that there was not one Victorian age but at least three; or that the true heart of the age beat in the cities of the provinces and not in London; or that for every generalization made at least three or four reservations have to be made. There is a sound chapter on the Queen herself, the epitome of the middle-class virtues of decency, loyalty, simple and rigid respectability, common sense, and hard work. There is one on that middle class itself and another on the second of Disraeli’s Two Nations, the poor—and the infernal cities in which they lived. The Great Exhibition gives her the chance to survey Victorian technology and taste, and she rightly spends space on Victorian achievements in the arts, which in the end matter more to future generations than anything else: for it is largely by their buildings, pictures, music, and books that we judge our ancestors. (She thinks not all that much of the poetry and does not perhaps praise quite highly enough the novel, an art form in which the Victorians excelled, their greatest artistic legacy, as important as Elizabethan tragedy and surpassed in achievement only by the Russians.) She ends with Darwin and maintains that the mood of dignified resignation in which Matthew Arnold surveyed the crumbling of belief in Christianity—at any rate as it had for centuries been popularly conceived—is the clue to the spirit of the age.
It is all eminently sensible, and written without a trace of condescension toward the kind of reader who either knows nothing of the Victorians or has forgotten what he once learned about them. You nod away pleased to see how many topics she manages to introduce—until suddenly on page 62 you come across a deeply shocking sentence. “It was an age of transition.” Dear, good, diligent Ms. Drabble, do you not know that sixteen-year-olds struggling to write their first history essays before going on to university are forbidden to fall back on this hoary platitude—every age is an age of transition—and are taught those who do must be assumed to possess a Dull Mind? Margaret Drabble has not got a dull mind but by now one’s blood is up and we look for those connections between unlikely bedfellows, those paradoxes which give the reader a mild shock and make him realize that life in the past is more complicated and interesting than he thought.
We do not find nearly enough. Yes, there could have been no industrial revolution without railways which made goods and labor mobile: but the railways also helped to introduce regular holidays, and suburban life as we know it. They made possible the multiplication of boarding schools, or what the British call the public school system. Yes, many of the ways the middle classes spent their wealth and took their leisure were vulgar; but there is no mention of something that was soon to dominate the public schools and by the end of the nineteenth century to capture the imagination of every class in society: organized games. If one is looking for legacies that we inherit from the Victorians, Britain’s most abiding contribution to the world today is not parliamentary government but football.
Yes, the Victorians seem to us exceedingly morbid about death: but it was precisely because the middle classes had expected to live longer that the sense of loss was all the keener. Emotions were stronger. We all know about the tyranny of the Victorian family and the searing hatreds within it. But perhaps in happy families they loved each other more than we do—less analysis, more feeling. Yes, household furnishings became more comfortable; but no invention brought greater ease to life than false teeth. Yes, capitalism was a chancy affair; businesses went smash, banks failed, and families were ruined. But Victorian capitalists invented the limited liability company, a device for insulating the individual’s fortune as far as possible from his business and protecting him at any rate a little from the vagaries of the market: whereas today the executive does the reverse, attempts to mix up his earnings with the corporation’s fortunes and through it expects to get untaxed options and bonuses.
Yes, the British Navy ruled the waves, but far more significant than the demand by jingoes for bigger and better Dreadnoughts was the paradox that because the Navy ensured that Britain was the only European country free from the fear of invasion, Mill could write his essay On Liberty. No nation which was imminently threatened by a neighboring state could subscribe totally to Mill.
The danger of addressing oneself to change as Ms. Drabble does and of identifying all the dynamic processes that produced the modern world is that the reader does not grasp the quiddities of the age. The middle class was expanding and flexing its muscles; but there was never any doubt who ruled England. The aristocracy ruled. Precisely because they were not a caste, as they so often were in Europe where the Almanach de Gotha stood next to the Bible or the missal, they extended the definition of a gentleman. By the end of the century attorneys had become solicitors and not only bankers but even at times stockbrokers were invited to dine in society. At the beginning of the age a gentleman need not have been educated at a public school though, if he had not, he would have been expected to enter Oxford or Cambridge or the army. By the end of the age public school status was almost obligatory if one aspired to be a gentleman.
But if thousands did so, the aristocracy knew what was what. Trollope in The Duke’s Children portrayed the exasperation of the mild upright Duke of Omnium when his daughter told him that she wanted to marry the penniless son of a Cornish squire. “He is a gentleman, papa,” objected his daughter. “So is my secretary,” replied the Duke, “there is not a clerk in one of our public offices who does not consider himself to be a gentleman…the word is too vague to carry with it any meaning as to what ought to be serviceable to you in thinking of such a matter.” No one today can have any conception of the extraordinary lengths to which people a century ago in England deferred to rank.
Not to find in Margaret Drabble’s book even a paragraph on the great educational division in Victorian England is odd. The English were the most backward of great European countries in providing state education; and when it came it was regarded as an inferior substitute fit for the poor. The tradition of private education, which meant sending boys away from home from the age of eight to eighteen, was one of the great divisive influences in British society. Then again the foundation of London University was only very slowly followed up in the provinces: there were few fully fledged universities by the time the Queen died, and none presumed to challenge the Oxbridge supremacy. There were really three, not two, nations; and if the upper class during Victoria’s reign adopted some middle-class values, their own culture was imposed far more effectively upon, and was imitated by, the middle and lower middle classes because the struggle to enter the upper class was so intense, precisely because it was always possible to do so.
The other startling omission in Margaret Drabble’s portrait of the age is religion. In 1850 the Victorians instituted an inquiry to find how many people went to church. Seven million out of seventeen million did; and allowing for small children and those who looked after them, more attended than did not. Engels was voluble on the horrors of a British Sunday. The churches were the source of both welfare and entertainment since they were doing the job done today by a dozen ministries and television. The lantern slide lecture and the tales of gallant missionaries filled the hours which the BBC fills today. Much of the discontent and venom which one class felt for another was expressed not through politics but through religious controversy. Indeed Victorian society was a society agog for salvation; religious salvation through belief in Christ, political salvation through belief in liberalism, financial salvation through self-help, salvation for Asians and Africans from tribal wars through the Pax Britannica.
Salvation might also be attained through the sense of vocation. Professionalism not only enabled a man to rise in society and redeem himself from the taint of trade: it carried with it the notion that by specializing in scientific discovery or economics a man might benefit his fellow men. You did not have to be a Puritan to hear the call. Not God but society, not religious fervor but intellectual passion, was at the heart of a vocation: indeed through a vocation a man realized himself and at the same time improved the lot of his fellow men.
This is the idea which Mr. Mintz works out through the writings of Carlyle, Newman, and more especially George Eliot. He argues that the conception of a life, and hence of a biography, changed in Victorian times because life began, not so much at birth, as when a human being sensed his calling, and it ended, not so much at death, as when the calling was consummated. Newman sees no point in continuing his Apologia after his conversion to the Church of Rome: he has found his vocation and there is no more to be said. Carlyle argues that those who followed the precept “know thyself” end in a morass of self-examination, self-doubt, self-torture, egotistical communings which unman them for life. The correct question to ask is not “know thyself” but “know what thou canst work at.”