by Asa Briggs
University of Chicago Press, 448 pp., $29.95
The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 18301900
by F.M.L. Thompson
Harvard University Press, 382 pp., $30.00
The Rise of Professional Society: Britain since 1880
by Harold Perkin
Routledge, 604 pp., $49.95
To an exceptional degree, Britain’s twentieth-century history is still haunted by its nineteenth-century past. The physical products of the Victorian world are everywhere in evidence, not just as cosy period pieces, like Liberty fabrics or Doulton vases or William Morris wallpapers, but as a functioning part of contemporary civilization. Take away such buildings as St. Pancras Station, Leeds Town Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament, and the texture of British life would be significantly altered. In the same way, many apparently venerable English traditions, which now seem as immutable as the Tower of London itself, date back in their present guise only to the late nineteenth century: royal pageantry, the old-school tie, cricket and tennis, Gilbert and Sullivan, Marks and Spencer, fish and chips. And the governing elite of Britain remained essentially Victorian in upbringing and outlook until well into the second half of the twentieth century. It was only in 1963 that the first prime minister took office who had not been born when the Queen-Empress herself was still on the throne, and even today the British electorate is constantly reminded that Mrs. Thatcher’s muchrevered father was an exemplary product of the late-Victorian era.
The intimidating abundance of this Victorian inheritance has provoked mixed reactions among most twentieth-century Britons who have been obliged to live with it. On the left the usual response has alternated between guilt and anger—at the poverty and hypocrisy, the snobbery and exploitation, the philistine materialism and heartless laissez faire, and the imperial hubris and racial arrogance that socialists believe characterized Britain in what was to them only ostensibly its national heyday. But to many on the right, the Victorian age was a time when Britain was truly at its zenith, when the country was the workshop of the world, when the pound was a sterling currency, when God was an Englishman and Englishmen were godly, when Britannia ruled the waves, and the sun never set on the Empire’s broad and majestic dimensions. For those who reject it, the Victorian experience is something to feel embarrassed about, to apologize for, and never to repeat. But to those who remain enthralled, it is a marvelous story of splendid achievement, by comparison with which Britain’s twentieth-century record seems distinctly lackluster.
Inevitably, the balance between disapproval and admiration has changed across the years. The interwar period began with the strident rejection of nineteenth-century stuffiness that was apparent in the brittle glitter of the Bright Young Things and the barbed insouciance of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918). But this soon led to a reaction against these indulgent and ironical excesses: in the later volumes of The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy transformed the eponymous Soames from a Victorian ogre into a venerable paragon and in 1936, G.M. Young published his famous Portrait of an Age, which remains the most brilliant and beguiling evocation of nineteenth-century England. After the Second World War, the revolt began …