• Email
  • Print

The Shock of the Old

For some time now, the cultural historian Peter Gay has been one of the most prolific and most convincing apologists for that remote, maligned age, the nineteenth century. His approach is practical rather than theoretical, corrective rather than revisionist. He has a refreshing ability to separate insights—especially Freud’s—from the systems of thought that produced them. In his five-volume history of the Victorian middle classes, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984–1998), he relegates local, academic debate to bibliographical essays that generously ignore the small-minded and the tendentious. This leaves more room for historical information. It enables him to convey with unusual efficiency what we hope to find in cultural history: the romance of the commonplace and the shock of the old, not to mention the ordinariness of romance and the tedium of daily life, even in an age of rapid change.

His latest book, Schnitzler’s Century, is a synthesis and, in some respects, a revision of The Bourgeois Experience. It is also a pleasantly unpedantic lesson in writing a short, coherent history of a long and confusing period. Gay’s bald use in the preface to Schnitzler’s Century of that eminently Victorian word “fact” has a challenging ring: “There were, in short, a great many facts in my pages.” The pages in question are the five volumes of The Bourgeois Experience. Gay has given each volume a title that puts emphasis not on academic interpretations but on the lives of the Victorians themselves (a term that Gay applies broadly to nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans): Education of the Senses (1984), The Tender Passion (1986), The Cultivation of Hatred (1993), The Naked Heart (1995), and Pleasure Wars (1998).

The Tender Passion, for instance, was devoted to that vast and slippery subject: the nineteenth-century bourgeois experience of love. Yet it contained more precise and concrete information on subsidiary topics like homosexuality and the literary treatment of passion than many specialized monographs. Schnitzler’s Century may be a summary, but the proportion of fact to general conclusion is about the same as in The Bourgeois Experience. Instead of simply lining up his conclusions for a curtain call, Gay has staged a new production by using the sexually and artistically prolific Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931) as a guide to the whole century.

Schnitzler pops up from time to time to exemplify a general trend or to contradict it. He proves to be, as Gay suggests, “a credible and resourceful witness to the middle-class world,” partly because of his cosmopolitan tastes but also because of his apparently un-Victorian traits. He was, so to speak, typically untypical. He was a qualified medical doctor, the son of an eminent laryngologist, but medicine interested him mainly as a means of seducing pretty women. His scandalously erotic plays combined Freudian analysis with light comedy. Sex, for Schnitzler, was not just a consuming pastime, it was a key to the human mind, or at least a source of original plots.1 In this respect, he was clearly ahead of his time. Freud himself admired his “secret knowledge” of the mind. But for all his awareness of modern tendencies, Schnitzler tended to see the avant-garde as a conspiracy of swindlers. He thought Schoenberg a fraud and was sorry to see Picasso turn to Cubism. He was, in short, like most of the leading characters in Gay’s histories, neither one thing nor the other.

One incident in particular serves repeatedly as a starting point: the senior Schnitzler’s discovery, one morning in the spring of 1879, of the little red book in which his son Arthur recorded his first enthusiastic dealings with prostitutes. This tiny domestic catastrophe recurs throughout the book like a prism whose facets reflect different aspects of Victorian life: bourgeois prosperity, the rebelliousness of adolescents, the Dark Continent of sexuality, the fear of infection, secular values (no lectures on eternal damnation for young Arthur), the gospel of work, and the notion of personal privacy.

This synthesizing device is used in a sporadic, contrapuntal fashion. Most of the book, in fact, is not about Schnitzler at all. Gay uses Schnitzler to highlight the qualities he values in history-writing: a respect for individual experience, a determination to make “Europe” mean something more than France, Germany, and Britain, and, simply but crucially, the recourse to original texts.

Despite the fact that almost every nineteenth-century text is now much easier and cheaper to obtain than it was at the time of its publication, many historians of the period still behave like the American mesmerist mentioned in Schnitzler’s Century who “claimed among other accomplishments to know the contents of books he had not read.” This is not just a matter of accuracy. Texts quoted from other historians are contaminated by judgments and habits of thought that do not belong to the Victorian Age. Famous quotations often caricature or misrepresent their authors’ views and in any case deaden our sense of historical reality. There is a world in which table legs are always prudishly concealed, Queen Victoria is never amused (or, in the now more popular revisionist version, never free from sexual desire), Prime Minister Guizot is forever telling citizens to “Get rich!,” and factory children are constantly being mangled by mechanical looms.

Gay, by contrast, appears to have read most of the books from which he quotes. This explains in part why his own book contains so many contradictions instead of confirmations, so many unexpected snapshots of familiar faces. We see Nietzsche not quite managing to believe in the death of God, and Freud informing his fiancée that “nature has determined woman’s destiny through beauty, charm and sweetness.” The English “self-help” guru Samuel Smiles, supposedly the prophet of thrift, advised his readers not to waste their entire lives saving money. It is fortunate—since not everyone will read the 2,500 pages of The Bourgeois Experience—that Gay has found facts such as these “simply too enlightening, simply too tempting, to do without” in his new book.

In a Victorian setting, the word “fact” inevitably conjures up a cavernous schoolroom in Coketown where a grim, brutish gentleman with a bald and knobbly head “like the crust of a plum pie” belabors a class of quaking innocents:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.

So said Thomas Gradgrind, the utilitarian monster of Hard Times (1854) who, Dickens wrote, is “a man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over.” (Surely a sound principle for a man in the wholesale hardware trade.) It is typical of Gay’s humane approach to the Victorian middle class that he discovers a more cheerful and heroic reality behind Dickens’s pantomime figure. Gradgrind, he observes, “was a malicious burlesque of social and political reformers who sought precision rather than vague cogitation.” The real Gradgrinds were men like Dr. Matthews Duncan, a Scottish obstetrician, whose dogged pursuit of scientific fact enabled him to reveal the surprising truth that middle-class women had sexual desires, or the theologian David Friedrich Strauss, whose Life of Jesus, Critically Examined was a courageous attempt to replace religious myth with historical fact.

Gradgrind the character is after all engaged in the same intellectual jiggery-pokery as his creator. Science does for Gradgrind what sentiment does for Dickens. It fits the bewildering world of fact into a preordained system. Gradgrind’s modern descendants are not literal-minded historians and educationalists but abstraction-loving theorists. The first specimen of Gradgrindian wisdom, in the opening scene of Hard Times, is not a fact at all. Gradgrind commands the cringing infants to provide him with a definition of a horse (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth,” etc.). In other words, the boys and girls are asked to produce a futile concept of something that is adequately understood by almost everyone.

This is precisely what Gay refuses to do in the introductory chapter of Schnitzler’s Century, pointedly titled “Bourgeoisie(s).” Facts prove to be troublesome, or, rather, they create endless opportunities for fruitful complication. The Victorian bourgeoisie was “sizable, diverse, and deeply fissured.” Some bourgeois had the vote, most did not. Some, like Schnitzler’s father, could survey their humble beginnings from the height of a professorial chair and the comfort of an upper-middle-class apartment. Most spent their entire lives on the same rung of the social ladder. Horatio Alger’s tales of wealthy orphans hoisting themselves into a bourgeois paradise of money and power were popular precisely because they were so unrealistic. “Far from documenting an open society, Alger and his imitators displayed wishful thinking at its most inflamed.”

The bourgeoisie in some countries was a proud class of independent moneymakers; in others, it was a servile extension of a court. In one of the antitheses on which he builds his account, Gay contrasts the inscriptions placed on the art museums of Birmingham and Munich. The English motto proudly boasts, “By the gains of industry we promote art.” The German motto is a bourgeois touching of the forelock: “Bavaria owes the building and its art treasures to the noble disposition of its rulers, the House of Wittelsbach.” Yet despite the huge cultural and political differences there was an “underlying identity,” generated by “perceptions almost as much as realities.” Bourgeois of different countries were instantly recognizable to one another. They were, in Gay’s view, the home-loving, umbrella-carrying, self-denying minority with a sense of civic duty, sneered at by avant-garde writers (most of whom were bourgeois) for their unapologetic mediocrity. These practical-minded brutes, said Flaubert, would plant a potato patch on the summit of Mount Olympus.2 Above all, Gay suggests, bourgeois were defined by the fact that they were not proletarians.

There is a psychology of the common man that is rather different from ours,” wrote Freud in 1883 in response to his fiancée’s description of rowdy working-class visitors to a Hamburg fair. The bourgeois did not, according to Freud, get drunk or fall in love with someone every month. This self-recognition may have been based on crude assumptions, but it was just as important as economic and political realities. The stiff-necked, monocled man of property in a third-class railway carriage in the 1869 cartoon reproduced in Schnitzler’s Century certainly knew—as do we—what distinguished him from the feasting rabble around him.

The practical problem for the historian is that anything that can safely be said of all these different bourgeoisies is likely to be so general as to have no particular interest. In such a wide field, truths are inevitably banal. As Gay observes, “Commonplaces are, well, common, and though their predictability and crudeness may make the fastidious wince, they are clues to prevalent cultural styles.”

Schnitzler’s Century is not an attempt to spoil the fun, and it will not necessarily disappoint the condescending amateurs of Victorian preposterousness, though it will leave them in a healthy state of confusion. It mines, for instance, the rich vein of silliness to be found in the ephemeral publications of opinionated people, and especially in marriage manuals and medical treatises. Gay quotes a French doctor’s advice to women who did not wish to become pregnant: perform the act “on an inclined plane,” or, after intercourse, “dance smartly for a few moments about the room.” He quotes the grisly warnings of anti-masturbation crusaders like Samuel Tissot, whose treatise on L’Onanisme (1758) was a European best seller. A new edition appeared as late as 1832, according to Gay. There was yet another new edition in 1905, with the Latin passages translated into French and the same selection of pornographic cautionary tales: the young onanist whose overworked testicles never stopped rotating, or the man whose sexual excesses dried up his brain so that it could be heard rattling around inside his skull.3

Some of the illustrations in Schnitzler’s Century also seem to confirm the common view of a hellishly inconvenient century populated by dangerous eccentrics. There is the horrific “Four Pointed Urethral Ring,” with metal spikes and a ribbon, designed to make penile erection a cause of extreme pain. There is the inevitable physiognomic chart showing the perfectly mapped continent of the human brain and the location of qualities such as “self-esteem” and “amativeness.” There is also a splendid “Beard Trimming Chart” (San Francisco, circa 1880) which hints, tantalizingly, at a wealth of sociological information waiting to be discovered in the semiotic forest of facial hair: the “Patrician” (the beard as chest-warmer), the “Stucco” (a truncated “Patrician”), the chin-pad “Sage Brush,” the jowl-concealing “Leg o’ Mutton,” and the flying prongs of the “Pennant” moustache. It would have been nice to have some comment on this evocative chart. (The names of each hair arrangement are just decipherable with a magnifying glass.)

The difference between Gay and other purveyors of Victorian curiosities is that his forays into the bizarre or the idiotic are intended to highlight exceptions, not to produce new general principles. As Gay points out, fools and bigots are unfortunately highly quotable and often achieve a kind of immortality of which the rational can only dream. Good writing is perfectly compatible with bad thinking. Andrew Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), quoted by Gay, contains a description of the happy little “elves” (that is, children) who kept the cotton mills running sweetly:

[I found it] delightful to observe the nimbleness with which they pieced the broken ends, as the mule-carriage began to recede from the fixed roller beam, and to see them at leisure, after a few seconds’ exercise of their tiny fingers, to amuse themselves in any attitude they chose, till the stretch and winding-on were once more completed.

It is one of the themes of Schnitzler’s Century that this kind of wishful thinking rarely represents a dominant view. Andrew Ure’s factory elves were a personal fantasy, and few people would have agreed with Dr. Karl Bücher when he maintained in Arbeit und Rhythmus (1897) that drudgery was a boon to mankind. Dark, tendentious portraits of the Victorian Age can transform these relatively harmless pontificators into towering villains who cast shadows almost as long as Thomas Gradgrind’s. Denouncing the sins of bourgeois capitalism makes for pleasantly grim reading, but it also turns the watercolors of normal life, with their smudges and approximations, into gaudy maps. Whole schools of history have been based on such distortions. “What would the detractors of the Victorian bourgeoisie do without him?” asks Gay, referring to William Acton, the much-quoted gynecologist who notoriously asserted that most women “are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind.”

Writers like Dr. Acton are especially quotable because they belong to a professional tradition. Their arguments are easily incorporated into scholarly studies, in place of more common and common-sensical views. This professional bias helps to explain the disastrous effect on nineteenth-century social history of Michel Foucault—significantly, perhaps, mentioned nowhere in the book—who cooked up his mini-history of modern homosexuality from a handful of medical texts, quoted secondhand. The countless Victorian experts on neurasthenia, mentioned by Gay in a chapter on “Anxiety,” were part of their age and deserve to be studied. But to exaggerate their influence is to indulge a fantasy about the power of intellectual discourse. As Gay points out in a typically deflationary comment, “untold thousands of middle-class Victorians formed their minds without having to consult a psychiatrist.”

Another solution to the problem of banal truth is to play the generalizations off against an individual case. This is the tactic used in Schnitzler’s Century, which renames the entire Victorian Age after a talented, woman-chasing pacifist who died in 1931 after spending nearly all his life in Vienna. (There was a similar though subtler impudence in the subtitle of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, with its suggestion of a Moravian psychiatrist succeeding to the imperial throne.)

With the contradictory Schnitzler as a guide to the century, preconceptions about the Victorian bourgeoisie have a hard life. It soon becomes apparent that almost anyone now living who was transported back to the nineteenth century would be in a permanent state of shock. Most Victorians (not just Schnitzler) were more familiar than their twentieth-century descendants with the unpleasant realities of life. Drooling, incontinent grandparents were cared for at home. Husbands were present when their wives gave birth. Families were more various and gregarious than generally supposed. Middle-class housewives were no more innocent than farmhands. Mrs. Beeton, so often quoted for comic effect on subjects like etiquette and servants, urged her readers to subject the nursemaid’s breasts and nipples to a rigorous inspection. The euphemistic novels of Dickens evidently say as much about literary convention as they do about daily life. “If ‘Victorian’ is a synonym for ‘squeamishness’ or ‘prissiness,’” says Gay, “the Victorians were not Victorians.”

Almost every cherished notion about the Victorian middle classes has its comeuppance in Schnitzler’s Century. Church attendance, at least in England and Wales, was lower than modern promoters of “Victorian values” would imagine. On Census Sunday in 1851, some 5.25 million who could have attended a church service failed to do so. This was not, apparently, a population that suffered spiritual anxiety or agonized over the death of God. Many found satisfying compromises with science. Agnostics were not prevented from living happy lives.

Even the old division of the bourgeoisie into fat philistines and starving artists begins to look impossibly crude. Edouard Manet longed to wear the ribbon of the Légion d’Honneur. Claude Monet sold his early paintings at 300 francs apiece, which was more than a schoolteacher earned in two months. For years, the biggest collector of Cézannes was a customs clerk. “Historians,” says Gay, “have all too conveniently summarized the course of Victorian taste as an unending conflict between consumers of conventional offerings on one side and mutinous Modernists on the other.” The bourgeoisie had its Prudhommes and its Pooters, but it also produced eager armies of art lovers and concertgoers. It witnessed the birth of Modernism and supported its first steps.

Modern criticism of Victorian prudishness and philistinism, and the ideologies that underwrite that criticism, are dealt a further blow by Gay’s demonstration that they belong to the nineteenth-century. Bourgeois-bashing was a Victorian tradition. Once practiced by snooty aristocrats, it was taken up by novelists like Flaubert and Zola. Some of it was justified, most was not. Victorians may have congratulated themselves on living in an age of endless progress, they may have looked forward to what Baudelaire called “the salvation of the human race by the balloon,”4 but they had good reason to do so. For most bourgeois, conditions improved throughout the century. “Acting out their aggressive impulses was becoming less and less attractive to them. In the course of years, fewer of them beat children, fewer of them maltreated servants, fewer of them exploited workers or lorded it over their wives. And they executed fewer convicted criminals.”

To this comparatively sunny picture Gay adds the cheering note that noble sentiments did after all have a part. “The appeal to conscience” made by various reformers was not necessarily “a convenient veil thrown over the lust for money and control.” It was also “the authentic voice of a self-critical superego seeking an outlet in political action.” Here again, it becomes apparent—though Gay is too generous to make the point—that the routine interpretation of philanthropy as cynical imperialism or as a manifestation of power relationships is a way of simplifying and abbreviating the historian’s task. Such academic abstractions are far more manageable than facts. A late-twentieth-century Thomas Gradgrind would not have tolerated Gay’s fact-filled history on the Coketown College reading lists.

Gay’s accounts of the Victorian middle classes have a cumulative, polemical effect that would dismay a modernizing Gradgrind. If, as Gay’s histories suggest, the Enlightenment bore fruit in the nineteenth century, it looks increasingly as though “the Victorian Age”—the industrial exploitation of children, busybody scientists wielding power over gullible populations, prudishness masquerading as ideology, a smug belief in the innate superiority of the present, and even widespread sexual dysfunctions—actually happened in the twentieth century.

That century, we can be sure, will also be reduced by historians to a caricature of earnest fools and blind victims. But the task of investing it with human reality, which Gay has performed so brilliantly for the Victorian Age, will be considerably more difficult.

  1. 1

    Gay comments on Schnitzler’s unexpected “near silence” on homosexuality. He might have added that Schnitzler was a prominent signatory of Magnus Hirschfeld’s petition for the repeal of the German law proscribing homosexual acts. See James D. Steakley, The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany (Arno Press, 1975; reprinted by Ayer, 1993), p. 65. Nine of Schnitzler’s short stories are to be published in a translation by Margret Schaefer as Night Games and Other Stories and Novellas (Ivan R. Dee, 2002).

  2. 2

    Gustave Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet, September 18, 1846, in Correspondance, edited by Jean Bruneau (Paris: Gallimard, 1973–), Vol. 1, p. 351.

  3. 3

    Samuel-Auguste-André Tissot, L’Onanisme: Essai sur les maladies produites par la masturbation. Nouvelle édition revue et augmentée de la traduction des citations latines (Paris: Garnier, 1905), pp. 9, 15.

  4. 4

    Charles Baudelaire, letter to Armand Fraisse, February 18, 1860, in Correspondance, edited by Claude Pichois (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), Vol. 1, p. 675.

  • Email
  • Print