Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria; drawing by David Levine

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.”

To take it a step further, there is nothing in life but vocation: that is what Samuel Smiles concluded when he wrote the lives of the engineers who were conquering Nature. Smiles chose engineers precisely because they appeared to have no private life. Not only the engineer sacrificed himself. Everyone who follows his vocation must make sacrifices. Darwin confessed: “For many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost almost any taste for pictures or music…”—a taste which he once had.

Mr. Mintz argues that no one had a stronger sense of vocation as the ideal of life than George Eliot. The way in which he works out his argument intrigues and convinces. Vocation stands at the heart of Middlemarch. Mary will not marry Fred Vincy until he finds a vocation. Rosamund Vincy, “a sylph caught young and educated at Mrs. Lemon’s,” catches Lydgate and destroys his sense of vocation and with it himself. Mr. Brooke manages in his typically frivolous way to confuse vocation with hobbies. Casaubon deceives himself about his vocation. Dorothea is forever in search of hers. And yet Casaubon’s whole life, his own self-esteem, is wholly and entirely bound up with success in his vocation; and because he fears that if he once published that success might be called in question, he never does publish.

What is more, Mintz adds in a singularly perceptive aside, it is not only Dorothea who wants to find a vocation. The pervasive voice throughout the novel, the voice of George Eliot herself, makes plain to her readers that she at any rate has found her vocation as their novelist and mentor. For her this sense of vocation saved people from introspection, self-doubt, and their own frailty. George Eliot knew herself only too well—knew the other George Eliot, the nervy, despondent, psychosomatic creature, ever in need of George Henry Lewes’s encouragement, who when asked whom she had in mind when creating Casaubon pointed to her own heart.

That is the ambivalence which is reproduced in Middlemarch. No one could appear to be more dedicated to his vocation than Bulstrode; but the very egotism and drive to self-aggrandizement necessary for him to succeed in the end becomes so gargantuan that in reconciling his appetite for power with the ideals of his vocation he becomes a hypocrite. No one could have less ability to find his vocation than the inadequate hero Will Ladislaw. Mintz quotes a splendid passage where he tells Dorothea that he might find his vocation as a poet and describes the state of the poet’s soul. ” ‘But you leave out the poems,’ said Dorothea. ‘I think they are wanted to complete the poet.’ ” No wonder in this great novel we feel dissatisfied when Ladislaw, having given up the law, settles for being Mr. Brooke’s man of affairs. George Eliot asks us to accept that the free man of sensibility may be pardoned for refusing to choose a life of drudgery and may live off his wife’s income gracefully—so long as they both engage in good works. According to Mr. Mintz George Eliot came to believe that vocation became sanctified only if inspired by a sense of religion or of values which transcend the experience of ordinary social life. That is what she explores in Daniel Deronda and what in fact Beatrice Webb, the living and liberated Dorothea at the end of the century, achieved.

This invigorating book ends with a glance at the new novel of vocation, the novel of Pater and Joyce, the novel that describes the vocation of the artist. When Stephen in the Portrait of the Artist refuses to submit to his father, or to Dublin life, or to the church, he moves into a transcendental world in which fidelity to language displaces the false shop-soiled vocations which the world has to offer. Originally God called man to serve him as a priest or monk: then Calvinists claimed that God called man to work in the world: then George Eliot maintained that the call came not from God but society; finally Joyce declared that art, being like the God of old, a transcendent order, demands that the artist, like the medieval priest or monk, should renounce the values of the world. I wish Alan Mintz would follow the consequences of this notion of vocation through twentieth-century literature. He will find the consequences disturbing and deeply depressing.

It was not an accident that George Eliot selected a young doctor as the person with the clearest sense of vocation in Middlemarch. Although much Victorian medicine seems to us today to belong to a prescientific age, an age of classifying diseases and symptoms, a time when explanations sprang from that notoriously misleading indicator, common sense, many drugs were isolated and bacteriology began to reveal the causes of illness. It was then that doctors—Bright, Addison, Hodgkin, and Parkinson—gave their names to diseases which they had isolated, and the medical profession at last acquired status.

It acquired status because people at last had grounds for believing that doctors were not quacks. When the Duke of Wellington lay dying he said, “Send for the apothecary.” An apothecary was a man who might relieve pain but do little else. Twenty years later Lydgate is a potential hero planning to build a rural hospital and make advances in medicine. Professor Haley maintains that the Victorians were obsessed by health. Leaving aside the vast numbers of the poor who died from occupational diseases or from insanitary water supplies, the intelligentsia bewailed their ill health continuously. Professor Haley quotes the groans of Carlyle at twenty-seven, at thirty, at thirty-four, at fifty-four—“all of this,” he adds, “from a man who lived to the age of eighty-five…. This sort of valetudinarianism seems almost the rule among Victorian intellectuals…. Huxley, George Eliot…the list of the afflicted could be extended almost endlessly—to Tennyson, Spencer, Meredith, Ruskin. All of them sought Health as a kind of Holy Grail.”

Perhaps the least satisfactory chapter of Professor Haley’s book is that which deals with Victorian medical science. Certainly Victorians in their letters and journals wrote constantly about their health and whether they or their contemporaries had given way to hypochondria or valetudinarianism. But today the vast sales of medicine, either proprietary drugs bought across the counter or prescribed by doctors with the latest brochures of the pharmaceutical companies in mind, suggest that in our obsessive concern with health our society is little different from that of the Victorians. The average person today in Britain is undoubtedly far healthier than his forefathers. Victorian diet, Victorian living habits alone, make it perfectly possible that robust health—waking up day after day full of vitality and passing the hours free from pain or any incapacity—was not then so much the common lot of men and women as it is today. But the fact that the Victorians were suckers for homeopathy, hydros, elixers, pills, and panaceas is not so much a testimony to their credulousness as to the state of medical knowledge. Medical science—the knowledge of what caused a morbid condition and, when known, of the regime whether pharmacological, dietetic, or surgical which had to be followed—was in most cases not so much in its infancy as unborn.

You are not the better able to treat coronary thrombosis by calling it angina pectoris (pain in the chest) or by renaming what eighteenth-century physicians had called a “thundering apoplexy” a cerebral hemorrhage. Professor Haley more or less admits this when he points out that, although it was no longer fashionable to refer to Galen’s four humors, much of the medical discourse of the time, by referring physical disorders to temperamental states of mind, was not all that different. Important as physiology was becoming, it was hijacked by psychology; and here Haley really gets into his stride in a lucid account of the way the associationist psychologists accommodated the classical analysis of temperament; adapted mental habits to the new discoveries in neurology of the distinction between motor and sensory nerves; and also found a place for will, judgment, and character affecting the body. Health was not, of course, wholly a matter of preserving mental equilibrium; but neither was it solely a mechanistic function of the body. This was what sustained the Victorian conviction of mens sana in corpore sano.

The core of this excellent book is its exposition of this text. “The greatest poetry,” said Leslie Stephen, “like the highest morality, is the product of a thoroughly healthy mind”; and this classic quotation can be echoed dozens of times by other critics. They all categorize authors as healthy or morbid. Horace Walpole, Clough, Rousseau, Swift were only a few of those diagnosed as suffering from a morbid condition. Not that an unhealthy mind sprang solely from an immoral character; anxiety or overwork could infect the product of the mind. Why did so much of Victorian criticism leave the poetry or novel in question and turn to the biography of the author? It was because in the personality of the author could be found those signs of health or morbidity which then permitted the critic to make his judgment on the work in question. Indeed it is not only an artist who can be diseased. The age in which he lives—so Carlyle judged the eighteenth century—can be diseased. An unstable society will produce troubled and melancholy poetry; and there were those who traced the effeminacy of the early Tennyson to the troubled times of the 1830s and 1840s.

If literature could be reduced to laws of health, so could religion. Newman too considered health to affect character. But it was Newman who was laid out in the anatomy theater as the worst example of unhealthiness by the greatest practitioner of the theory that bodily health is the seat of spiritual and mental sanity. Charles Kingsley criticized Newman as a student of Plato for putting mind first and accepting that the body has a lower function. Newman’s gentleman was one who had attained harmony and purity, who practiced modesty and charity, and—horror of horrors—one who if persecuted as a Christian should exercise self-restraint even if it made him appear “wanting in openness or manliness.” That was enough for Kingsley. What did he care that some people had pressed against him the offensive charge of preaching muscular Christianity? He at once weighed in to condemn Newman’s want of manliness. And if Newman lacked manliness, then who could doubt why he had forsaken Anglicanism for the diseased religion of Rome? So the famous controversy began.

The second part of Haley’s book is concerned with the working out of the idea of mens sana in corpore sano. The first thing that needed to be put down was the hostility of the Evangelical Party to field sports and rowing races. “What happened in the next thirty years,” writes Professor Haley, “can only be described as a national mania.” Between 1850 and 1880 athletics, football, hockey, rowing, golf, croquet rackets and fives, tennis, lawn tennis, badminton, lacrosse, bowls, bicycling, dumbells, and wrestling had joined cricket, boxing, and riding—to say nothing of a dozen or so games which have perished—and had become part of the business of life, almost an essential guarantee of mental stability and judgment. Woe to the reputation of the man who did not follow the fashion!

I am afraid that I must call Professor Haley to account for failing totally to master some of the finer points in the oldest of English team games, cricket. He accepts too readily the myth that cricket was nurtured on the village green: in fact the game grew to maturity in the industrial towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, and changed its character because professional working-class cricketeers, paid for their skills, so developed the arts of batting and bowling that they showed up the inferior abilities of the snobbish amateurs, the gentlemen, such as the Reverend Lord Frederick Beauclerk, who reckoned to make 600 guineas a year out of the game by betting and was not above trying to rig the result of a match. The huge crowds which the cricket matches in the County Championship attracted were proletarian.

But Haley’s spirited book gives a first-class account of the transformation of the British character, of the vast increase in sporting journals, of the development of mountaineering and walking, and above all of the transformation of the public schools where headmasters discovered that organized games and the prefect system guaranteed that riots, vagrancy, and pitched battles with game keepers of local estates would disappear. Inevitably the key text is Tom Brown’s School Days; and in the process of vulgarizing its lessons, the ever-growing market for boys’ papers emphasized that when a boy got out into the adult world of adventure and chance, the “highest morality is quick action, and to a large extent his physical health becomes his moral health.”

One man stood his ground against the deafening applause for games playing, an inspector of schools who had been a schoolfellow of Tom Hughes at Rugby. This, of course, was Matthew Arnold, and in his deprecating prose he cast doubt on the fable which had become hoary within a few years that the battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton. “Alas! disasters have been prepared in those playing fields as well as victories; disasters due to inadequate mental training—to want of application, knowledge, intelligence, lucidity.” From then on the tide began, not to turn, but to encounter a current running against it. Arnold strangely enough found an ally in Meredith, that apostle of walking and exercise.

Meredith brought his own son up much on the lines of Richard Feverel, plenty of games and plenty of warnings about the dangers of the “Magnetic Age” or that “perilous sensual period when the animal appetites most need control and transmutation.” But Feverel, and even more so, Sir Willoughby Patterne, although possessing splendid bodies, fail to convert their lower form of energy into the higher form of mind. Brain is the intermediary between the Blood and the Spirit which gives us our sense of purpose in life. Meredith’s beau ideal was Vernon Whit-field, the character in The Egotist who was modeled on Leslie Stephen, the intrepid mountaineer, athlete, and indefatigable walker who is also a stoic intellectual. Willoughby never learned to grow up, while Vernon was someone who had transmuted his athleticism into a higher cultivated state of health. You do not become healthy so as to give your mind a better chance of functioning well. You cultivate your body so that you can experience emotions and thoughts which otherwise you never could have experienced. In such pursuits as mountaineering you discover yourself.

Bruce Haley concludes by citing Edward Bowen, the author of the Harrow School songs (whom he mistakenly calls the headmaster), as the epitome of the athletic ideal in that he introduced a new notion into school discipline—the notion that to break certain rules or act in certain ways would not be “playing the game.” The book rightly ends with E.M. Forster’s famous denunciation of the public school ideal as producing men “with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds, and undeveloped hearts.”

Whatever may have been the state of the minds or hearts of public schoolboys there can be no doubt that they had bold and experienced bottoms. Flogging was a widespread punishment in the eighteenth century: soldiers and sailors were flogged, prisoners were judicially flogged, schoolboys who failed in their Latin or Greek construe were flogged. But in the Victorian Age there occurred in the public schools a devastating extension of this form of punishment. Formerly only the headmaster or one or two assistant masters birched boys. But just as the introduction of organized games was openly admitted to be a device to maintain discipline in the schools, so the beating of boys was extended and institutionalized. The headmaster continued to wield the birch, but the newly formed band of perfects and later of athletic bloods were now given delegated authority to use the hardly less painful cane. Soon it became normal for a housemaster to beat those in his charge on the principle that as he was in loco parentis he was doing no more than a father would do. The development of this practice and its effect on British morals is the subject of Ian Gibson’s book.

I do not think that Ian Gibson’s main point can be denied. The prep schools and the public schools, and Eton in particular, perpetuated the practice and made it a national fetish. The reason why capital punishment for so long proved so difficult to abolish was the wholehearted support for it not so much among the ruling classes as among the people at large whom nothing pleased more than to read of the condemned man’s last hours and all the details of those moments before, in the eighteenth-century phrase, the poor wretch was launched into eternity. Similarly, the cat, the birch, the cane, the block, the ceremony attendant on lifting shirttails and pulling down the trousers of delinquents in schools inflamed the imagination of the boys who took part in them or who lived in schools where their image was constantly before them. Not only before the beaters and the beaten; the timorous virtuous child lived in daily fear of it. And the morbid satisfaction which boys enjoyed of seeing the pain and humiliation their fellows suffered may have induced sexual hang-ups. By Edwardian times the pluck of a boy required to take a beating, all the more so if it was unfair or laid on by a bully, had been elevated into one of the manly virtues which held the Empire together.

Mr. Gibson astutely notes that the morality of the stiff upper lip was translated by the British to India where in the interests of maintaining order thousands of Indians were judicially whipped. He cannot spare much space to look at the public school novel; but if he had, he would have noticed that Edwardian school yarns, of which the most famous was Kipling’s Stalky & Co. and the most typical John Finnemore’s Teddy Lester series, enshrine caning as the center of the games-playing prefectorial world. What is interesting is the way Kipling transmutes his own civilized, mild headmaster, Cormell Price, the friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, into the downy Head of his novel who in one story canes the whole of the upper school on the last day of term.

After the First World War the intelligentsia finally revolted and a flood of public school novels poured from the presses written by disenchanted expupils bitterly critical of the system of discipline. They had no effect at all. Nor, as Mr. Gibson points out, did any of the learned literature on the subject going back to Meibom in the seventeenth century, whether by Boileau, Rousseau, Krafft-Ebing, or finally Freud, have the slightest effect on the schools. Nor had the disquisitions by Victorian doctors such as Ryan or Acton, whose theories on masturbation won such wide acceptance. Huffy schoolmasters denied that there was any connection between flagellation and sexual excitement, although for centuries learned treatises and the pornographic book trade left no doubt that they were connected.

Occasionally a scandal erupted. Some ingenious journalist would publish—as in Labouchère’s Truth or later in the News of the World, for years the favorite Sunday morning reading of the British public—some story of an enterprising entrepreneur doing a brisk trade in the sale of canes or of the confiscation by the police from the apartment of a prostitute of an armory of birches, tawses, straps, and contraptions for horsing the willing victims. The suggestion that such manifestations had any connection with the public schools was regarded as a question as silly as it was subversive. The headmasters and prefects blithely went on beating.

But a change did come. I was pleased to see Mr. Gibson quote some paragraphs from the Report of the Public Schools Commission, 1968, which I drafted urging that corporal punishment should no longer be permitted, especially in boarding schools, and that in particular, the beating of boys by boys should be stopped at once. The birch has now disappeared from Eton. At nearly all reputable public schools prefectorial beating has disappeared, usually at the request of the prefects themselves. No doubt hideous exceptions to these generalizations could be quoted, but in general the caning of boys often for trivial offenses and for generalized crimes such as slackness has been abandoned. The setting up of the commission rather than its report and the change in opinion on morality during the Sixties brought about a genuine change of heart in the schools. But not entirely: corporal punishment still continues to be permitted in nearly all schools in Britain and the beating lobby in Parliament is almost as strong as the gun lobby in Congress.

The British in numbers of ways still remain little islanders oblivious that practically all European countries have abolished beating children in school. They were startled when the European Community courts declared that Britain was in breach of European law by permitting the semi-independent Manx Parliament of the Isle of Man to continue to birch young offenders for hooliganism. The teachers’ trade unions still vehemently oppose the abolition of the cane in state schools and although a very few local authorities have abolished corporal punishment, you can still open a newspaper in England and find a story of a dispute centering upon whether a child of five in a nursery school should be whipped.

A debate in the House of Lords on the subject will attract a swarm of backbenchers hardly ever seen in normal debates who appear, like bees after hibernation, anxious to prove not only that beating never did them any harm but that the hive would disintegrate without it. They give the impression of being itching to disrobe then and there to reveal the scars of their schooldays. As an Irishman Mr. Gibson boils with indignation against this continuing abuse in Britain. For this he has been widely praised by decent-minded liberal reviewers and no less by more skeptical souls such as Mr. Auberon Waugh; and it is right that he should be so praised.

And yet high-minded as the aims of this book are, why do I hesitate to join wholeheartedly in the applause?

The status of this book is quite different from those of Professors Mintz and Haley. It is not strictly speaking a work of scholarship. It is not than Ian Gibson has skimped his research. On the contrary, he has delved and dug and gathered together in easily accessible form a lot of material which hitherto has been scattered through numbers of books and pamphlets. Nor is some of this material all that easy to prise out of the hands of librarians who regard themselves as guardians of morals rather than the servants of the public. But The English Vice remains a sarcastic denunciation rather than a vehicle of sustained thought. Mr. Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s books on the British nanny and the public schools are of this genre.

Had Mr. Gibson written a polemic of half the size and even a tenth of the saeva indignatio of his compatriot Dean Swift, he could have written a memorable work of satire. But as chapters on beating in home and school, in the armed forces and prison, in Victorian and modern times are succeeded by a special chapter on Eton and Swinburne (two of whose flagellant poems and relevant passages in Lesbia Brandon are reproduced), and then by chapters on flagellant correspondence in the newspapers, on flagellant prostitution and on flagellant fantasies, an indecent thought steals across the mind. Does this book not strongly resemble those which, before the days when pornography was sold openly, could be found at the back of bookshops in Charing Cross Road entitled “The History of the Rod”? Mr. Gibson’s book is infinitely more copious in illustration; and may it not prove delectable to the initiates of the cult?

Impressive though Mr. Gibson’s bibliography is, he has had the misfortune apparently not to have had the money or time to visit the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, almost obligatory for those concerned with sexual deviancy. Nor do I find all his scholarly attributions convincing. To cite one example: Gibson maintains that a famous set of heroic couplets on flagellation called The Rodiad was not composed by George Colman the younger, but by that well-known man of society and secret collector of erotica, Monckton Milnes. He is surely right in accepting the word of H.S. Ashbee that Colman never wrote it; Ashbee was the Pornographer Royal of the age. But it would require a great deal more evidence than Ian Gibson provides to prove conclusively that Milnes was the author.

For instance, Gibson would have to consult James Campbell Reddie’s notebooks in the British Library (not Ashbee’s as the catalogue states), in the second volume of which there is a note on The Rodiad; also J.C. Hotten’s Letter Books in the possession of a London publisher; and finally Milnes’s own collection of erotica which James Pope-Hennessy studied when writing his excellent biography of Milnes and from whose account of Milnes’s character it seems unlikely that he had that particular kind of brutal humor which characterizes The Rodiad. Gibson may be proved right; but at present the case is unproved and does not convince the greatest living expert on British erotica, E.J.Dingwall, who as Honorary Keeper at the British Museum built up the largest collection of works on flagellation in any library.

Indeed the reader may feel by the end that he deserves something more than a somewhat meager chapter summarizing various psychoanalytical explanations of the connection between beating, sex, and shame. And such explanations raise more questions than they answer. If there is a connection between a delight in being beaten and the infant’s delight in experiencing pleasurable pain in retaining its feces and thereby getting its own back on its mother who no longer offers it her breast, why is beating not prevalent in all societies?

Or consider the demure Victorian blush. Blushing checks, Ian Gibson believes, are not unconnected with blushing bottoms. The shame a child was meant to feel in exposing his nakedness, while being flogged, later in life condemned him either to impotence unless he was stimulated by being beaten, or to such an excess of modesty that the mere thought of sex made him blush, thereby driving blood away from his genitals. “I think we can be certain,” Mr. Gibson concludes, “that one large, perhaps very large, category of Victorian blushers [i.e., those who answered ads which purported to cure blushing] was occupied by men who had been beaten into shame as children.”

Well, it may be so; although the hypothesis which suggests that the majority of bashful bachelors are victims of flagellomania is certainly provocative. What of le Rosier de Madame Husson in that country where a birch is no more than a tree? Did it cross the author’s mind that a sense of shame which may cause a man to blush when he recollects an ignoble action of his is a good state of mind? If Victorian men were singularly prone to blush, was it not perhaps because the prudery of those times forbade the word, bottom, to be used before ladies?

Then again Ian Gibson gives the impression of not recognizing that he is scraping out only one corner of a vast midden. Sadomasochism lies deep in the psyche of the human race and its causes are legion. The apologists for beating are not hypocritical when they argue that savage sarcasm or perpetual humiliations can scar children worse than physical punishment. Nor is it only the whipping or paddling of boys’ (and girls’) bottoms that brings sexual satisfaction to the beaters—indeed to some of those beaten. The Latin for “I beat” is verbero; but the passive, “I am beaten,” is in fact another verb in the active tense vapulo (Lewin and Short make the learned conjecture that the word comes from vappo, a butterfly, and evokes the image of the fluttering and twitching of a trapped insect).

To writhe is an activity which so far from being passive is for some a positive pleasure, and certainly can bring pleasure to those who cause or watch it. And from this springs the propensity of men to torture each other. The Assyrians impaled their captives, the Romans crucified them, the Inquisition burned them, the Elizabethans disemboweled, hanged, and dismembered them. During our own times in so many countries hideous modern tortures have been inflicted by the agents of the state on its victims, some no doubt in revenge for the equally revolting cruelties practiced by the revolutionaries who want to destroy the regime or its culture which they detest. To contemplate this odious spectacle—the perennial enjoyment of men in seeing other men writhe and scream in torment and in watching their bodies twitch in death—makes one think poor Swinburne’s fantasies that he was a boy again at Eton held down on the block for a swishing were innocent daydreams.

Moreover, the very comparison of torture to flagellation provokes a scandalous reflection. British police and prison warders have been known to beat up suspects and prisoners, and the army a few years ago in Northern Ireland to use tough interrogation methods against suspects of terrorism. Yet can it be denied that the French police are infinitely more brutal than the British and that the chances of obtaining legal redress against them much less likely? Torture of Algerians by the French parachutists and security forces was of a different order from what has occurred in Ulster. The French are as humane a nation as any in Europe and have regarded with distaste the English obsession with beating their children at home and in schools and with contempt the penchant of Englishmen for visiting prostitutes who specialize in what is genteelly called “correction.” But can it be that the English vice is a beneficent sublimation of that perennial vapulatory desire, common to all societies, to writhe and make others writhe?

Perish the thought. But to raise the point is one way of calling in question Mr. Gibson’s psychohistory.

You cannot analyze the English vice unless you dig deeper than Mr. Gibson does into the soil of English society and history. That corporal punishment persists is not to be explained by the Protestant tradition of appealing to the authority of the Old Testament. Protestantism has for years ceased to be a decisive influence; and if religion were at the heart of the matter one would expect to find, which one does not, Jewish communities as ferocious wielders of the rod. In fact judicial flogging is now being revived principally in Islamic countries. There was indeed one country in Victorian times in which families used the birch and in which flogging in the army and of criminals was employed more brutally than in Britain: that was in czarist Russia. But there it does not seem to have aroused flagellomania. Why? The question never seems to have occurred to Mr. Gibson.

There are many reasons why corporal punishment is still practiced in British schools. British local government, unlike that in European countries, really does control education. Continentals are amazed to discover how weak the powers of the Department of Education are and how little able it is to impose its will upon the county and borough authorities. In Britain, as in America, communities are their own masters, but they are far less susceptible to the pressure of citizen groups and far more to the pressure of trade unions. Why then do the teachers’ unions still declare that they could not maintain discipline without the cane? Partly because the whole attitude toward education in state schools is so different from that in Europe. It is far more centered on the child’s development, less relentlessly geared to academic achievement. Hence teaching is more relaxed, learning less severe—and attainment less exacting.

As classroom discipline has relaxed, conditions familiar to New Yorkers have appeared in English city schools—young thugs terrorize a minority of teachers, and teachers believe that if the last and most fearful deterrent they possess were to disappear they would be powerless in the few really bad schools, and unable to control the mischiefmakers of the permissive age in most other schools. In a sense the argument resembles that of the public schools in days gone by. There the stigma of being “moved on,” i.e., expelled—which was habitually interpreted as having had sex with other boys or been convicted of stealing—was so great that surely it was better, so it was argued, for a boy to be caned for indiscipline rather than expelled. (Better for the finances of the school too.)

The respect, even the awe, with which teachers are regarded in Russian or West European schools does not exist in Britain or, I would guess, in North America. In West Germany the results of the all-crucial Abitur exam rest in the hands of the teachers, nor would the authority and severity which French parents expect teachers to exercise over their children be acceptable in Britain. None of this excuses the caning of children. But there is a sociological puzzle here which needs to be examined.

Lust, too, needs to be examined. It is the fashion today to deny that this deadly sin exists. In fact most people are not sensualists, though they are encouraged by advertisements to think they are. But a sizable number do lust. These people are not turned on by that strange amalgam of physical attributes and characteristics, of temperament and character, which attracts one person to another. Nor are they Casanovas, supreme narcissists interested in pursuit and conquest for its own sake. What devours them is the expectation of exploring the individual parts of their lover’s body, the thought of what they might do in sexual play, the invention of new luscious pleasures, and the gloating anticipation of reviving old ones with variations. But as variety in sexual techniques is limited, lust demands not only a new body but new sensations. Reach for the amyl nitrate. Take down the cane.

Among British poets Shakespeare and Burns have written memorable lines damning lust. In its most degraded form it is self-destructive and ends in necrophilia, bestiality, murder, suicide pacts, or in crazed behavior which clutter police files, such as obtaining orgasm by plunging a knife into a cock and letting the fowl’s blood pour over the genitals. But in the interim there is a sizable range of practices, of which flagellation is one, to which lust eventually drives some people.

You do not have to have been at Eton or indeed be English to indulge in flagellation. Despite Mr. Gibson’s thesis, accommodating people of both sexes can be found in Paris or Hong Kong, as well as in London or Berlin, to provide satisfaction. Per contra I earnestly implore devotees in other countries who are visiting England not to conclude from this book that every Etonian will either participate in, or at once provide introductions for, an afternoon’s stimulating session.

This Issue

July 19, 1979