The Victorian Sex Wars

The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud Vol. 1: Education of the Senses

by Peter Gay
Oxford University Press, 534 pp., $25.00

“Historically,” Karl Marx once wrote, “the bourgeoisie has played a most important part.” Indeed, there was a period in historical writing, roughly coincidental with the first half of the twentieth century, when it seemed to play virtually the only part, credited as it often was with most of the major developments in the making of the modern world: from the growth of towns, the decline of feudalism, and the waning of the Middle Ages, via the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution, the consolidation of absolutist states, the English civil war and the Enlightenment, the Industrial, the American, and the French Revolutions, to 1848, the new imperialism and the growth of bad taste, and beyond. No wonder the middle classes were the ever-rising soufflĂ© of history; they had a great deal to be rising about. Having traveled hopefully and arrived punctually at some crucial time and place in the unfolding historical drama, they did what they were supposed to do, and then moved onward to the next engagement. Whenever history needed a helping hand, the middle classes were always there, ready, willing, and able to provide it.

Today it all looks rather different. Whatever the middle classes were doing in the past, there is a widespread belief that they are no longer rising now, and since their contemporary circumstances give increased cause for anxiety, so the easy certainties and confident generalizations made about their trajectory and their accomplishments in previous centuries have in turn been eroded and undermined. After two decades of intense and skeptical scholarship, it is no longer fashionable to believe that all historical change must be explained by the movements of social classes, and the middle class of Marx has been the most significant casualty of this shift in historical thinking. Figures once eagerly recruited into the burgeoning bourgeois fold, all the way from Queen Elizabeth I to Queen Victoria, are now more usefully and realistically placed in other categories. At best, many historians now maintain that the middle classes may indeed have risen, but they never really got to the top. And at worst, the once-triumphant bourgeoisie has been relegated into an inert, residual category: the history of the people with the patricians and the plebs left out, and everyone else left in. What was once the motor of historical change has now become the trash can of historical taxonomy.

For the nineteenth century, Marx’s century, the picture of a triumphant bourgeoisie was painted first and challenged last. But even here, the safe citadel of middle-class supremacy has been undermined from without and eroded from within by recent scholarship. For Britain and Germany in particular, and more speculatively for Europe as a whole, it has become increasingly fashionable to argue that, however hopefully the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie was traveling, it never actually arrived. Internally divided, and insufficiently self-conscious, it failed to achieve economic preeminence as a class, social dominance as a status group, or supreme power as a political movement. A petty clerk like Mr. Pooter…

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