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 anew: the Victorian empire was dismantled, the slums and centers of Victorian cities were razed, and the “permissive” legislation of the 1960s was designed to mitigate the harshness of the Victorian moral code. But this again provoked its own reaction—in part conservationist and aesthetic, as evidenced by the successful establishment of the Victorian Society, in part scholarly and academic, as a new generation of historians began to uncover the complex realities that often belied the crude stereotypes commonly associated with the nineteenth century.
Since the early 1980s, the mood has changed again, for Britain is now ruled by a prime minister who regards the Victorian achievement as something not to be demolished or embalmed, but to be celebrated and even recreated. Although she heads a government which has been called the most radical and iconoclastic of the twentieth century, Mrs. Thatcher presents herself as a moral crusader passionately attached to the politics of nostalgia. For her aim is to revive and to reestablish those wholesome values of hard work, self-help, thrift, sobriety, and respectability, which she learned from her father and which she feels made Britain great in the past and believes are making Britain great again. Throughout the twentieth century, the Victorian age has always been much more than past history, but now, for the first time, it has become the touchstone for national recovery and moral regeneration. It is in this setting that the three books under review, important studies of Britain’s recent past, need to be considered. How, in the light of the renewed, and highly politicized, interest in the Victorians, should they be interpreted? What do they tell us about Mrs. Thatcher’s understanding not only of Britain’s nineteenth-century history but also, by implication, of its present and its future?
Asa Briggs’s Victorian Things completes a trilogy that was arrestingly begun with Victorian People (1954), and brilliantly continued with Victorian Cities (1963). Although he has been a prodigiously productive scholar, moving easily across the social, political, urban, economic, and cultural history of modern Britain, it is chiefly on these three books that Briggs’s reputation rests as the foremost interpreter of the Victorian age since G.M. Young himself. Victorian People sought to uncover the particular characteristics of the 1850s and 1860s by exploring a number of personalities along with their preoccupations, including J.A. Roebuck, who opposed the Crimean War, Thomas Hughes, who tried to reform the public schools, and Benjamin Disraeli and the passing of the Second Reform Act. Victorian Cities, by contrast, ranged across the entire nineteenth century, beginning with Manchester, the “shock city” of the 1830s and 1840s, and ending with late-Victorian London, the “world metropolis.” Both books were characterized by a determination to break down the traditional barriers between different kinds of historical studies, by a gift for making suggestive connections between apparently unrelated subjects, and by an exceptional feeling for the tone of the times.
In Victorian Things Briggs presents another series of linked case studies, this time designed to illuminate nineteenth-century material culture. He is not just concerned with how certain objects were made and how they were used: by looking at the written records that place them in their social setting he also aims to recreate what he calls “the intelligible universe” of the Victorians themselves. He begins with an account of the most famous display of nineteenth-century things, the Great Exhibition of 1851, which so vividly conveyed the Victorians’ sense of wonder at their material progress and their delight in collecting and in classification. For many of them, seeing was indeed believing, and Briggs goes on to show how developments in photography and the making of spectacles meant that the Victorians observed and recorded themselves with precision and fascination that no civilization had displayed before. Hence, too, their many and varied “images of fame.” On jugs, plates, chamber pots, matchboxes and biscuit-tin lids, it was not only British monarchs and statesmen who were commemorated, but also such foreign worthies as Garibaldi and Lincoln, and such sportsmen as the cricketer W.G. Grace and Captain Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel.
Briggs then turns to consider some “common things,” whose meanings were more varied and ambiguous. Steel pens were first mass-produced in the 1830s: they were indispensible for the compulsory elementary education which came late in the century, and they made the fortune of the Midlands industrialist Josiah Mason, which he used to found what subsequently became Birmingham University. Nearby, the town of Redditch was almost entirely given over to the manufacture of needles: in one guise they were the very essence of domesticity, but they were also used by workers in the sweated trades, where exploitation, rather than homeliness, was the dominant theme.
Of course, the very idea of “Home, sweet home” was itself a Victorian creation, and Briggs devotes a chapter to the many manuals of housekeeping, of which Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was only the most famous, and to a discussion of the changes in furnishings and decoration. But it is in his study of clothes that he ranges most widely, describing not only the changes in fashions and the evolution of the garment industry, but also the significance of different styles of headwear. For her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Queen Victoria preferred a bonnet to a crown. All Victorian men, even beggars, wore hats; and it was, after all, the cloth cap that became the most famous symbol of the Labour Party.
In his last three chapters Briggs moves on to energy, machinery, technology, and communications. There is a splendid discussion of “carboniferous capitalism” (the phrase is Lewis Mumford’s), which vividly conveys the magic and wonder of coal. It was the source of heat, light, and power in unprecedented abundance; it was the only raw material that Britain exported in large quantities; and it became for many people the ultimate symbol of industrial greatness. The postage stamp was another quintessentially Victorian object. Sir Rowland Hill, who invented the penny post, soon became a national hero who ranked with James Watt. By the 1870s stamp collecting was well established, both as a hobby and an industry, and by the end of century, the Empire was bound together in an imperial postal system. But in many ways, Briggs insists in his concluding chapter, the 1890s were as much the beginning of a new age of things as they were the culmination of the old. The gas light and electricity portended the decline and fall of coal as the main source of power. The phonograph and the motion picture promised a transformation in entertainment, as did the typewriter and the wireless in communications. And the bicycle, the tram, and the internal combustion engine were soon to revolutionize transport.
Admirers of the two earlier installments of this trilogy will immediately recognize the same robust and imaginative approach in the final volume. As always, Briggs is very sensitive to the diversity of the Victorian experience, and to the important differences between the early, the middle, and the late Victorian eras. He places in historical perspective a great many recent antiquarian writings on such varied topics as pottery, furniture, textiles, and photography. He vividly depicts Victorian England as a society which took an almost childlike delight in the goods and objects that it created and manufactured for itself. And he shows how extensive and elaborate were the connections which linked such artifacts to the Victorian world. So when he discusses the manufacture of matches he not only tells us how they were actually made, and about the industrial diseases to which the production process gave rise; he also describes the abortive attempt to levy a tax on matches in 1871, and the famous strike at the Bryant and May match company in 1888. There was, he rightly insists, no one single universe of Victorian things for those who made them or used them. As W.S. Gilbert put it in H.M.S. Pinafore, in one of the few apposite remarks which Briggs does not quote, “Things are seldom what they seem.”
But for all its originality and fascination, Victorian Things is in some ways the least satisfactory volume of Briggs’s trilogy. Like its predecessors, it conveys a great deal of fascinating information; but unlike them, it lacks the structure of ideas that could give some coherence to what is on occasion an excess of miscellaneous detail. Although the book is concerned with goods and chattels, the underlying theme of an emerging consumer economy is never directly addressed. There are occasional, rather coy comments on bedrooms, bathrooms, and underwear, but no attempt is made to explore such related issues as gender and sexuality. The final chapter makes plain that, by the late nineteenth century, the Germans and the Americans had become much better than the British at inventing, producing, and marketing new things, yet there is no effort to explain why this was so. The dust jacket informs us that the book “raises important theoretical issues concerning the meaning of objects, cultural anthropology, and the developments of taste.” But again this is not so: most of the recent work on material culture—the study through artifacts of the beliefs, values, ideas, and assumptions of a particular society at a given time—is all but ignored.1 Like the Paris Exposition of 1900, Victorian Things does “not leave a clear impression. It abounds in interesting details, but it lacks great lines.”
By contrast, F.M.L. Thompson’s Rise of Respectable Society is a remarkable display of conservative iconoclasm and opinionated synthesis, which may usefully be seen as an extension of his earlier work. His first book was a pioneering study of aristocratic survival and decline in modern England, which after a quarter of a century, remains unsurpassed.2 He has written the official history of the chartered surveyors, one of the most reputable professions of Victorian England, and his account of the building of nineteenth-century Hampstead is the classic study of the making of middle-class suburbia. In short, Thompson’s work has been as much concerned with the countryside as with the town, stressing the close links between them. He has been most interested in the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and especially in the way these groups shaded imperceptibly one into the other. And he has been more at home with the professional and the entrepreneurial middle classes than with the laboring proletariat. He has also been distinctly unimpressed by such fashionable but imprecise ideas as “social control,” and he has taken great delight in pointing out that, while Victorian England may have witnessed the triumph of the steam engine, it remained in many ways a “horse-drawn society.”
In his most recent book, Thompson sets out to provide “a seriously argued revision of Victorian social history,” and from the very first page, the revisionism never lets up. Victorian England may have been the first industrial nation that witnessed “the age of great cities”; but until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, towns, and factories were, Thompson argues, the exception rather than the rule. At the time of the passing of the Great Reform Act, workers in such traditional occupations as agriculture formed the backbone of the popular agitation, and even in mid-Victorian England, it was Barset, rather than Coketown, that was still—if diminishingly—in the dominant majority. Since industrialization advanced so slowly and unevenly, Thompson argues, there was ample time for working-class families to adapt to it. Even in the cotton mills, very few married mothers worked, and the numbers in child labor fell throughout the century. Family loyalties, neighborhood ties, and inherited cultures were stronger than many middle-class observers believed. A significant proportion of proletarian women even married into the petty bourgeoisie, and by the late nineteenth-century, family limitation had become an integral feature of working-class life.
Indeed, for most proletarian children, Thompson insists, the family provided an orderly and secure environment, at once disciplined and affectionate. Many boys and girls were sent to school by their parents well before elementary education was made compulsory by the state, and the street life that they enjoyed in their neighborhoods was on the whole not violent or criminal, but warm and friendly. By twentieth-century standards, working-class housing was certainly austere, but it was, Thompson claims, usually clean and respectable. Only a minority of the poor inhabited the sordid, teeming slums and the anonymous, overcrowded ghettos, and relatively few people could accurately be described as unwashed, dishonest, immoral, or impoverished. Most members of the working class, Thompson argues, were fiercely independent and self-reliant. They were thrifty, joined friendly societies, and made adequate provision for accident and misfortune. They worked hard, and got on well with their employers; strikes were the exception rather than the rule, and the unrest of the 1830s and 1840s was an aberration that was soon forgotten. Even the miners, who in the twentieth century have often been seen as the shock troops of the class struggle, were generally deferential and cooperative.
Within this congenial environment, Thompson contends, the working classes evolved a popular culture which was increasingly self-contained and apolitical. As the amount of leisure available increased, they took to the seaside, tended their allotments of land, and played soccer and rugby. Their drinking habits were relatively restrained, and public houses were as much places of business as they were centers of conviviality. The music halls were more concerned with romance and fantasy than they were with putting out crude Tory propaganda. Attempts to regulate working-class gambling were not on the whole successful, and policemen were much resented as intrusive agents of middle-class morality. Most poor people were too proud to accept Poor Relief, and were determined to keep out of the workhouse: indeed, Thompson suggests, the cult of respectable independence may well have arisen in response to the Poor Law of 1834, which the working classes viewed with such suspicion and abhorrence. At best, most workers regarded the state as irrelevant; at worst, they resented its legislation and its agents as interfering nuisances. By the late nineteenth century, they were not much interested in politics, showed little enthusiasm for the nascent Labour party, and were mainly concerned with getting on with their own lives.
Even when summarized thus briefly, Thompson’s book, it is clear, is revisionism with a vengeance. The Industrial Revolution is brutally dismissed from the center of the historical stage. The notion that Victorian society was divided into three classes, perpetually at war with one another, is condemned as “little more than a rhetorical device.” The belief that the working class acquired a heightened degree of self-consciousness, whether in the 1830s of the 1890s, is emphatically rejected. And the theory of the “labour aristocracy” is consigned to oblivion. The nineteenth-century middle-class moralists and reformers, who regarded the workers with such meddlesome condescension, and whose biased reports and erroneous observations have so misled Marxist social historians, are repeatedly rebuked and ridiculed. Throughout the Victorian era, Thompson insists, the social fabric of England held together seamlessly, with each occupational group or status level merging imperceptibly into another. Above all, the working classes were very much in charge of their lives. They did not ape the values and morals of their superiors, nor were they the supine victims of government legislation or propaganda. On the contrary, in such matters as education and birth control, “they worked out their own standards and values for themselves,” and Thompson thinks they did so rather well.
As a piece of iconoclastic synthesis, The Rise of Respectable Society is undoubtedly a tour de force. But it is not altogether clear that Thompson has made his case. Having rejected the analysis of the Victorian liberal and interventionist reformers, he has embraced instead the very different, but no less partial, views of the unconcerned aristocracy and the comfortable suburban middle classes, the very groups with whom he has always felt most at home. As a result, the social and political tensions that characterized the first and final years of the Queen’s reign are dismissed too easily. Thompson grudgingly admits that it was government legislation which was largely responsible for improving factory conditions, regulating working-class housing, and making possible public holidays. And behind the consensual, upbeat picture that Thompson paints so vigorously, the darker side of the Victorian world can still occasionally be glimpsed. As he himself admits, infant mortality remained “shockingly high,” schooling was not “a pleasant or happy experience,” working-class houses were “drab, cheerless, cramped and unimaginative,” and when Seebohm Rowntree made his survey of York in the 1890s, one third of the town’s inhabitants were still poverty-stricken. Even if Victorian England was not on the brink of starvation and turmoil, it was hardly a society in the full flower of personal freedom or material abundance.
Like Victorian Things, Harold Perkin’s study The Rise of Professional Society completes an ambitious project of great importance and distinction. It is the sequel to The Origins of Modern English Society, 1780–1880, first published in 1969, which offered a bold and vigorous account of Britain’s social development in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. During the early nineteenth century, Perkin argued, three new classes and one old order competed for power and wealth—a proletarian working class, a middle class divided between manufacturers and professionals, and a tenacious but embattled aristocracy. By the 1830s and 1840s, these disputes had been subsumed into struggles between different class ideals: the aristocratic, which was hierarchical, leisured, and paternal; the professional, which stressed expertise and reward by merit; the entrepreneurial, which valued industrial capital and private profit; and the working class, which was more concerned with survival, self-help, and cooperation. By the mid-Victorian years, Perkin concluded, this conflict had been resolved in favor of the entrepreneurial middle class, and so Britain became the first “viable class society” in the world. It was class-conscious, but not divided by class conflict. And it was dominated by the laissez-faire ideology of manufacturers and businessmen.
In his latest book, Perkin begins by describing the years between 1880 and 1914 as witnessing “the zenith of class society.” Segregation by income, status, appearance, health, education, and employment was at its height, and politics also depended more on class than ever before. Most landowners and businessmen, frightened by the prospect of Home Rule for Ireland, and worried by economic depression, threw in their lot with the Conservatives, while the large increase in trade-union membership and the founding of the Labour party, portended a new militancy among many working men. The result was a bitter and protracted battle between capital and labor that began with the “new unionism” of the late 1880s, was much intensified in the industrial disputes of the early 1910s, and was only resolved after the General Strike of 1926, which for Perkin constituted “the crisis of class society.” At the same time, the professional middle classes were also growing both in numbers and in confidence. They took up such radical causes as land reform and municipal socialism. They joined the Fabian Society and captured the leadership of the Edwardian Liberal party. And many of them, like the young William Beveridge, were strongly in favor of the welfare reforms that were enacted by the government between 1905 and 1914.
In fact, Perkin argues, the crisis of the old class society was successfully surmounted, and in that process, the new professional society itself effectively came into being—a society dominated by a noncapitalist class of social commentators and trained experts who were selected and rewarded by merit rather than by the market. This was partly because World War I greatly increased the power of the state, and thus the power of the administrators. Then, too, by the late 1920s, the old-style class war had very largely been given up, as businessmen, trades unionist leaders, and government representatives tacitly agreed to cooperate in running the country on the basis of their increasingly shared ideals of professional disinterest.
In politics, the old aristocratic elite was in irrevocable decline, and the middle classes had emphatically taken over, as evidenced by the dominance of such essentially nonpatrician prime ministers as Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. In business, the rise of the corporate economy meant the disappearance of the traditional owner-capitalist and the advent of a new breed of salaried manager. And even among the working class, the trades union leaders tended to resemble their new-style employees in attitudes and outlook. Most of these men came from comfortable backgrounds, neither very rich nor very poor, and had been educated at public schools. The only real difference between them was that one group of professionals were essentially the servants of the state, while the others worked in the private sector.
According to Perkin, the thirty years after World War II witnessed the zenith of this professional society. As the creators and also the beneficiaries of the Welfare State, the professionals in the public sector proliferated in unprecedented numbers—civil servants, local government officials, doctors and nurses, social workers, teachers and academics. Moreover, as long as the mixed economy continued to grow, with full employment and low inflation, the privately employed professionals—the salaried managers in industry, finance, and commerce—were equally contented.
But during the mid-1970s, this professional society began to fall apart. The energy crisis, stagflation, and growing unemployment undermined the financial basis of the Welfare State, while the arrogant assumptions of superiority among public service employees eventually provoked a backlash in the private sector. And this has been intensified by Mrs. Thatcher, with her celebration of entrepreneurial values, her passionate commitment to the free market, and her hostility to such state-funded institutions as the universities, the civil service, and the BBC. How, exactly, this crisis in professional society will be resolved is unclear.3
As with Perkin’s previous volume, this long-awaited sequel is an audacious and exciting piece of synthesis. He ranges across the most crowded and contested terrain of British history with ease and erudition. His mastery of political, economic, social, and urban history is intimidating. Time and again, he presents familiar subjects in a new context, and thus a new light: the late nineteenth-century land question, the so-called “strange death of Liberal England,” the General Strike of 1926, the politics of Churchill’s wartime coalition, are only a few of these. His argument that the anti-industrial ethos inculcated by the public schools was professional rather than aristocratic in its essence is both original and suggestive. But above all, this book is a genuine example of that all-too-rare genre—a work of social history that deliberately attempts to be a history of society. It encompasses plutocrats and paupers as well as peers and physicians. It provides in vivid set-pieces descriptions of English society among different classes and at different moments—in the 1890s, the 1920s, and the 1960s. It shows how social structures and social classes evolved and decayed over time. It explains social developments in essentially social terms, by describing how the professional classes themselves became the motor of historical change.
Inevitably, any book as bold as this is bound to have its problems. As Thompson’s work reminds us, it is no longer enough to depict late-Victorian England simplistically as a society neatly divided into separate classes. Perkin’s notion of class ideals seems no more convincing in this volume than it did in its predecessor. On several occasions, we are informed that the “professional ideal” “took steps,” “organised assaults,” and “selected social problems.” But this is anthropomorphic metaphor implausibly masquerading as historical explanation. Above all, the central thesis concerning the rise of professionalism can only be sustained by extending the concept so broadly as to rob it of serious explanatory power. At different times we are told that Lord Beaverbrook and Ernest Bevin were professionals, and that women’s liberation and the new morality of the Sixties were products of “the professional ideal of rational discourse.” Moreover, as Perkin coyly admits, it is not clear that the old class society did break down between 1910 and 1926, since “it is exceptionally difficult to discern the emerging threads of professional interest through the remnants of declining class.” In short, what Perkin has really given us in this book is a detailed and informative study of the professions, unconvincingly inflated into a history of British society.
How much historical validation do these three fascinating books lend to the idea of “Victorian values” as put forward by the prime minister? At first glance, it seems that Thompson has produced a remarkably Thatcherite view of the Victorian age, stressing thrift, self-help, sobriety, and respectability, attaching little importance to the influence of the State or the interference of middle-class intellectuals, and proclaiming that Victorian England was indeed a success story. But as a scholar he is far too accomplished and ironic to provide such unsubtle propaganda for the Conservatives’ Central Office. As he subversively notes, those beliefs most commonly described today as “Victorian values” were essentially the product of the nineteenth-century working class—one of the social groups (along with the aristocracy and the intelligentsia) that the prime minister herself most actively dislikes. And if Britain’s nineteenth-century experience tells us anything it is that the attempt by any middle-class ideologue to impose his or her own values on society via government legislation or incessant propaganda is unlikely to succeed. Above all, the society that Thompson describes is in many ways so utterly different from our own—in material life, in its economic and social structures, and in the part played by the State—that it is difficult to believe it can offer any lessons for the Britain of the 1980s.
As a firm believer in the merits and mores of the Welfare State, Lord Briggs is more direct in his refutation of the Thatcherite view of the nineteenth century. For the Victorian Britain he so vividly depicts was neither as abstemious nor as committed to laissez faire nor as economically successful as the prime minister would have us believe. At all levels of society, there were many who loved spending, extravagance, and display: how else, indeed, could all those Victorian things have been created in the first place? Most Victorians also believed that certain essential services (such as the post and the telegraph) should be controlled by the state in the interest of the public, and not be left to private enterprise. Moreover, by the 1880s and 1890s the British economy was already in decline: there was little sign of that flourishing enterprise capitalism that Mrs. Thatcher so much admires. While the artifacts that Victorian England produced may have survived in abundance, it is clear that the “intelligible universes” of attitudes and beliefs to which they originally belonged were exceptionally varied, and often entirely different from the conventional wisdoms that prevail in late twentieth-century Britain.
But as Perkin’s book makes plain, it is not just that Mrs. Thatcher misunderstands “Victorian values” as they actually existed in the nineteenth century: it is also that the recent resurgence of the free-market ideology, so fundamental a part of her political program, has very little to do with the Victorian world of small-business capitalism and working-class self-help with which that notion is most readily and rightly associated. It is not yet clear that Perkin’s sociological analysis of Thatcherism—the backlash of the private-sector professionals against the public-service ethos—is correct. But he is certainly right to point out that in a country where a mere one hundred firms produce one half of the manufacturing output, where a handful of companies dominate each industry, and where individual capitalists and traditional entrepreneurs make up only a small sector of the economy, exhortations to personal thrift, self-help, and respectability are of very questionable relevance. The brand of free enterprise that is in the ascendant in Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain is thus a very different version of capitalism from that which prevailed in the country’s nineteenth-century heyday as “the workshop of the world.”
To conclude from the three books under review that the values and attitudes of the Victorians were more varied and subtle, and less consistent, than Mrs. Thatcher would have us believe is neither very novel nor very surprising. After all, she was trained as a chemist and a lawyer, and has been a professional politician for nearly forty years: she has never claimed to be a historian. But this is not the most important point at issue. For the most significant lesson to be drawn from the prime minister’s ritualistic invocation of the regenerative power of “Victorian values” is that it is but another indication of the very national decline she seeks so ardently to reverse. In civilizations as diverse as the later Roman Empire, medieval Islam, and seventeenth-century Spain, the call to return to the stricter morals, the homelier virtues, and the less corrupt beliefs of an earlier, greater, and purer age, was frequently resorted to by many leaders who valiantly but vainly presided over nations and empires in decline. This is something of which Mrs. Thatcher seems to be unaware. But it is far from clear that Britain under her stewardship is going to prove an exception to this historical rule.
Of course, it is still too soon to know. But this much, at least, seem certain. However admirable such values as thrift, sobriety, self-help, and respectability may be, the relationship between ideology, government, social class, and economic structure is far more complex than Mrs. Thatcher seems to think. It is also clear that the exceptional economic and imperial preeminence which Britain enjoyed during most of the nineteenth century was as much the result of good luck as it was the product of “Victorian values,” and it is idle to suppose that it can ever be recovered or repeated. Quite understandably, the Victorians evolved a variety of beliefs that helped them deal with the burdens and opportunities of global power, and with the benefits and dangers of an industrial economy. But the tasks that face Britain today—adjustment to a diminished position in the world, the reordering of its relations with Europe, and the management of an economy dominated not by small domestic producers but by multinational corporations—are of a very different order, and require the creation and acceptance of a correspondingly different set of values if they are to be successfully accomplished.
Pace Mrs. Thatcher, it is neither desirable nor even possible for late twentieth-century Britain to return to the never-never land of the Victorians. On the contrary, the best way for the country to deal with contemporary circumstances, which only seem much diminished when judged by the altogether exceptional yardstick of the Victorian era, is to step out to the shadows of the nineteenth centur and into the light of common day.
February 15, 1990
For a useful introduction to a rapidly expanding literature, see Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio, XVII (1982). ↩
F.M.L. Thompson, English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (University of Toronto Press, 1963). ↩
The confrontation between the private sector professional (in the person of the industrialist) and the public sector professional (in the person of a temporary university lecturer) is explored, but only fancifully resolved, in David Lodge’s most recent novel, Nice Work (reviewed in the November 23, 1989, issue of The New York Review). ↩