Sixty or seventy years ago the word “Victorian” was used by many cultivated people as a term of abuse: it seemed self-evident that the Victorians’ art was either hideous or odiously sentimental, and their prudishness a moral deformity. Walking through Kensington Gardens, the philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood had a revelation: as he looked at the Albert Memorial, he decided that ugliness could be a spiritual evil; not to be disgusted by this monstrosity was to be stunted as a human being. Yet in the 1960s it was being used on posters to lure tourists to London. The superior persons who sneered at the Victorians may have suspected, at moments, that time would exercise its usual softening effect, and that as the years went by, the Victorian ghastliness would join ducking stools and Jacobean screens and the six wives of Henry VIII among the jumble of the past—things not admirable or beautiful, but stored up as quaint parts of the national memory.
But they would have been astounded to learn that the Victorians were to become objects of envy, their very name a magic word. Mrs. Thatcher called for a return not to bourgeois values or traditional values but to Victorian values, and sexy lingerie is sold as Victoria’s Secret. The process by which attitudes have modulated from hostility to amused contempt to irony to affectionate humor and finally to an openly acknowledged nostalgia is part of the psychopathology of the later twentieth century, and when the historians of the future want to understand us, they will do well to examine our outlook upon the past.
Patricia Anderson’s When Passion Reigned is a symptom of this cultural shift. Her moment of revelation, she tells us, came in the British Library, where a publication of 1850 unfolded to her the public, exuberant sexuality of the age. Her argument is that the Victorians were much more open in talking about sexual matters than has traditionally been supposed, and that their approach to sex was eager and healthy. But beyond this claim—which is largely a matter of establishing the facts—there lies a further, bolder claim: that Victorian passions were much more exciting than ours are. “There is a sense,” she suggests, “in which sex today is a shadow of its Victorian self”; sex then “was robust and passionate. It expressed itself through the entire being—through intense physical sensations, fervid emotion, overwhelming pleasure, and release.”
The worst thing about When Passion Reigned is its title; it is a chirpy, unpretentious, occasionally vulgar book, always warm-hearted and for the most part sensible. Historians have been sweeping out the old dusty notions about Victorian repression for some years now and scholars may say that Anderson’s story is not new; but she would not claim to be original, and she marshals her case well. She recalls us to the unabashedly lewd doubleentendres of the late Victorian musichall and the lush eroticism of popular serial fiction in the mid-century, exemplified in best-selling magazines like Reynolds’s News. Tellingly, she points to the commonness of nude bathing, and the lack of inhibition with which spectators, including maiden ladies of a certain age, are reported to have watched it.
But she does not want to dispel the myth of prudishness only to make the Victorians prurient instead: her argument is not that they were like us, but that they managed passion better. Though any generalization about millions of individuals must allow many counterexamples, there is a fair case to be made. One large exception stands out: young women of the higher classes were often surrounded by a stifling overprotectiveness which purported to guard them from anything that could bring a blush to their maiden cheeks. Such close supervision seems to have increased along with the growth of an urban bourgeoisie; girls growing up in country villages must have had a pretty fair understanding of life’s realities. On the other hand, much of the reticence or circumlocution in Victorian language, which people used to take as signs of repression or hypocrisy, was rather a concern for civility, or even a respect for forces too impressively powerful to be lightly spoken of. And as Peter Gay shrewdly suggests in The Naked Heart, the Victorian concern for privacy created a secure space within which the inner life could freely expand and couples’ achieve frankness and intimacy.
Anderson pays tribute to Gay as one of those who have shown how bourgeois Victorians combined passion and respectability. In earlier works he has argued for the openness with which they talked or thought about physical desire; now his latest book examines the extent to which they explored their minds and feelings. It is part of the huge and exhilaratingly ambitious project which he has entitled The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud; the scope of the project is vast, encompassing Britain, France, the German-speaking countries, and North America in a series of volumes (this is the fourth). Perhaps The Naked Heart is best understood as part of a larger whole, for in itself it seems to ramble through a somewhat miscellaneous collection of topics: how people listened to music, the re-enchantment of the world (that is, the cult of nature and the reaction against rationalism), autobiography, historiography, fiction, self-portraits, and letters and diaries.
However, Gay tries to unite these rather disparate subjects by presenting them as different examples of “the naked heart.” What does he mean by this? From time to time he glosses the phrase by other expressions—the “cult of self-awareness,” “the great voyage to the interior that is the theme of this volume,” “the bourgeois struggles for emotional transparency,” “a century-long effort to map inner space”—but the truth is that he allows the meaning to slither around a good deal. Sometimes it means introversion in the sense in which Emerson spoke of an “age of Introversion,” “embarrassed with second thoughts” and “infected with Hamlet’s unhappiness.” Sometimes it means self-examination, in accordance with the old Delphic maxim, “Know yourself,” sometimes self-exposure, the revelation of emotional intimacies to public gaze. And sometimes it seems to mean a concern with the irrational side of mental experience and what Gay calls a “preoccupation with the state of one’s nerves”: for him Freud comes as the culmination of the trends that he describes. Not all these meanings fit together: while one suggests an age of anxiety, another supposes fearless self-confidence. But perhaps we can say, in loose and general terms, that Gay is dealing with a range of phenomena that cluster around ideas of individualism and inner experience.
Eccentrically he announces that he will use “Victorian” and “nineteenthcentury” as synonyms. But this is absurd; as Alice suggested to Humpty-Dumpty, there are limits to how far one can twist words to one’s own purposes. Nothing will persuade us that the Eroica Symphony, Emma, and Faust are Victorian works; we shall not recognize Keats as a Victorian poet or Schubert as a Victorian composer. The reason that the label “Victorian” gets applied not only to Britain but to America and even continental Europe is that people have found it useful to think of the years from the 1830s to about 1900 as a single if changing period. In a number of places even Gay himself seems to be using “Victorian” the way the rest of us do. And after all, his whole multivolume project is subtitled “Victoria to Freud,” not “Napoleon to Freud.” It seems tolerably clear that his discussions of the early nineteenth century are a prelude to his central theme, and, similarly, that when he talks about the early twentieth century he is surveying the aftermath.
In principle, it seems entirely plausible that the post-Romantic age should be fascinated by the exploration of the inner self, and it is therefore surprising how many of Gay’s examples point in a direction opposite to that of his thesis. This is owing in part to his fairmindedness, to the range of evidence that he deploys, and to his awareness of the complexity of the data: he is sensitive enough to warn us frequently of the counterexamples to be found, the qualifications that need to be made. Nonetheless, he does seem to lose his way at times. We may wonder what a chapter on historiography is doing in this volume. It is entitled “Usable Pasts,” a good topic in itself. We expect some detailed analysis of (perhaps) Michelet, Guizot, Macaulay, and the Whig tradition—historians, that is, who believed strongly that the past could teach people about the present, or who treated history as the expression of a national consciousness. How odd, then, that Gay’s chapter should focus chiefly upon Ranke, that high priest of academic dispassion. Gay finds himself concluding that nineteenth-century historians were increasingly successful at subordinating preference and prejudice to the impartial quest for understanding—not so much the naked heart as the open mind.
Gay writes easily and clearly, throwing out a wealth of ideas and observations. But there are perils in this fluency: the book reads as though he has never blotted a word or paused to cut out an ill-judged thought. He suggests that once the first excitements of the French Revolution were over the Romantics withdrew from an interest in politics in favor of the cult of private experience. What, we may ask, of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Lamartine, Hugo? Had there been an earlier century in which so many imaginative writers were so keenly engaged with political action or political ideas (not to mention historians like Macaulay, Guizot, and Thiers)?
Gay has to concede the political involvement of Lamartine (who after all headed a government) but still struggles to salvage his thesis. When the Romantics did talk or write about politics, he maintains, they were often indulging in “little more than emphatic self-expression”—in other words they were cultivating the self when they engaged with politics and when they did not. Wordsworth’s reasons for supporting the French Revolution were “a poet’s reasons, literally picturesque”—which means that he liked writing verses about rural destitution. But in the next paragraph Gay realizes that this judgment is ungenerous, more or less withdraws it, and then describes Wordsworth as “a poet enmeshed in politics.” Round and round we go, eventually reaching the unexceptionable conclusion that writers in this period came in all sorts. But if he had stopped to reconsider his first thought, he need never have got so entangled. Part of his mistake is to confuse an interest in politics with radicalism, which leads him to overlook the conservative strand in Romantic thought.
Autobiography looks as though it should be a fruitful field for him. He has to allow that the great example of autobiography as self-exposure comes in the previous century, with Rousseau’s Confessions, but he answers that all nineteenth-century readers “saw [Rousseau’s] unsparing disclosures as a looming presence.” Did they follow his example, though? Gay’s own account suggests that they did not. Citing an essay written in 1899 by the Danish critic Georg Brandes, he concludes that “for Brandes…autobiographies were exercises in apologetics, self-advertisement, and self-pity,” and he has to agree himself that most of the memoirs composed by writers, politicians, and military men were designed to recommend their authors to the world.
In some intriguing pages he examines the autobiographies of Hans Christian Andersen and the German playwright Friedrich Hebbel, suggesting that their apparently honest accounts are full of concealments and prettifying sentimentalities. What then has become of that exposure of the inner self? Gay’s reply is that unconscious distortions and conscious deceptions are all “part of the…autobiographer’s truth,” revealing the writer’s personality in spite of himself; he cites Leslie Stephen’s ironic observation that “an autobiography, alone of all books, may be more valuable in proportion to the amount of misrepresentation which it contains.” True enough; but Gay’s use of this truth is a fudge, or a muddle. Of course, a smug memoir may expose its author as a pompous fool, but such unintended consequences have nothing to do with a search for self-understanding or self-revelation.
Gay still wants to see autobiographies as examples of the “bourgeois struggles for emotional transparency,” and he fails to make his case. He has indeed set himself a tough challenge, for he maintains that the bourgeoisie as a whole was searching for inwardness and transparency, and to make good on that claim it is not enough to show that a few highbrows or bohemians disclosed themselves openly. In fact, he does not substantiate even that more limited proposition, offering very few examples of intentional self-disclosure. He gives a good account of Father and Son, Edmund Gosse’s story of his upbringing in the Exclusive sect of the Plymouth Brethren (actually a twentieth-century book, though it deals with nineteenth-century events). This is indeed a masterpiece, but though it is certainly a fine account of childhood experience and gives a vivid picture of Philip Gosse, the father of the book’s title, it does not give us much impression of the individual character of the young Edmund, nor was it meant to.
Curiously enough, Gay seems to underestimate the self-knowledge that pervades perhaps his best example, John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography. Though he justly praises the book’s “amalgam of reserve and frankness,” he suggests that the sober tone is “a defensive screen concealing persistent inner conflicts,” and that Mill is ingenuous in the way that he lets out his pre-occupation with his father. On the contrary, Mill appears unsparingly honest in examining his life and character, and he knows what he is doing. A certain stiffness in his prose led some of his contemporaries to regard the book as the autobiography of a calculating machine, Quite rightly, Gay will have nothing of this: the philosopher’s dogged earnestness is the oddly moving medium through which an affectionate, even passionate nature, starved in youth of its proper food, expresses itself. But one may still feel that Gay has taken Mill’s angularity for naïveté, and that he is too easily patronizing.
If his examples are typical, the nineteenth century seems, after all, not to be an age notable for self-revelation. If he is right in saying that the number of autobiographies greatly increased at this time, then perhaps we should see the nineteenth century as an age of self-assertion instead. He notes that autobiographies are likely to affect the practice of biography also, and cites Froude’s life of Carlyle as an example of the new candor. But the significance of Froude’s life was that its frankness was unprecedented and shocking: uncharacteristic of its time, it looks forward to the biographical inquisitions of the twentieth century. As Gay himself observes, Victorian biographies, often designed as spurs to virtue, were notoriously hagiographic; Lytton Strachey was to lament their “tone of tedious panegyric.”
Fiction concerns Gay because of its pursuit of psychological truth. It is natural, therefore, to find him considering Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth and Henry James’s minute analyses of motive. It is more surprising that he should devote a fair amount of space to Victorian trash fiction, which as he well knows is an escapist literature quite unconcerned with the inner life, and strange, in a different way, that he should give the place of honor in this chapter to Dickens. He does indeed cite James’s dictum that Dickens is “the greatest of superficial novelists”; in more flattering terms we might say that he is a superb imaginer and observer of the external world. But it has often been said that Dickens’s great comic inventions have no insides: one cannot conceive what it would be like to have the mind of Micawber, Uriah Heep, or Pecksniff.
Gay puts much emphasis on David Copperfield, but that is rather like basing the case for Mozart’s greatness on his having composed a very few minor-key works that might seem to look forward to Beethoven. David Copperfield is certainly a wonderful picture of childhood but it is unique in Dickens’s work: only one other of his novels is written wholly in the first person, and none draws in the same degree on his own life for its material. If Dickens is a quintessential Victorian novelist, the search for inner experience is not at the center of Victorian fiction.
A better tactic might be to suggest that Dickens, though the most popular novelist of his time, was one of the most atypical. His symbolic and fantastic inventions—what Gay with effective anachronism calls his magical realism—are eccentric in the great epoch of the naturalistic novel, the age of Flaubert, George Eliot, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky (despite the influence which Dickens exercised on the two great Russians, Dostoyevsky especially). Perhaps the ways in which he is atypical can shed some light on Patricia Anderson’s topic as well. Everyone agrees that he gives an enfeebled picture of physical love (unfortunately Thackeray is not much better, though Henry Esmond is an exception), and this weakness has probably colored many readers’ idea of the general Victorian attitude to sexuality. By contrast, Jane Austen can have Darcy tell Elizabeth Bennet, in effect, that though it will be a degradation for him to marry her, he is so desperate to get her into bed that he means to do so regardless. Admittedly, Pride and Prejudice is pre-Victorian (to all except Gay), but this instance does at least demonstrate that the chastest language can carry an intense erotic charge.
Gay also examines self-portraits. Here again the reader may have a mixed reaction, admiring the range of Gay’s evidence while being puzzled by the use to which he puts it. He has to admit that self-portraiture has been important in painting since the Renaissance, and that the supreme explorer of this genre was Rembrandt, back in the seventeenth century. In one of the most interesting sections of the book he discusses how German writers of nationalist bent tried to annex Rembrandt as one of their own, and how Dürer was set up as an embodiment of the pure German soul, this being exemplified above all in the most famous of his self-portraits. The trouble is, though, that this particular portrait is not an exercise in ruthless self-examination; it is indeed a secular icon, and Dürer notoriously represents himself not only as remarkably beautiful, but in a manner that suggests the traditional image of Jesus. What the picture signified, on Gay’s own account, was surely not inwardness but more or less the opposite—the outward, physical expression of German manliness and German art.
We might indeed question whether self-portraiture was a marked feature of nineteenth-century art at all, at least until the advent of the post-impressionists, such as van Gogh, on the threshold of modernism. This was after all the great century of landscape painting, and too many of the leading artists or most influential movements of the time seem to have had little or no interest in the self-portrait—Constable, Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Barbizon School, Monet and the Impressionists. Once again, Gay seems at least half aware of the difficulty, and he counters by suggesting that nineteenth-century art as a whole is a kind of self-revelation; thus he comments on Caspar David Friedrich that his “true subject matter was his inner self” and that “his oeuvre amounted to a single-minded exercise in religious autobiography.” One problem here is posed by Friedrich’s limitations as an artist; his symbolic landscapes are often stagy and his rising reputation in recent years owes something to the need to fill a gap both in art history and in the art market—the lack of a great German Romantic painter. What his pictures mainly reveal about himself, at least to this viewer, is that he had a sentimentally theatrical mind. But even if Friedrich had possessed a richer imagination, the problem would remain that Gay has again rescued his thesis at the cost of reducing it to triviality; for if landscape paintings are to be treated as species of self-revelation—and Gay discusses naturalists like Constable and Corot as well as the symbolism of Friedrich and Böcklin—the same will hold good for almost any art of any kind, and we shall have learned nothing distinctive about the Victorian century.
Possibly the hope for the “re-enchantment of the world” that was expressed by some nineteenth-century writers and poets may be illuminating here. The cult of nature for itself, the search to describe or paint it as it truly is, was a desire to escape from the self into something larger than the self, majestically independent of mankind’s concerns, even indifferent to them. As such, the cult of nature may seem another argument against Gay’s thesis, but perhaps not so. Maybe we should see the quest to know both more about inner experience and about the worship of nature as countervailing forces that balanced one another: the more introspective one became, the greater the relief of flinging oneself on to nature’s bosom. In the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins the two tendencies, inward and outward, are finally reconciled. The human soul seeks within itself for God, and God expresses himself in the beauty of the physical world.
Perhaps the reality is something like this. The nineteenth was indeed the bourgeois century; that is to say, though the bourgeoisie had existed for centuries, this was the age in which its members finally claimed a large share of political power and cultural authority. The embourgeoisement of culture might seem in the short term to be a victory for caution and conventionality, but, as an assault upon the old fortress of aristocracy, it made a breach in the walls which could not be closed again. The ancient certainties of class privilege and traditional faith were eroded; everything was now open to challenge or question; it is an era of diversity, even of extremes. This is the age of respectability and the vie de bohème, of liberalism and Marx, of revivalism and the avant-garde. So equally the nineteenth century is an age both of tremulous introversion and of ferocious industrializing and empire-building energy. “The second-rate superior minds of a cultivated age…are usually in exaggerated opposition against its spirit,” said an irritated Mill; more kindly, we might say that the formidable dynamism of the Victorian entrepreneurs and statesmen demanded a counterweight. We should see the pursuit of inwardness not as a predominant characteristic of the culture of the time but as one competing element; against Matthew Arnold we may set Macaulay, or against Meredith Dickens.
This is also the age in which highbrow and middlebrow culture start markedly to diverge. Here Gay is in a quandary. In some places he seems well aware that the attitudes of highbrow writers may be remote from those of society at large; in others he appears to insist that what he is describing is indeed the bourgeois experience in general. There are a few figures who might have been summoned in aid of such a claim: Tennyson, for instance, whose poetry of inner doubts, questioning, and anxious self-examination enjoyed an enormous bourgeois readership. He should surely have found a place in The Naked Heart; but then Gay’s inclusions and omissions are haphazard throughout.
The result is a book whose best qualities are its diversity and its particular observations, and which is especially interesting when it explores less familiar material (whereas what it has to say about Goethe or Dickens is frankly commonplace). Henry James said that Middlemarch was a treasure house of detail but an indifferent whole. It would underestimate Gay to say the same of him, just as James underestimated George Eliot; but it might fairly be said that in writing a work which is most valuable for its ambitious scope and multiplied particulars, he has indeed written a Victorian book.
November 30, 1995