Unshockable Victorians

John Bayley

  • The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Vol. II: The Tender Passion by Peter Gay
    Oxford, 490 pp, £19.50, June 1986, ISBN 0 19 503741 3

In any century feelings of superiority about the one before are accompanied or succeeded by feelings of nostalgia, even envy. Fifty years ago we laughed at the Victorians: now we wish we could be more like them. They made life more exciting for themselves than we do. They made sex far more exciting. Or so it may now seem. We wouldn’t actually want to be Victorians, but we love now to understand them to the point almost of identification.

So it appears from all the books about them, and their popularity. The popular class for this fond backward look is the Bourgeois. Once mocked and despised, it now comes retrospectively into its own: its complacencies, tyrannies and inhibitions now seem positively seductive. Peter Gay proposes to write a series of six volumes on ‘The Bourgeois Experience’, of which this is the second, and it is clear that he is on the way to sales and success. Shrewdly, the first two volumes deal respectively with sex and love as parts of the bourgeois experience: later instalments may not prove so interesting to the ordinary reader.

To get at the inner life of bourgeois culture Gay proposes to use ‘history informed by psychoanalysis’ – that is to say, a mild version of the scholarly techniques of inquiry used by historians like Braudel and Zeldin, combined with a fairly straightforward Freudian analysis of the results. In accordance with this historical method, obscure diaries, memoirs and records are extensively used, and certainly tend to be more interesting than the already well-worn generalisations about the love life of 19th-century bourgeois society – repression, persecution, prostitution, the marriage market, hypocrisy, respectability ... Nothing in the book is very new except individuals and details, and the facts are considerably more interesting than the exposition and the criticism. But that is natural enough. At the same time, Gay is enthusiastic about the culture he describes and good at putting ideas about it into the reader’s head.

Where the feelings are concerned, the models or metaphors we now take for granted are of inhibition and repression leading to liberation and release. Or failing to do so: remaining paralysed, frozen, hung up. The idea that personal inhibitions and social proscriptions may themselves be releasing, may offer to the feelings far more in the way of individual excitement and drama than the stereotyped patterns of modern permissiveness, is one that our culture finds it hard to take. Some such idea, none the less, seems to lurk at the back of Peter Gay’s presentation. In commenting at some length on the journal of Alfred Dodd, a student in 1836 at Washington College, Hartford, Connecticut, he remarks on the fact that Dodd, ‘discovering his capacious gift for erotic investment in the first days of Queen Victoria’s reign, loved men and women indiscriminately without undue self-laceration, without visible private guilt or degrading public shame’. So of course might the Dodds of today, but Gay suggests – and indeed the diary entries show it – that Dodd’s feelings were an inspiration to him, a source of psychic energy and selfhood, offering a limitless vista of indefinable emotional satisfaction rather than being shrunk or diminished, as they might be today, in the bored world of the clinically commonplace. (The term ‘shrink’ for analyst is a tired old joke that reveals none the less what the patient has come to feel and assume about the process.)

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