Victorian Consumers

Michael Mason

  • The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900 by F.M.L. Thompson
    Fontana, 382 pp, £5.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 00 686157 1
  • Victorian Things by Asa Briggs
    Batsford, 440 pp, £19.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7134 4519 X

Christianity, in a literal sense, is not true. And every adult citizen, of either sex, is entitled to a vote. In modern Britain both these views are very widely believed. Our society is a secular and democratic one, with secular and democratic ideas running so deep that it is impossible to imagine them being dislodged – impossible to imagine, for example, that any political group that wanted to restore a supreme authority to the Church and to abolish universal suffrage could make the slightest headway. But how can this be? Didn’t the Britain of only 150 years ago have a completely different set of values? How can a reversal of attitudes so extreme and apparently permanent have come about?

There does seem to be a baffling historical problem here, if one thinks of Victorian Britain as a religious and anti-democratic society. But there is a very obvious sense in which such a picture is false. Quite literally, more than half the population doubted Christianity and believed in universal male suffrage, if not in votes for women as well. These dissenters from orthodoxy were not followers of Charles Bradlaugh or even Chartists, but simply the Victorian working class. All the evidence suggests that the average secular and democratic British citizen of the late 20th century, visiting the 19th century in a time machine, would find a congenial atmosphere in respect of these fundamental beliefs most readily – perhaps exclusively – in settings such as the pubs of Manchester or the back-to-back houses of Leeds. Only in these environments did there prevail a deep confidence, neither panicky nor militant, that the doctrines of church and chapel were not to be taken seriously, and that everyone should have a say in who governed the country. Only here were these things axioms, as they are axioms of our modern culture.

Could it be that our late 20th-century values are the legacy, indeed the creation, of the 19th-century working class? This sounds preposterous, but it is perhaps not more preposterous than tracing modern democratic assumptions down the thin track of socialism and Chartism, or modern agnosticism down the even thinner track of the Victorian secularist movement. A Birmingham rector told Lord Ashley in 1842 that the working class, and in particular the industrial working class, had taken over from the gentry as the formers of the nation’s attitudes: ‘the lower orders are so large a class, and so influential, as very markedly to affect, ay, and to go very far towards forming, the character of society. They give a colouring and tone to the sentiments, and opinions, and feelings of the community at large ... Their modes of feeling and thinking run through every class with which they are brought into connection, and spread themselves very extensively even among those with thom they have none immediately, and between whom and themselves few objects of sympathy exist.’

This is an extraordinary and fascinating claim, with radical implications for the historiography of the period. Michael Thompson has had something of the same intuition about Victorian society, and it is one of several themes in his new book which makes this much more than the undergraduate or A-level toolkit which it might appear to be. We know a great deal about the Victorians and this, of course, has not had the coagulating influence on the flow of historical studies which Lytton Strachey predicted. New aspects and even completely fresh subjects continue to give rise to detailed research, and this in turn is incorporated in more general surveys which sometimes, as with The Rise of Respectable Society, break new ground in an interpretative way. The latter recalls most of all a book which is now nearly twenty years old, Geoffrey Best’s Mid-Victorian Britain. Best’s survey had a much smaller chronological range and should perhaps be yoked with its companion volume in the Eric Hobsbawm-edited History of British Society, J.F.C. Harrison’s Early Victorian Britain, for a proper comparison with Thompson’s undertaking: the two books have both been reissued in new editions by Thompson’s publisher, with the Hobsbawm connection dropped.[*] But for intellectual vitality only the Best volume can be appropriately put alongside the new survey. There is a considerable difference of style – Best was effervescent and first-person where Thompson is suave and ex cathedra – but a common power to rethink Victorian social history.

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[*] Mid-Victorian Britain by Geoffrey Best was reissued by Fontana in 1985 (190 pp., £4.50, 0 00 686021 4) and Early Victorian Britain by J.F.C. Harrison in August 1988 (192 pp., £5.95, 0 00 686155 5).