Underneath the Spreading Christmas Tree

Gareth Stedman Jones

  • Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain 1870-1914 by José Harris
    Oxford, 283 pp, £17.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 820412 4

In high criticism, Victorianism is generally presented as the artless antonym of modernity. It fades away anywhere between 1901, the year of Victoria’s death, and 1910, the year of the Post-Impressionist Exhibition (the birth of the modern world, according to Roger Fry); or, more obviously, 1914.

The terms of this contrast were clearly implied in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published in 1918. Of Strachey’s chosen targets, Cardinal Manning was a self-deceiving hypocrite, Dr Thomas Arnold the epitome of earnest Victorianism, who modelled his pedagogic vision on Jehovah’s relations with the Israelites, Florence Nightingale a bedridden female tyrant who drove her devoted male acolytes to early death, and General Gordon an imperial misfit whose religious megalomania was only modulated by bouts of brandy-swilling and hints of pederastic yearning. What each possessed, beyond a titanic will, unflagging energy and singleness of purpose, was a simple-minded conviction of a special personal relationship with the Deity. The Victorians, then, were not quite grown-up. Their extraordinary achievements were the product of a childish unawareness. Their romantic or naturalist aesthetic was just another facet of that innocence.

Historians have recently challenged these stereotypes. There now exists a considerable literature which demonstrates that the familial, conjugal and sexual life of ‘Victorians’ was no more pathological than that of other ages. And, as the Empire is now no more than a dim memory and the institutions which once sustained it – Protestantism and monarchy – seem in irreversible decline, sardonic condescension towards the Victorians has often been replaced by either an awed respect or Betjemanesque nostalgia. Furthermore, the methodological procedures behind the stereotypes of high criticism have been called into question. Sixty years ago G.M. Young wrote unselfconsciously about the ‘Victorian mind’ in his well-known Portrait of an Age, by which he really meant the mentality of its senior civil servants.

Since then, historians have become more wary. Although they have continued to write about ‘Victorian people’, it is largely without any overarching idea of the ‘Victorian’ or resort to more grandiose conceptions of a ‘Victorian frame of mind’, a phrase still used by literary critics. In part, this is because social history has made historians more aware of the dangers of projecting the experiences of a fragment of the intelligentsia or the political élite onto the population at large. More simply, it is because the idea of the Victorian age as a historically meaningful unity was flawed from the start. As Young himself remarked, back in 1936, it would have been neater had Victoria rather than Albert died in 1861, since the 1860s marked a dividing line between two quite distinct periods.

The extent of this division and the deceptiveness of the whole notion of the ‘Victorian’ are powerfully emphasised in Jose Harris’s book. In 1871, as she points out, England could still be regarded as a predominantly rural country; two-thirds of the population still lived in towns with populations of less than ten thousand and farm labour was still the nation’s largest occupation. But by 1914, more than half the population lived in towns of over a hundred thousand. London had doubled in size to over eight million, agriculture had shrivelled to occupy only 8 per cent of the population and more than six million people had emigrated. Urbanisation after 1870 coincided with rising life expectancy, universal primary education, greater literacy and increased living standards for the majority of wage-earners. For the first time, hospitals were no longer simply places where the poor went to die. Medical charities began to raise funds on the streets and the prestige of doctors rose exponentially.

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