Old Verities

Brian Harrison

  • The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867 by Catherine Gallagher
    Chicago, 320 pp, £23.25, September 1985, ISBN 0 226 27932 4
  • Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography 1830-1914 by Philip Priestley
    Methuen, 311 pp, £14.85, October 1985, ISBN 0 416 34770 3
  • The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers and Vivisection in Edwardian England by Coral Lansbury
    University of Wisconsin Press, 212 pp, £23.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 299 10250 5
  • ‘Orator’ Hunt: Henry Hunt and English Working-Class Radicalism by John Belchem
    Oxford, 304 pp, £25.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 19 822759 0

Suddenly the Victorians have become controversial again. This is not because a new Lytton Strachey has sprung up in our midst, but because Mrs Thatcher – who polarises public opinion more forcibly than any prime minister since Gladstone – appropriates ‘Victorian values’ for herself and her party: ‘those were the values when our country became great,’ she told Brian Walden three years ago. The publication of these four books provides a timely opportunity for testing her claims. Historians, mostly on the left, have so far dismissed them, and even those not on the left rightly worry about the propagandist way in which Thatcher uses history; in a complex world their intellectual fastidiousness jibs at her confident certainties, simple remedies and evangelical tone. But her confident certainties are echoed on the other side: Michael Foot condemns her for praising Victorian values ‘without even a passing comprehension of the human suffering and indignity which the mass of our people had to endure in that pre-democratic age’.

The term ‘Victorian’ is used purely descriptively in the earliest citations that appear in the 1928 volume of the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘of or belonging to, designating, or typical of the reign of Queen Victoria’. The first citation comes from 1875: yet in embracing the term ‘Victorian’ with enthusiasm, Thatcher reverts to an even earlier usage. G.M. Young found Paxton Hood pioneering the term as early as 1851 and in a much less neutral context: Hood saw ‘the Victorian Commonwealth’ as ‘the most wonderful picture on the face of the earth’, for by that year prosperity was becoming the hallmark of an age which saw differentials in wealth as stimulants to enterprise and effort. By the 1890s, however, Young thought that the Early Victorian period had fallen into contempt, and by 1917 John Morley’s Recollections confessed that ‘critics today are wont to speak contemptuously of the mid-Victorian age.’ Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was published in May the following year – a revenge, at least in part, on the Victorian values which he blamed for an agonising war. In all this, the Liberals were avenging themselves on the Right, and Strachey’s assaults probably helped to mould, and were certainly reinforced by, Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1919.

Bertrand Russell read Eminent Victorians when imprisoned for resisting the war: ‘it caused me to laugh so loud that the officer came round to my cell, saying I must remember that prison is a place of punishment.’ A crop of debunking biographies followed. Yet Russell’s response already anticipates the counter-attack against Strachey, for one laughs loudest when one’s most deeply-held values are challenged. Russell had to admit that the Victorians ‘had immense energy, and they had genuinely (in spite of cant) a wish to improve the world, and they did improve it.’ In 1921, Strachey’s Queen Victoria began toning down his critique, and the rapid decline in his reputation began in Cambridge some years before his death, quickly gathered momentum, and during the Thirties spread to London and the United States. It is not surprising that a major figure in the counter-attack was the Conservative G.M. Young. ‘Mr Strachey has much to answer for,’ he wrote in 1932, referring to Strachey’s inferior disciples. Young later recalled that he began on the work that led to his famous Portrait of an Age (1936) ‘in a fit of wrath over what seemed to me a preposterous misreading of the age’.

Young performed a service by denying that all Victorians were ‘Victorian’ in their conduct; he rightly pointed out that ‘Victorianism’ (prudery, earnestness, family-centredness) exists outside Britain during the 19th century, and also in Britain at other periods – during the 17th century, or even in the Regency. Young ‘had always been convinced that Victorianism was a myth’, he tells us: ‘my own difficulty was to find anything on which they agreed.’ Thatcher’s Georgetown speech of 1981 concedes the point; her policies, she says, are ‘neither new nor experimental ... We have discovered the old verities. Individual freedom and responsibility are the springs of our prosperity, as well as the foundations of our moral order.’ Or, as she said last year in a radio phone-in programme: ‘Victorian values aren’t Victorian; they’re really, I think, fundamental eternal truths.’

During the Fifties the growth of ‘labour history’ brought the ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ interpretations of Early Victorian Britain into confrontation in the pages of the Economic History Review, and the Sixties saw controversy carried to new heights of fervour by E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and by bodies such as the Institute of Economic Affairs. By the mid-Seventies Victorian values were becoming a political football. The Labour movement ‘came into being’, Michael Foot wrote in 1983, ‘to vanquish the hard, pinched values of Victorian Britain’.

Must we take sides? No, for both sides are in some sense correct. The Labour movement’s struggles, Foot continued, involved ‘a fight to introduce civilised standards into the world of ruthless, devil-take-the-hind-most individualism’: but Victorian trade unions were more individualist, Victorian employers less so, than Foot and Thatcher respectively would have us believe. Furthermore, Victorians as prominent as Palmerston and Disraeli were never really ‘Victorian’ in conduct. Swinburne repudiated Victorianism in the 1860s, and the Victorians were good at self-criticism: as G.M. Young pointed out, ‘the truth is that much of what we call Victorianism is a picture at second-hand, a satirical picture drawn by the Victorians themselves.’

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