Sire of the Poor

Linda Colley

  • Victorian Values and 20th-Century Condescension by Gertrude Himmelfarb
    Centre for Policy Studies, 15 pp, £2.20, August 1987, ISBN 1 870265 10 6
  • Peel and the Victorians by Donald Read
    Blackwell, 330 pp, £27.50, August 1987, ISBN 0 631 15725 5
  • Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England by Olive Anderson
    Oxford, 475 pp, £40.00, July 1987, ISBN 0 19 820101 X

More than fifty years have elapsed since G.M. Young published his splendidly suggestive survey of Victorian England, Portrait of an Age, and the confidence and command which enabled that book to be written seem to become ever more elusive. The exponential growth of the academic profession, and the sheer volume of relevant material and accumulated images, have ensured that our detailed knowledge about this period has advanced enormously since Young’s day. But knowledge does not always bring understanding. At present, some three hundred and fifty books and articles on 19th-century Britain appear every year. Most of them concentrate on only a limited portion of the period, and on only a particular locality or class or occupation or gender or individual within it. Like Humpty Dumpty, Victorian England seems at times to be in too many pieces ever to be put together again.

Yet there are signs that micro-history is losing some of its appeal. Political history, so long overshadowed by social history, is markedly resurgent. As a result, more attention is now being given to the state and to the nation as valuable units of study. At the same time, scholars are becoming more willing to tackle the long chronological sweep. Insofar as these developments enhance our appreciation of the broader processes of the past, they are much to be welcomed. But they also need to be watched. For there is little doubt that behind some of this revived enthusiasm for collective, national and impressionistic history there is a political rather than a scholarly imperative. Peregrine Worsthorne made this clear when he argued recently for a new version of Britain’s past: an ambitious but strictly selective saga of ‘how the nation come to govern itself in a particular way and according to particular ideas of right and wrong’. The implication being that such ideas are monolithic, and that they are shared by those who are articulate and in authority, and by those who are neither.

This, in essence, is the position which the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb adopts in Victorian Values, an address delivered last year to the Centre for Policy Studies. Like all of her work, it is shrewd and well-written. Historians, she argues, are being condescending when they dismiss ‘thrift, prudence, diligence, temperance, self-reliance’ as exclusively bourgeois virtues imposed on the Victorian poor as a measure of social control. True, Victorian middle-class reformers were eager to create a ‘moral citizenry’. But many workers responded to their efforts because they too genuinely aspired to these qualities, and believed with Samuel Smiles that they were a recipe for individual advancement. This is fair enough, and is indeed already something of a historical commonplace on this side of the Atlantic. More problematic, however, is Himmelfarb’s contention that ‘a single standard of values was conducive to a single culture, a single society – and a single nation’. Can we really assume that because some labouring men and women adhered to these ‘Victorian values’, the majority did so? Can we indeed believe that Victorian England possessed a consensual value-system, and that all sectors interpreted these values in the same way? Did self-reliance mean the same thing to a seamstress, a Chartist, a servant, a banker, and a landowner?

Some answers to these questions are suggested in these recent books by Olive Anderson and Donald Read. Both are excellent pioneering studies. Both are concerned with modes of right and wrong behaviour. Both attempt to pose questions about Victorian England at large. And both enhance our capacity to probe the values of this abundant and complex society by addressing the same fundamental issues: how did Victorians seek to live and how did they wish to die?

Superficially, Read’s book is the more conventional. Yet its form – a study in reputation – is rarely adopted by British historians, and its purpose is an intriguing one. Sir Robert Peel was the son of a leading industrial capitalist, gentrified by his triumphant progress through Harrow and Christ Church, and by his family’s purchase of a landed estate. Like many other nouveaux riches in early 19th-century Britain, he became a Tory MP and swiftly demonstrated a marked capacity for Parliamentary business, administrative efficiency, political stamina and profound conservatism. In the 1820’s he argued repeatedly against state intervention to rescue economic victims, advocated whipping and the treadmill for criminal offenders, instituted a Metropolitan police force, and resolutely opposed Parliamentary Reform, manhood suffrage and the ballot. Nonetheless, as Read shows, Peel’s death in July 1850 provoked nationwide mourning. Unlike earlier great statesmen – Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox – Peel attracted a cult following which transcended party and transcended class. Why?

Read suggests two main reasons. First, Early Victorian technology allowed ideas and opinions to penetrate the nation more extensively and more rapidly than ever before. An evening speech by Peel against the Corn Laws in 1846 could be in print in London by 5 a.m. the next day, and – thanks to the railways and a massive press network – could reach Scotland seven hours later. Second, Peel could seem to represent what Cobden called ‘the idea of the Age’. His seriousness, fervent religion and evident domestic bliss appealed to the moral and the respectable. His reputation as a moderate reformer of archaic abuses attracted those who cherished both stability and efficiency. And he managed to beguile the humanitarians while keeping radicals at bay. His re-introduction of the income tax in 1842 – time of massive labour unrest and economic hardship – allowed him to be viewed as a premier who burdened the prosperous so as to benefit the poor.

Most importantly, Peel avoided disillusioning his many supporters outside Parliament by being lucky in the issues that he faced and by dying early. He always opposed any extension of democracy or any concession that would seriously damage the landed élite. But his repeal of the Corn Laws in defiance of the majority of Conservative MPs led many to regard him as the champion of cheap bread and the enemy of vested interests. When his party subsequently rebelled and forced his resignation, his ‘sacrifice’ was reported in almost messianic terms. He was, declared one newspaper, ‘the sire of the poor and the humble/The monarch without any state’; his only real party, pronounced another paper at his death, ‘was the nation’.

There is no doubt that for numerous ordinary men and women, Peel’s conduct and reputation did enhance the moral legitimacy of the British state. But how far was this because he personified Early Victorian values? The evidence offered by Read is mixed. Peel was certainly a national figure, but he does not seem to have appealed to all of the different sectors of his society to the same degree or for the same reasons. Middle and working-class spokesmen might commend his courage in placing national interests before partisan imperatives. But many Tory landowners and ordinary fanners believed that he had acted deceitfully. He had led the party pledged to support the Corn Laws and then used Whig assistance to repeal them. And he had done so despite the known wishes of most Tory MPs and despite his own previous support of Protection. When Peel died, screaming with pain after a fall from his horse, one aristocrat remarked: ‘he lived a coward, and he has died one.’ Read does not quote this: but he should have done. It shows just how far Peel had out-raged conventional patrician values. He had placed firm executive control before the duty owed to honourable connections in Parliament. To this extent, he was a radical, indeed a middle-class figure.

Conversely, much of Peel’s plebeian and bourgeois support was due to the fact that he seemed to be departing from élite standards, from the practices of Old Corruption. Punch commented that his refusal of titles and honours for himself and his family was a blow against the peerage ‘which must fall one day’; while Chartist papers commended him – quite wrongly, in fact – for eroding landed privilege and power. How far these views extended we do not know. Read makes admirable use of printed ephemera and of the stray adulatory letters working men and women sent to Peel. But he does not examine who the 400,000 individuals were who contributed to ‘The Working Men’s Memorial of Gratitude to Sir Robert Peel’ between 1850 and 1854, and he does not discuss how far popular dislike of the Police in the 1830s and 1840s redounded against their founder. Is it perhaps a comment on Victorian values that Robert Peel’s most durable legacy to popular culture was the word ‘bobby’? Certainly it is indicative that when the later Victorians constructed a pantheon of national heroes, they looked to Alfred the Great, to Cromwell, to Nelson and to the Queen herself – but not to Peel. What he had striven for – free trade, economy, resistance to the claims of party and demos – was valued much less by the 1880s. His life after death had been brief indeed.

It is this later Victorian period upon which Olive Anderson concentrates in her massively-researched and path-breaking study of suicide. She divides her epic exploration into four clearly-demarcated sections. First, she examines the statistics of suicide published by the Registrar-General from 1858 onwards – the age, gender and geography of those who chose to die. Second, she re-creates some individual experiences of suicide in different parts of London in the 1860s and 1910s, and in rural East Sussex. Third, she uses ballads, novels and plays to reconstruct Victorian attitudes towards suicide. Finally, she assesses the official response, the sanctions of the Church and the Law, and the preventative measures adopted by philanthropists, environmental reformers and doctors. The result is a formidably intelligent book which makes few concessions to the casual reader, and none at all to theorists and mythologists.

Anderson has a brisk way with critics. She cheerfully admits that the official statistics are marred by the under-registration of respectable and élite suicides, and by the whims of the three hundred or more coroners who sat in judgment on suspicious deaths. Nonetheless, she argues rightly that the statistics do illumine the relative incidence of suicide. They also shatter some commonly-held assumptions. The suicide rate was always comparatively high in South-East England, but it was not uniquely high in London in this period. Nor did suicides multiply in the shadow of the dark satanic mills. Young men under 35, and all women except those between 20 and 24, were more likely to kill themselves in the countryside or in quiet Trollopian county towns, than if they lived in industrial cities. Elderly men, however, were more at risk in big towns. Job opportunities were sparse and the workhouse was often repellent. Old women, by contrast, accepted incarceration more passively or found a niche for themselves as housekeepers and child-minders. In this, as in so many other respects, experience of Victorian England (and Victorian values) was determined by gender.

Anderson also shows that there was a marked disparity between suicide as it really was and some of the stereotypes on offer in popular literature and song. Charles Dickens’s Martha might gaze despairingly at the river wondering if it would atone for her shame. But prostitutes who did drown themselves were more likely to be ill or alcoholic than penitent. Nor did unrequited passion drive many to an early grave. Somerset Maugham, who completed his medical training in Edwardian London, at least got this right. In Of Human Bondage he had a nurse remark that lack of cash rather than lack of love drove men and women over the brink: and this seems usually to have been the case. Another crucial factor was access to the means of suicide. Both the growing availability of carbolic acid as a household disinfectant, and the proliferation of railway trains that could express one to oblivion, helped to increase the suicide rate at the end of the 19th century.

But Anderson is far too good a historian to explain such a complex and variegated phenomenon by reference to material determinants alone. She points out, for example, that Wales had a consistently lower rate of suicide than did England. Since this remained the case even when that country became more urbanised and industrialized – in short, more like its affluent neighbour – it seems clear that different cultural expectations, religious practices and kinship structures all influenced the decision to die.

Yet, in the end, suicide is essentially a matter of individual choice and thus a window into ideas of right and wrong. Anderson of course recognises this. But her sturdy refusal to speculate and decision to evade ‘the classic sociological questions’ inevitably circumscribe her treatment of the issues involved. Most obviously, her neglect of élite suicides means that we get little discussion of how far death was preferred to dishonour. How many Victorians played Russian roulette or fought duels knowing that they would lose? And should we regard such practices as suicide? It was the rich who had the most access to guns and laudanum; it was they – and not the urban proletariat – who had the privacy and the leisure in which to engineer death; and it was élite males who were most familiar with the Classics, and with the deaths of Antony, Brutus, Cato and Socrates. How far, then, did concern for reputation drive prosperous men and women in this period to die prematurely rather than to live well? At present we simply do not know.

What Anderson does show is that beliefs about the rectitude or otherwise of suicide varied according to time, place and the individuals concerned, and that ‘the handful of clergymen, intellectuals and writers whose views have repeatedly been equated with 19th-century ideas were not necessarily representative on this any more than on any other issue. It is probable that most Victorians still regarded suicide as a sin. Yet fear of hell, clerical displeasure and improper burial was a much less pervasive restraint on suicide in this period than it had been in Tudor and Smart England. And if self-destruction was still generally condemned in theory, those who succumbed to it were often pitied in practice. Juries regularly refused to deliver a verdict of felo de se so as to protect a suicide’s family and good name. And even in the deepest countryside, there is little evidence that the bodies of suicides met with superstition or contempt. Too many people recognised what Anderson’s researches into East Sussex suicides reveal: that for many countryfolk, killing oneself was a natural response to old age, failing powers and loneliness – an exercise in self-command and not a dereliction of it.

There was, then, no monolithic Victorian answer to that most intractable question – to be or not to be. Nor was there a Victorian consensus as to which qualities and actions characterised a great man. The prime virtue of these two detailed studies is that they illumine nationwide patterns of belief and behaviour, while also doing justice to the diversity of this society. They demonstrate yet again how misleading it is to reconstruct ‘the spirit of an age’ merely from the opinions of a few judiciously-selected authorities. What individuals believe, and how far and how long they believe it, will always be influenced by age, gender, location, religion and class, and by many other subtle and shifting factors. Varied, vigorous and vacillating, Victorian men and women often cherished deeply-held values, but there is little firm evidence that they consistently agreed upon what those values should be. It is in this respect that English people today resemble them most closely.