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?

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