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.

Geoffrey Best had a few sentences on respectability as ‘the great Victorian shibboleth and criterion’ which must have been both timely and well-put, to judge by the frequency with which they have been quoted. And since then respectability studies have almost become a formal branch of Victorian historiography. The topic is intimately linked with questions about social structure and authority in the period, and the historians have diverged in their views of what respectability amounted to according to their views of how Victorian society was organised. Best, emphasising the elements of hierarchy and cohesion in the society, saw respectability as a relatively homogeneous ideal centred in the bourgeoisie but embraceable by the aspirant upper levels of the working class if they were prepared to obey certain middle-class rules, such as restraint in drinking. This kind of account has been developed to an extreme by some writers since. But Thompson sees respectability as an ideal which took different forms at different levels, with social drinking, for example, being ‘positively enjoined’ in its working-class version. He does count frugality among the tokens of working-class respectability, adducing the dramatic growth of the friendly societies, but even this virtue may have been rather tenuously ‘respectable’ at this level. There are many accounts of clean, well-kept, well-furnished working-class homes whose occupants lived from hand to mouth and pawned their nice possessions in times of hardship. Working-class respectability had more to do with smartness and comfort than the bourgeois version of the ideal, and frugality was correspondingly a less secure part of it. Apparently very firm linkages between different aspects of the ideal can break down as class-divisions are crossed. One might suppose, for example, that the great popularity of double-entendre as a comic device in working-class entertainments, first of all in the music saloons and penny gaffs and then in the early music halls, is the same phenomenon as the prudishness of middle-class speech: but songs and comic routines using sexual innuendo seem to have been performed along with frankly obscene material – so here again a ‘respectable’ feature of working-class culture does not mean what it would mean in a middle-class context.

The Victorian bourgeoisie, in Thompson’s view, were not engaged in morally brainwashing their social inferiors, or if they were, the spread of respectability is not a token of their success. Sometimes the bourgeoisie made a concerted effort at indoctrination, only to see their efforts exploited and eventually adapted for autonomous working-class goals – in the case of denominational education, for example. Only in the instance of the ethic of economic independence, of the shamefulness of receiving charity, does Thompson allow that there was ‘one big success ... for the transmission of middle-class standards’. More generally, the society was a less disciplined and authoritarian affair than the majority of historians have depicted. Different groups developed their own codes with considerable independence. The middle classes themselves were divided in their standards (over blood sports versus improving recreations, for example), and thus ‘the route of the working classes to self-expression and the development of an independent culture ... was thrown open.’ As I have mentioned, Thompson also believes that influence could be exerted in an upwards direction in the society: he sees some part of the bourgeois Victorian ideal of the family in this light (a quietly subversive thought, this, like much in the book – that ‘the closely knit unitary family, moderately affectionate and caring’ was a working-class invention), and (less controversially, indeed uncontroversially) the universal popularity of the music hall.

Thompson’s picture of the Victorian working class – as an autonomous, powerful sector of the society generating and achieving for itself goals which resembled but also crucially differed from bourgeois goals – has some important economic ramifications. By emphasising the slowness of really large-scale urbanisation (the classroom tag that by half-way through the century half the English population lived in towns requires counting in all towns of more than two thousand inhabitants), and the long survival of small, lightly-mechanised manufacturing work-places alongside the factories, he gives the experience of the urbanised working class a much less traumatic aspect than it has traditionally worn. Where J.F.C. Harrison could write of ‘very large numbers of people in the 1840s ... completely bewildered by the environment in which they found themselves’, and Geoffrey Best of the 1850s and 1860s trying to ‘come to terms with this new society’, Thompson is confident that ‘family and neighbourhood ties, upbringing, inherited cultures, and group loyalties proved more persistent and resilient than technologies’ and ‘were sufficiently powerful to ... ease the passage towards large-town society without disastrous dislocation’.

This is persuasive. The great magnetism exerted by the Victorian cities, the peaceable atmosphere in these dense conglomerations of people, the lively and convivial culture which developed in them, and calm measurement of how much more there was to them than Liverpool cellars and Leeds woollen mills, must suggest that life for the urban worker in the 19th century was not a hell on earth. But what about poverty? Thompson argues in effect that a code – respectability – which is usually thought to have been adopted only by an élite among the working class had a much wider following. Psychologically, this can be seen as quite feasible once respectability is no longer understood as a toadying imitation of bourgeois standards: but is it economically feasible? Being respectable can’t even arise as an option if your whole family is crammed into one small room and you are so irregularly employed and badly paid that sometimes you starve. This kind of objection is compounded as far as Thompson’s argument is concerned, because economic power via the market is central to his new version of the Victorian working class. Just occasionally, the working class could deploy the forces of a market without money (in exploiting the competition between denominational schools, for instance), but usually they are seen as retaining their autonomy and achieving their distinctive goals (‘popular sovereignty over ... popular leisure’, whether at the seaside or in the music hall, is a particularly emphasised case) because they had economic clout.

Working-class housing was generally very much better than the slum accommodation so focused on by commentators of the day, and about a third of it was quite good. There were substantial groups with a buying power running well beyond the bare necessities: the working-class standard of living as a whole is a most fraught question, but it is certainly necessary, for example, to correct the dire impression given by Dickens in Hard Times with what the Morning Chronicle’s visitor to Merthyr found at the same date: streets thronged with promenading men and women and shops ‘literally stuffed with goods’. It may be granted that the working-class pocket and purse were a power in the land, however, but doubted if this power operated for the benefit of the spenders. The working class wanted to buy: on the other hand, manufacturers and retailers wanted to sell profitably. This did not guarantee that the workers got what was good for them (adulterated bread certainly was not), or what they really desired, for the Victorians learnt how to create demand through advertising. Another exercise in the correcting of stereotypes, but with a less heartening outcome, is to compare, say, Engels on the Manchester slums with the 1854 photograph of Main Square that appeared in the original editions of Geoffrey Best’s Mid-Victorian Britain: on one of the shopfronts, an optician’s, is hung an absolutely gigantic pair of spectacles, bigger than anything that would be permitted for advertising purposes today. In the eyes of American visitors, until the mid-century at least, the aggressive ingenuity of British retailing was a matter of wonder: they noticed the waterproof hat manufacturer who kept a sample floating upside down in a tank in his shop window, and the many advertisements pasted on vehicles, and the ‘sandwich men’ (the name for this already existing spectacle was due to a brilliant Dickens trope in Sketches by Boz).

This is the familiar argument about the merits and demerits of a free market economy. In recent years in Britain all the talk has been of merits, and it is no distortion of The Rise of Respectable Society to call it a Thatcherite history book. Its Thatcherism lies in its optimism that the Victorian working classes forced into existence by market demand goods and services which they needed and wanted – as opposed to having worthless goods and services forced upon them. Thompson is too optimistic, but the case needed to be indicated: after all, adulterated bread is harmful but spectacles are presumably on the whole a good. The great value of this book, however, is that it opens up a view of Victorian economy and society as consumerist, for good or ill. The demand end of the huge transformation called the Industrial Revolution has indeed been seriously neglected. We think of James Watt turning kettles into steam-engines, and forget his own recognition that new water-pumping equipment in London was needed because ‘people now have such a rage for washing their b – ms.’ We think of the hordes trudging to the factories and their melancholy-mad elephants of pistons, and forget that the Lancashire mills were running because the mass of people wanted the new cotton clothes.

The Victorian commentators – their attention caught by the new working conditions and by the ethics of capitalist economics – were the first to ignore the consumerism of the Industrial Revolution; Carlyle had it under his nose when he fulminated about ‘Morrison’s Pill’, and then got diverted into superfluous exhortations about work. Morris and Eastlake were concerned about the qualitative aspect of mass-produced goods, while Ruskin seemed to think that only a kept mistress in a St John’s Wood villa could have a houseful of new objects. Quite serious distortions have occurred in the modern analysis of Victorian developments through a neglect of the buying and selling side of things. For example, the demonstrable spread of birth-control practices throughout the society during the last two decades of the century has been thought of as a matter of men and women choosing on their own initiative to limit their fertility. The element of persuasion is supposed to have been limited to the non-commercial urgings of Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant and their followers in writings and lectures (together with word-of-mouth transmission of their views) from 1877 onwards. The present orthodoxy (perhaps ill-founded) is also that the techniques generally employed in the early stages of the fertility decline were the venerable ones of coitus interruptus, abstention, and so forth: this reduces the role of persuasion still further, since the Bradlaugh-Besant campaign was all about the new physical devices. So the historians have been floundering in a search for some economic, socio-economic or psycho-socio-economic factor which could explain the abrupt, unanimous adoption by Victorians, around 1880, of extremely obvious ways of avoiding pregnancy. They have ignored what is well-documented, thought not, unfortunately, in the form of direct business archives: that in the wake of the Bradlaugh-Besant trial an extremely vigorous commercial campaign to sell contraceptives (using flyposting in lavatories, leaflets in chemists’, and even circulars to every family who announced a birth in the local paper) was mounted in all English towns. Even if the mass of the population did not buy the products being advertised, one may be sure the case for family limitation in general was being put in a strident, persistent and insinuating way by this publicity – and is more likely to have been responsible for a resort to old-fashioned techniques of birth-control than any universal calculation of rational advantage that can be imagined.

Calling Professor Thompson’s book Thatcherite will alienate some potential readers. And the impression that it is narrowly intent on any one line of interpretation of the period will alienate others. I must emphasise that this is only the strongest theme in a very rich and not at all dogmatically written study. You could reject the central proposition and still receive enlightenment from a multitude of other observations. This is a very approachable book which wears its doctrines as lightly as its learning. The latter, indeed, is worn in a positively anti-gravitational manner. There are no footnotes (giving a rather prestidigitatory effect, as Gilbert Ryle did with a famous comparable omission), and a reader with some knowledge of the literature will quickly see that there is a great deal more reading behind the text than is mentioned in the bibliographies to each chapter.

Asa Briggs’s Victorian Things does not have footnotes either; this was generally the rule in Victorian Cities and Victorian People, the earlier parts of the trilogy now completed by the new book. But the effect is not at all to hide the door to the broom-cupboard of learning in the elegant decor of historical argument. The buckets and dustpans and polish tins are littered over the floor for all to see. What for most writers is the stuff of footnotes is for Lord Briggs the stuff of the text itself. Whole sections of this book read like those extended notes to which are consigned the information which an author cannot bear to relinquish but which is too bitty and distracting to appear on the page (and G.M. Young managed to be more pointed and relevant in many of the longer footnotes to Victorian England than Briggs is in the body of his text). There are some perfunctory attempts in Victorian Things to tidy up the utensils – some large gestures about semiology, for instance – but these passages are themselves an unco-ordinated part of the general miscellaneousness. Given the potential of the theme of Victorian consumerism, this is an opportunity sadly wasted. With a formidable amount of information about the new goods for domestic and personal use, and about the literature of these inventions, Lord Briggs is perhaps better-equipped than any other historian to address the subject. He even has a long discussion of spectacles, with many intriguing and out-of-the-way citations – but he does not help us very much to understand what kind of product the shoppers in Manchester in 1854 were being encouraged to buy and at what prices, or who bought it, how abundantly, and with what attitudes.

[*] 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).