Questions of Chic

Michael Mason

  • City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London by Judith Walkowitz
    Virago, 353 pp, £16.99, November 1992, ISBN 1 85381 517 9
  • Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in 19th-century Married Life by James Hammerton
    Routledge, 236 pp, £37.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 415 03622 4
  • Victorian Scandals: Representations of Gender and Class edited by Kristine Ottersen Garrigan
    Ohio, 337 pp, $34.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 8214 1019 9

This year is a minor jubilee in Victorian studies: in 1973 there appeared The Victorian City: Images and Realities. Somewhat against the odds this burly two-volume compilation of essays, brought together by Jim Dyos in England and Michael Wolff in America, became a classic. Against the odds, because these essays were, in origin, conference proceedings, and there were nearly forty of them. Conventional publishing wisdom would hope for only a modest success from such a formula, but The Victorian City did what compilations of expert essays should do and hardly ever manage. The editors had re-tuned almost all the contributions and they also added dozens of superb illustrations. The result was a book which is still full of important insights about 19th-century urban Britain that remain to be explored, and of ideas for factual enquiry that remain to be exploited.

Here is what Dyos and Wolff had to say about their subtitle:

We do not see in one camp the historians of fact all brimming with realities and in another the historians of values all burnishing their images. The realities cannot sometimes be communicated without the appropriate images; they cannot sometimes he perceived because of them. Both the realities and the images are of many different orders and it becomes a matter of discovering just how much each is revealed by the other, and which is really which. That is what this book is all about.

Few modern academics could bring themselves to use an idiom as crisp and entertaining as this. The important question, however, is not what has happened to the rhetoric of such writing in the last twenty years but what has happened to its spirit. Dyos and Wolff elevated Victorian urban images to an equal standing with urban realities, and into a relationship with the latter which is avowedly complex.

Now, two decades down the line, I see that Judith Walkowitz, in City of Dreadful Delight, routinely puts terms such as ‘reality’, ‘truth’, and ‘facts’ in quotation marks. She doesn’t explain this usage. It is no doubt meant to gesture at an apprehension, by the author, of epistemological subtleties of an exquisite profundity – beside which Dyos and Wolff would figure as philosophical dinosaurs. In practice, the epistemology of Walkowitz’s book is not subtle at all, for she is only interested in images. The Dyos-Wolff project of perceiving the two aspects of Victorian urbanism as equal and connected has become sadly debased, with a transfer of the emphasis to city imagery which is as crude and unqualified as the most empirically-minded historiography ever was.

Walkowitz’s main topic is the perception of London in the 1880s as a site of sexual freedoms, sexual transgression and sex-related crime. She devotes most space to the journalistic coverage of two great scandals: child-prostitution in the mid-1880s, and the Ripper murders of 1888. It is, I admit, largely a matter of taste which kind of historiographical simplification one prefers: that of ‘image’ or that of ‘reality’. I personally find the facts of Victorian lives more interesting than most Victorian representations of them, but evidently many cultural historians today have an opposite taste, to judge by the proliferation of studies on the ‘discourses’ of this, that and the other. The pleasures to be found in treating history in this way are obviously connected with those offered by reading literary texts carefully, and many of today’s historians have been influenced by the experience of doing literary criticism at school or university. I find that this activity loses its savour when transferred to the journeyman, unreflective writing which makes up, say, the public discourse about the Ripper murders. One is likely to find oneself dispiritingly in a perpetual state of condescension towards the very materials of one’s study.

Here, more than in other kinds of history-writing, the historian is by definition in a condition of superiority to his or her subject: matching perception for perception in a no-win game for the poor discourse-producer of the past, who will always be caught out as the victim of stereotype and cliché whose claims to be describing reality will always be exposed as a pathetic delusion. The habitual tone of this discourse-history is scornful and smart-alec; it does not make for exciting reading, and surely cannot be the only frame of mind we should adopt towards the past.

In some cases I think the personal realities of the past do have an objectively stronger claim on our attention than their representations. For example, several women were brutally murdered in Whitechapel in 1888. There is a tinge of light-mindedness in Walkowitz’s dismissal of this ‘reality’ as unspecified philosophical howlers, in favour of the second tier, the tier of contemporary comment.

Image-history is easier to do than reality-history. This is above all true of the 19th century: the period offers its self-representations lavishly and insistently, but on the whole yields its realities reluctantly. If historical research never demanded more effort than is involved in boiling down views on some topic from the run of a 19th-century magazine the historian’s life would be easy indeed. And there was a marked unanimity in this abundant 19th-century self-representation, at least concerning the basic framework of ‘problems’ which the culture faced. This creates an interesting irony. The condescending discourse-historian believes that he or she has seen through the texts – but because he or she is usually buying an agenda set by the 19th century, has actually done no such thing. Whenever a historian takes up the pen to write about Victorian prostitution, or housing, or industrialisation, without recognising that their evils were greatly exaggerated by contemporary writers, the 19th century has the last laugh.

I don’t wish to suggest that the Dyos-Wolff project has not continued to inspire historians. For example (to give a case very close to Dyos’s particular interests), there is the analysis of slum-life performed by historians who match census-enumerators’ returns on individual working-class dwellings with contemporary perceptions of the slightly larger units composed of those dwellings: bad streets à la Tom-all-Alone’s, ‘rookeries’, slum courts. One’s understanding of a given Victorian image may be seriously impoverished if one fails to measure it against the reality. Graham Davis has established that a notorious Bath rookery, Avon Street, had a much more socially and economically variegated population (including some quite well-to-do families) than local clichés would indicate. In the course of this work he has found that a London journalist who purported to have disguised himself as a tramp so that he could visit and describe a common lodging-house in Avon Street, in Orwellian fashion, probably fabricated his whole lurid account. No doubt specialist historians are now aware that Dickens’s Tom-all-Alone’s – in the sense of a street of undifferentiated degradation – never existed in Victorian London or in any other city of the day. But I would judge that the message is taking a long time to filter through to non-specialists – for instance, to university students of history-related subjects, such as Dickens’s fiction.

Walkowitz’s second main concern in her book, after London the city, is sex. No one has yet compiled a volume called ‘Victorian Sex: Images and Realities’, and in this area there is really no line of work informed by a Dyos-Wolff sense of interplay between the two things. Derisive, self-pleased studies of Victorian ‘discourse’ and its enormities dominate the field. But there are exceptions, one of them being James Hammerton’s Cruelty and Companionship. Hammerton’s realities are legal records concerning the breakdown of Victorian marriages, from the Divorce Court and magistrates’ hearings; his images are the period’s changing norms of conduct for men and women, in themselves and as spouses.

This is an admirable project, with many features that immediately put it in a different class, as history, from the familiar run of books about Victorian sexuality. Hammerton sees that any study purporting to deal with the period’s sexual codes must give as much attention as possible to the working class (countless books in this area are tacitly just descriptions of a cultivated fraction of the middle class). He sees that the relation between an individual and the norms of his or her society is not a matter merely of unthinking assent, or of active commitment, or of grudging lip-service, or of hypocritical exploitation – but in some way a mixture of all these things. He sees that the norms themselves may amount to a paradoxical bundle. Hammerton’s application of these principles to the legal material, and especially to the personal statements about then collapsing marriages offered by parties in the courts, is fascinatingly subtle.

He evidently has feminist historiographical sympathies, and I do feel that sometimes he is not happy with the distance to which his evidence is pulling him from a feminist critical account of the period, whereupon he will fudge matters (though it must be said that his writing is on occasion quite clumsy anyway). Hammerton says of middle-class marriage that ‘husbands’ confidence in their domestic sovereignty ... drew on widely understood class understandings of their patriarchal powers, whether by reference to professional opinion or religious sanction.’ But this ideologically correct utterance seems to be directly contradicted on the previous page, where a judge is quoted finding against a husband who had used religion to sanction a ‘harsh and cruel retaliation’, and had forgotten religion’s ‘leading precepts’ of humility and forgiveness.

One of the many surprises delivered by this book is that Victorian women emerge as having a marked ‘resistance to their husbands’ treatment’, and a ‘willingness to take their private complaints into the public arena’, where they found ‘undoubted allies in this process: judges, journalists, politicians, feminists and even paternalistic moralists’. It is fascinating to read of the extent to which women before the Married Women’s Property Acts, and without a marriage settlement, ‘doggedly refused to yield their income and livelihood’. Readers of the present review may be puzzled to hear that 19th-century divorce proceedings offer a window on working-class marriage. Wasn’t the 1857 Act taken advantage of only by the bourgeoisie? Not so. The American historian Gail Savage has done the pioneering research on the composition of petitioners to the Divorce Court, broken down both by gender and by class (Hammerton acknowledges his debt to her discoveries). Out of all petitioners to the Court, in the first ten years of its existence, women were in a slight majority (they also enjoyed exactly the same success-rate in their divorce suits as men, and achieved proportionally more separations). About 30 per cent of all divorce petitions in the same period were brought by working-class individuals.

Savage’s research is now published as a contribution to Victorian Scandals, a volume which suggests that image-history and reality-history are themselves in an unhappy marriage where Victorian sexuality is concerned. There is little sign, in this collection, of a Dyos-Wolff companionate bond between the two. The reality-historians like Savage (and Ann Higginbotham in her important essay on infanticide and illegitimacy) do try to make contact with the stereotypes in a revisionist way, but on the other side there is just bunker-minded analysis of topics such as feminine portrait-photography and the perception of George Eliot’s sex-life. And in a remarkable Afterword Thaïs Morgan contrives to massage Savage’s article into a jargon-ridden travesty of itself which allegedly shows that ‘marriage as an institution and as a tropological system in Victorian discourse ... inscribes women into the system of sexual difference,’ and allegedly asks: ‘what political agenda(s) did the production of scandal over divorce serve?’ Professor Morgan is so ideologically prejudiced, in fact, that she misreads the plain sense of Gail Savage’s work, which precisely does not imply that ‘wives of all classes and the lower-class poor’ were ‘disadvantaged by the Divorce Act of 1857’.

This all indicates what I believe is broadly the case at the moment in Victorian cultural studies, and beyond: image-history has the upper hand. It is able to set the tone of essay collections and conference proceedings, it is deferred to by historians whose work seems really to be tending in a contrary direction, and it has somehow managed to make the numerous academics who are privately sceptical of it inhibited in publicly admitting their scepticism.

Described this way – as a matter of a silent majority, or at least a large constituency, eclipsed by a vocal minority – the current ascendancy of image-history is intriguingly like Victorian sexual culture itself. On a small and a large scale both are examples of the mysterious processes by which the gossamer of ideology can constrain beliefs and behaviour. The cliché that Victorian England was high-minded and puritanical about sex is fundamentally correct: the cliché that many individuals living in the last two-thirds of the 19th century were not high-minded and puritanical about sex is also correct. What have not been correct are most of the accounts of how these two facts are to be reconciled. A book like Cruelty and Companionship indicates the route to an answer, which is via social and conceptual mechanisms at the moment poorly understood. If the analogy with present academic trends is relevant we will find, among the cluster of mechanisms, the fact that to the Victorians sexual puritanism (whether attractively or intimidatingly) just seemed to be chic.