Underneath the Spreading Christmas Tree

Gareth Stedman Jones

  • Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain 1870-1914 by José Harris
    Oxford, 283 pp, £17.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 820412 4

In high criticism, Victorianism is generally presented as the artless antonym of modernity. It fades away anywhere between 1901, the year of Victoria’s death, and 1910, the year of the Post-Impressionist Exhibition (the birth of the modern world, according to Roger Fry); or, more obviously, 1914.

The terms of this contrast were clearly implied in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published in 1918. Of Strachey’s chosen targets, Cardinal Manning was a self-deceiving hypocrite, Dr Thomas Arnold the epitome of earnest Victorianism, who modelled his pedagogic vision on Jehovah’s relations with the Israelites, Florence Nightingale a bedridden female tyrant who drove her devoted male acolytes to early death, and General Gordon an imperial misfit whose religious megalomania was only modulated by bouts of brandy-swilling and hints of pederastic yearning. What each possessed, beyond a titanic will, unflagging energy and singleness of purpose, was a simple-minded conviction of a special personal relationship with the Deity. The Victorians, then, were not quite grown-up. Their extraordinary achievements were the product of a childish unawareness. Their romantic or naturalist aesthetic was just another facet of that innocence.

Historians have recently challenged these stereotypes. There now exists a considerable literature which demonstrates that the familial, conjugal and sexual life of ‘Victorians’ was no more pathological than that of other ages. And, as the Empire is now no more than a dim memory and the institutions which once sustained it – Protestantism and monarchy – seem in irreversible decline, sardonic condescension towards the Victorians has often been replaced by either an awed respect or Betjemanesque nostalgia. Furthermore, the methodological procedures behind the stereotypes of high criticism have been called into question. Sixty years ago G.M. Young wrote unselfconsciously about the ‘Victorian mind’ in his well-known Portrait of an Age, by which he really meant the mentality of its senior civil servants.

Since then, historians have become more wary. Although they have continued to write about ‘Victorian people’, it is largely without any overarching idea of the ‘Victorian’ or resort to more grandiose conceptions of a ‘Victorian frame of mind’, a phrase still used by literary critics. In part, this is because social history has made historians more aware of the dangers of projecting the experiences of a fragment of the intelligentsia or the political élite onto the population at large. More simply, it is because the idea of the Victorian age as a historically meaningful unity was flawed from the start. As Young himself remarked, back in 1936, it would have been neater had Victoria rather than Albert died in 1861, since the 1860s marked a dividing line between two quite distinct periods.

The extent of this division and the deceptiveness of the whole notion of the ‘Victorian’ are powerfully emphasised in Jose Harris’s book. In 1871, as she points out, England could still be regarded as a predominantly rural country; two-thirds of the population still lived in towns with populations of less than ten thousand and farm labour was still the nation’s largest occupation. But by 1914, more than half the population lived in towns of over a hundred thousand. London had doubled in size to over eight million, agriculture had shrivelled to occupy only 8 per cent of the population and more than six million people had emigrated. Urbanisation after 1870 coincided with rising life expectancy, universal primary education, greater literacy and increased living standards for the majority of wage-earners. For the first time, hospitals were no longer simply places where the poor went to die. Medical charities began to raise funds on the streets and the prestige of doctors rose exponentially.

These developments undoubtedly played a major part in hastening the dramatic decline in the size of families, from an average of five surviving childhood in the 1850s to three by the 1900s. The decline in fertility, which occurred throughout Europe, was particularly marked in the cities, where the age of marriage rose, childless marriages became common and large numbers of people never married at all. To city dwellers the economic incentives to limit family size were obvious and biological knowledge about birth control was now accessible. Attitudes towards children changed and the resources devoted to them increased. The rise of the toy industry, the growth of matinée theatre and the new popularity of Christmas trees and teddy bears were some of the results. By the Edwardian period, the huge families common in all classes before the 1860s were only to be found in mining villages and among the very poor.

Harris shows clearly that the major transformation in the situation of women and of the poor occurred not during the so-called ‘classic’ Industrial Revolution (1750-1850), but in the years after 1870. For women, the crucial change was the spread of information about birth control. What evidence there is suggests that women took the lead in family limitation. As families began to get smaller, the underpinnings of patriarchal authority, both public and private, began to weaken, although the reasons for this are still unclear. For the first time, women were able to form political associations, speak publicly and intervene in political debate. Political feminism can trace its existence back to Josephine Butler’s crusade against the Contagious Diseases Act in the 1860s and 1870s, to the ‘social purity’ campaigns of the 1880s and 1890s, and to the female suffrage agitation at the beginning of the 20th century.

The opening up of new forms of employment in schools, offices and town halls made it possible for single women of the middle class to escape the bleak alternatives posed by Early Victorian England – being a governess or remaining dependent on the parental family – and an increasing number of flats and restaurants catered to their new needs. At the same time, it appears that in all classes more resources and energy were deployed in maintaining and embellishing the home; it was during this period that the term ‘housewife’ entered common parlance.

For the working classes, the changes were equally profound. It was only during this period that the majority of wage-earners began to experience the benefits of industrialisation and free trade. In the first half of the century, industrialisation had been restricted to a few regions and a few industries. In 1851, only 27 per cent of workers were engaged in industries directly affected by the Industrial Revolution. Most were still employed in domestic service, agriculture, construction and small workshops, where work practices had not changed fundamentally. Nor had their overall standard of living substantially improved. In the towns, rising factory wages were matched by declining incomes among domestic workers and in dependent artisans; on the land, declining employment opportunities often led to falling family incomes, even where wages rose. Neither consumption per head nor life expectancy increased appreciably before 1860 and evidence on the changing height of young people suggests a decline between the 1820s and the 1870s. As Harris remarks, there was no debate about poverty before 1850, since it was assumed that this would remain the inevitable condition of the majority. The problem that obsessed early 19th-century politicians, economists and rate-payers was not poverty but the spectre of overpopulation and the actuality of ‘pauperism’ – of rising numbers dependent on public relief.

With the dying away of Malthusian fears in the 1860s and tangible evidence of a substantial increase in living standards after 1870, the character of the ‘social problem’ changed. There was now a significant divergence between the condition of the majority of wage-earners and that of the bottom third; and because the improvement in the general standard of living had become visible the discovery of the extent of poverty in the 1880s made a powerful impact. Equally striking was the novel assumption that most of this poverty was preventable and that problems of casual or irregular employment, low wages, poor health, single parenthood and old age were no longer a matter for charity or the parish, but a national concern and a responsibility of government.

This shift from the local to the national, reinforced by the exceptional energy and purposefulness of two generations of reformers, politicians and civil servants between 1890 and the First World War, transformed the character of the state. Within twenty-five years of the first systematic investigations of poverty, old age pensions, labour exchanges, school doctors, health and unemployment insurance, and other basic components of the 20th-century welfare state were fully in place.

Harris rightly emphasises this seismic shift in the relations between state and society. She sees it primarily in Weberian terms. It was a transition from a small face-to-face Protestant state operating in a still predominantly rural society and in 1867 still based on the representation of propertied heads of household – even if this now included a segment of the working class – to a depersonalised, bureaucratic state corresponding to a largely urban, increasingly individualised and pluralist Gesellschaft.

At Westminster, a traditional class of landed notables gave way to those for whom politics was an occupation. The power and prestige of provincial society were eclipsed by the emergence of new, less rooted élites based on London, Oxbridge, the Home Counties and the public schools. Wealth now appeared to have freed itself from its traditional local responsibilities and become associated with a metropolitan plutocracy composed of shipping, gold and diamond magnates and adventurers from the Empire.

Of the decline of the power and wealth of landed society, as it had existed up until the middle of the 19th century, there can be no doubt. From the 1660s to the 1860s, the British landed classes had been the most powerful in Europe; only the vast feudal estates of the Hungarian nobility could match the concentration of ownership found in the British Isles. But between the end of the 1870s and the First World War, the value of land fell dramatically from one-quarter to one-twelfth of national wealth, and in the South of England, agricultural rents fell by 40 per cent. This was the deferred effect of the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, once railways and steam-ships opened up the prairies of North America and the Ukraine in the 1870s.

At first sight, it is striking that in the face of this reversal of fortune, a class recently so omnipotent and seemingly so well entrenched at every level of political life should have been incapable of protecting their position. Not only were they unable to follow the lead of the Prussian Junkers and impose a protective tariff; they were gradually forced to cede the leadership of central and local government to elected politicians and to lose most of their power to veto legislation in the Lords.

But they were not a unified group and there was no uniform process of decline. Most large landowners had already diversified their investments and some did extremely well from their ownership of urban property. Marriage to American heiresses, new opportunities in the Empire and seats in City boardrooms were other ways of withstanding falling rent-rolls. Nevertheless, there remains something extraordinary about the quietness of this social upheaval. As Harris points out, Britain was the only state before the First World War where the rich were forced to accept a serious form of progressive taxation and the imposition of death duties.

The boldest suggestion made in this important and original book is that the changes inaugurated in Britain in the 1870s were not overwhelmed, as most historians have assumed, by the carnage and upheaval of the First World War or even by the Second, but lasted until the next great period of social change, in the Sixties and Seventies. Or, to put it another way, there was more similarity between the 1870s and the 1950s, than there is between the 1950s and now. The First World War produced the enfranchisement of women, the emergence of labour and the end of the gold standard. But the basic trends continued to be those established around the 1870s. The prevailing demographic pattern and its attendant ‘family values’, involving clearly demarcated sex and generational roles and low rates of illegitimacy and divorce, dated from that time. So did the more or less continuous decline in the crime rate through to 1960.

Foreigners were struck by ‘the social peace’ which reigned in Britain’s industrial heartlands, while for most of the population the policeman became a figure as much of fun as of menace. A global market in food, the cheap breakfast table, the depeopling of the countryside and the retreat of the landed classes were accompanied by a continuous expansion of the urban and suburban population, the growth of retail chains and holiday resorts, and increasingly uniform patterns of mass culture and mass leisure. Two world wars did little to interrupt these trends. Perhaps the backwoods Tory instinct that the Victorian ‘basics’ remained intact until the Fifties makes good historical sense after all.

More contestable is the other major theme of the book, which sits uneasily with the first: the association of modernity with the growth of pluralism and individualism. The strong point in this argument is Harris’s picture of religious development. Her most striking conclusion is that religious observance peaked not during Victoria’s reign but in the first two decades of the 20th century. It was the Edwardian period which truly deserves to be called an age of faith. Universal primary education meant that knowledge of the rudiments of Christianity had never been so widespread. Working-class hostility towards religion had appreciably diminished and Labour politics were strongly Christian in tone.

At the same time, however, Harris points out that the Church had lost much of its social and economic power, its intellectual coherence and its ability to determine the shape of individual belief. The crisis of faith associated with Darwin and the findings of the higher criticism was followed, not by unbelief, but by a steady distancing from the fundamentalism of Evangelical Christianity and the growth of a variety of forms of idealism and syncretism. Older doctrinal differences between denominations became less important and attitudes towards forms of worship more consumerist. Personal autonomy and individual choice were expressed in vaguer forms of service, humanitarianism, pantheism and nature worship.

Other characteristics of the period – the receding importance of locality, the centrality of a bureaucratic government, the loosening of patriarchal bonds, the declining economic role of the family, the new attention to the child, the prominence of feminism and the gradual loosening of the link between property and political participation – could also be taken as signs of the emergence of a pluralist culture. But ultimately, this argument is unconvincing. Harris concedes the survival of the small family firm and a collective working-class culture as exceptions to her picture of modernity. These were quite large exceptions, and one might add to them the public schools, clubland, the London ‘season’, the proliferation of old boys’ clubs with their invented traditions and the growing cult of monarchy. But above all, the Empire.

At this point Harris might have tempered her Weberian approach with a bit of Schumpeter, who emphasised the role of imperialism as a form of atavism which provided the aristocracy with new sources of power, wealth and prestige. She does discuss the Empire’s reinforcement of cults of masculinity and of conservative notions of virtue. But she underplays the licence it offered to new forms of authoritarianism or hierarchy – in the school, the family, the place of work, the regiment and on the sports field – and understates the fragility of the incipient pluralist tendencies.

After the Wilde trial, homosexuality was driven back into the closet for a further half-century. The issue of divorce forced the abdication of Edward VIII, as it had once wrecked the movement for Irish Home Rule. Teenage unmarried mothers could be locked away for years, problem children from the slums could be shipped out to the Dominions without redress, ‘mental defectives’ (a new coinage) were deprived of constitutional rights. The potent mix between Empire and Darwinian evolution produced brutal and authoritarian schemes in the name of race hygiene and imperial fitness.

Scarcely any of these schemes came to pass, however, as Harris notes while emphasising the continued vitality of the libertarian texture of early 20th-century British society. But this may have been more of a legacy from the past than an aspect of modernity itself and therefore have led her to underestimate the extent to which the acceptance of hierarchy and obedience to authority had become strongly internalised within all classes. What emerged in the years between 1870 and the end of Empire in the Fifties was only a Gesellschaft in a qualified sense. For if it was a society in which independent women could begin to find more space for themselves as individuals with a more personalised set of religious and ethical values, it was only within delimited urban or metropolitan spaces that such freedoms were exercised.

The larger society not only remained culturally insular, firmly divided between gentlemen and players: it was also minting new traditions, expressive of an increasingly conservative way of life. In the end, Harris is right to emphasise the achievement, however. For what is remarkable is that two such different societies could for the most part tolerantly co-exist.