Bovril and Biscuits

Jonathan Parry

  • The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846-86 by Theodore Hoppen
    Oxford, 787 pp, £30.00, March 1998, ISBN 0 19 822834 1

In 1867, the British Government bought the V&A a cabinet, made by Messrs Wright and Mansfield, which had won the highest award at the Paris Exhibition of that year. It was 12 feet high, and made of satinwood, with an elaborate marquetry of coloured woods, gilt mounts and mouldings and Wedgwood plaques. It was an impressive piece, but more for its enormous size and laborious attention to ornate detail than for its gracefulness. It was, in other words, a classic example of Mid-Victorian taste. This volume in the New Oxford History of England is a fitting tribute to the qualities of that cabinet. Which is not to say that we should compare the author’s craftsmanship to that of Messrs Wright and Mansfield (though there are similarities). Rather, this is a book that celebrates the materialism of Mid-Victorian society, perhaps more unashamedly than any previous general history. Theo Hoppen is fascinated by the business of earning, spending and status, and his treatment of politics, religion and culture is profoundly and intriguingly affected by this concentration on profit, rank and display. This is the book’s major strength. Whether its relentless realism is also a weakness is a matter of taste.

The best two chapters chart the effect of commercial development on domestic and high culture. The first explores the effect on the Victorian home of the retailing and advertising revolutions that so increased the availability of ready-made articles. It traces the consequential changes in diet (Bird’s custard, Bovril and biscuits), in medicinal practice (the pill-seller Holloway’s expenditure on publicity rose tenfold between 1842 and 1883), in clothes (the Jaeger Company was founded in 1883 to capitalise on demand for ‘sanitary woollen underwear’) and in household management. Mrs Beeton and her like ministered to the needs of families which could realistically aspire to an unprecedented degree of domestic comfort. Clutter, especially of furniture and ornaments, signalled a capacity for conspicuous consumption. Throughout the chapter, Hoppen deftly explores the subtle relationship between the imperatives of consumerism and of social hierarchy. For example, he also examines the impact of commercialism on working-class leisure activities – circuses, music-halls, sport – showing how it reconfigured but did not erode class distinctions.

The chapter on ‘The Business of Culture’ takes an unsentimental look at literature, music and painting. The growth of periodicals, circulating libraries and other media allowed ingenious writers such as Dickens new scope to generate publicity. The popularity of serialisations not only increased the author’s fame but also gave the publisher more power to tamper with texts; it was Macmillan’s alterations, as much as Kingsley’s prose, that made Westward Ho! a bestseller. The dictates of the market drove many authors to impecunious overproduction: no wonder the impact of money on Victorian morals was a favourite literary theme. In music, the dominance of commercial values was ensured by the lack of aristocratic patronage. The big rewards gravitated to the producers and the star performers; it is hardly surprising that composing was not regarded as a high-status activity. Meanwhile, the reproduction industry made it possible for contemporary painters to acquire a large following. The shrewdest of them knew their market and how to project a cosmopolitanism sufficiently decorous to avoid censure by the respectable. Their rewards varied: Leighton acquired a peerage, Eastlake a knighthood, Burne-Jones a hyphen.

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