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.

Hoppen is a materialist by inclination; his favourite tool is the statistic, and he can sometimes seem to be at a loss without one. His chapter on religion is, therefore, much better on its external than its internal aspects. He doesn’t engage with doctrinal disputes or with the appeal of the most popular preachers, but he has a fine Trollopian eye for the importance of class and status, even for the publicly pious. Hence we read of the Dulwich vicar, consigned to a third-class railway carriage, who reflected: ‘If Heaven is worse than this I don’t want to go there.’ How the Victorian church-going classes reconciled their undoubted status-consciousness with their frequent public expressions of spirituality, whether in thought or deed (church architecture, funerary monuments and so on), is not something Hoppen discusses.

Similarly, his chapters on politics are not seriously concerned with exploring the significance of ideas. He is distinctly sceptical about the importance of political activity in the face of domestic and international economic realities and the claims of ‘reformers’ of all sorts are punctured. Factory and other social legislation was mainly of symbolic value. Land reform did not seriously weaken landlord power. Institutional innovations – in the Army and Civil Service – were not dramatic. Bruce’s famous Licensing Act of 1872 (misdated here) was ‘innocuous’. Even Gladstone’s zeal for economy and Treasury control was of limited effectiveness: departments and men on the spot could easily frustrate these pressures. Party leaders agreed in substance on the major issues; the Reform Act of 1867 changed little. Most voters were ignorant of national questions. The centre had much less power than the localities. Westminster’s management of Scottish legislation was comically incompetent. Parliament was a field for display by landlords and industrialists, who represented and perpetuated stereotypes of rural and urban Britain, while the complex realities of London were little noticed. Most commercial men, and most gentry, engaged only very intermittently with this arcane, self-referential Parliamentary world; they had more important things to do. Hoppen himself engages even less with popular politics. Chartism’s transitory appeal faded before the walls of capitalism had been breached. Thereafter, radicalism gets short shrift, as do its leaders, especially Chamberlain.

This is, then, a sharp and high political approach – for which there is much to be said. It is salutary, for instance, to be reminded how little competition Parnell – a political strongman, in Hoppen’s eyes – encountered when he sought to make the political weather in the effete British Parliament of the 1880s. The narrative is also enlivened by some well-chosen dry quotations, whether it is Disraeli’s view of Palmerston (‘at best only ginger-beer, and not champagne’) or Mrs Gladstone’s lament to her son about Disraeli’s election victory in 1874: ‘Is it not disgusting after all Papa’s labour and patriotism and years of work to think of handing over his nest-egg to that Jew?’

The difficulty with Hoppen’s presentation is that there are limits to a reader’s willingness to persevere with a lengthy narrative of events which the author himself seems to consider of marginal importance. More space might have been given to approaches to political history of greater dramatic interest. For example, he could have charted the changing relations between Parliamentary and popular politics, as the electorate grew and the press devoted more coverage to personalities, issues and political events. On this subject, there would perhaps have been scope for some Hoppenite scepticism, demonstrating the role of the mass media and the party machines in flattering the images of party leaders. As it is, his treatment of the effect of newspapers on politics is disappointingly thin. He might also have given more attention to the impact of politics on the nation’s ideological mood. If political life was a stage performance, its actors, in conjunction with extra-Parliamentary lobbies such as the Social Science Association, had considerable scope to shape the terms of public debate. Hoppen notes in passing the increasing application of free market ideas to Ireland, and the emergence of a ‘new kind of public moralism’ on sexual matters, both in the 1850s. A more systematic examination of the genesis and impact of these and many other changes would have been instructive.

If the political chapters reveal Hoppen as a follower of the irreverent, revisionist historiography of the Seventies, a similar influence can be discerned in his treatment of Britain’s world role. Palmerston’s policy was one of ‘smoke, mirrors, and a bit of bluff’, intended to hide British weakness. Hoppen’s predecessor as Oxford Historian of England, Sir Llewellyn Woodward, is criticised for ‘Anglocentric myopia’ in believing that any British actions could have prevented the Crimean War. The British Army was not up to much, a fact that Palmerston’s orchestrated celebration of the defeat of the Indian Mutiny temporarily – and unfortunately – disguised. In the 1860s, Stanley and Gladstone virtually admitted Britain’s irrelevance in Europe. Publicity-seeking politicians who needed to appear to interfere in world events had to turn to the Empire or to Gladstonian moralism. Not that their efforts help much in explaining Imperial expansion: the Empire had a life of its own, and its growth owed more to force than to high-mindedness. British politicians disliked its heavy cost and tried various strategies to reduce it, more or less unsuccessfully. It was the defence of Empire that pushed up taxes and ensured that the British state imposed no less heavy a burden on its taxpayers than the supposedly ‘tyrannical’ states of the Continent. Was it worth it? Probably not.

This view – which is now the consensus – was developed by historians who, as teenagers in the Fifties, reacted against the dominant Churchillian and new Elizabethan myths, under the impact of Suez and all that followed. Hoppen, as a historian of Ireland from that generation, brings a special insight and authority to the problem of Empire. Though one might dispute some of his interpretations and feel that, in general, he has over-egged his pudding, these sections are among the book’s most attractive.

There is a great deal in this history that can only inspire awe in the reader. No one can be more familiar than Hoppen with modern writing on the Mid-Victorians; few could chart their way through it with a more nuanced intelligence. The overall standard of accuracy is very high. But it is not always a commanding volume. The four chapters most concerned with economic and class history demonstrate why, though their faults are apparent in varying degrees elsewhere. These chapters in particular lack a clear argumentative structure, and they both provide and assume too much knowledge. Like the political and international sections, they are rigidly anchored in the historiographical interests of the past generation. This has its disadvantages at the best of times, but it becomes a real liability when Hoppen loses his own sense of direction and succumbs to excessive scholarly caution. It appears that years of devoted labour by economic and social historians have made many problems just too difficult to explain. It is ‘perhaps impossible’ to determine whether the Victorians’ economic legacy ‘contained deep and damaging flaws’. Several other discussions – on class consciousness, the standard of living, the ‘Great Depression’, the economic impact of educational practices and so on – are similarly ambiguous, and lose the reader in a snowstorm of qualifications and data of questionable significance. Aware of the need to inject some liveliness into these passages, he compounds the difficulty with some glib and baffling throwaway lines (‘despite some exceptions, most mid-19th-century landed families were becoming quite as Victorian as everyone else’) and self-conscious heterodoxies which are almost guaranteed to mystify non-expert readers.

Hoppen himself blames other historians for some of this fog: ‘we do not know ... some of the most basic “facts” concerning the Victorian economy ... it is difficult not to feel querulous and let down.’ That ‘myopic’ workman Sir Llewellyn Woodward, writing in the Thirties, would not have been quite so critical of his tools. He knew the importance of asserting the authorial personality. But then he did not have to cope with the intense firepower now put up against the lone generalise by the ever-active, specialist modern historical profession. On his home patches, Hoppen has enough local knowledge to scramble to the safety of a hilltop and unfurl his own standard. On less familiar ground, he disappears in a cloud of dust in the middle of the historical infighting on the plain. At such times, his strengths – his reverence for detail and subtlety – become weaknesses and risk generating boredom as well as confusion. Throughout the book, ‘dramatic’ is one of his favourite words – but almost in variably used in such phrases as ‘the reality was much less dramatic.’ To the outsider, the impression must be of a horde of scholars nit-picking at the intelligible myths of old, rather than having the imagination to set out their own vision. It is not even as if all the historiography that he absorbs is sound; by giving such weight to recent revisionism he threatens to give his text a shorter, rather than longer, shelf-life. There can hardly be a professional historian active today who does not earn a citation somewhere in these pages. But all those footnotes to secondary works have the unfortunate effect of disguising Hoppen’s attractive polemicism in the areas on which he does know his mind. They help to perpetuate the fiction that the Oxford History can supply a disinterested and definitive reference-point for ‘the next generation’ (as the publisher’s blurb puts it).

It is ironic that large parts of The Mid-Victorian Generation, a work so celebratory of the Victorian consumer, should symbolise the shift of modern historical activity away from a consumer-driven to a producer-driven enterprise. Of course, little can be done about this shift, which is the result of many factors, not least that modern five-year plan, the Research Assessment Exercise. There is no doubt, though, that the widespread assumption that the Oxford History has a uniquely authoritative status is now a hindrance rather than a help to its authors and – unless they are very careful – to its purchasers, too. The way forward for the series must surely be for contributors to be avowedly selective and to offer elegant essays on the important themes. Though one wishes that he had gone further, Hoppen deserves credit for proceeding someway in this direction.

There are some important themes that Hoppen has underplayed. The most obvious, almost inevitably in view of his interests, is the status of Britain itself – the prestige of the institutions of state and, above all, the power of patriotism. Hoppen’s approach to Mid-Victorian history is, by and large, that which, over the last thirty years, has revealed the severe limits to the significance of central government. Two great benefits of this approach have been the particularism and the healthy distaste for traditional political platitudes that this book so clearly manifests. The result is a much richer and more realistic guide to British life than anything that Woodward could have written. Hoppen’s perspective is that of a localism verging on Hibernocentrism, a decided lack of illusions, and a suspicion of Establishment cant in particular. It is predictable, then, that the book is not very sympathetic to contemporary manifestations of English pride. Yet many facets of mid-19th-century Britain are difficult to understand if one doesn’t take into account the prevailing belief in the superiority of English political and cultural attitudes. The myth of the nation’s exceptional place in the world was built on three main ideas: Protestantism, reverence for the Constitution and Empire. All were potent, but each changed in several crucial ways between 1846 and 1886, reacting to external events and in turn affecting many aspects of the political, cultural and economic behaviour of Englishmen at home and abroad. They shaped political language and political fortunes; they made many heroes and inspired others to follow them; they generated a mixture of complacency and bursts of real anxiety about the nation’s prospects. The general consciousness of – and insecurity about – Britain’s global destiny was surely one of the two or three most distinctive themes of the Mid-Victorian generation. As such, it might merit some discussion in even the most unillusioned of histories.