Essay: Snobs, prudes, hypocrites? Not the Victorians I know

We do our 19th-century forebears a disservice by ascribing so many ills to them.

Among the pile of adjectives habitually misused or misapplied by newspapers - the trick of calling any death, however ordinary or foreseeable, "tragic" for example - "Victorian" must be the most overworked of all. Only last week I started reading a press report of an attempt to establish a morning-after birth-control clinic at some West Country secondary school. Sure enough, there it was - a suggestion that the predictable wave of tabloid outrage was a mark of "Victorian hypocrisy".

Not just ordinary hypocrisy, you see, Victorian hypocrisy. If you were going to construct a list of great Victorian crimes - or rather great Victorian crimes as adduced by people whose idea of the Victorian age is a tableau composed of Prince Albert's sidewhiskers, Florence Nightingale and covered table legs - then "hypocrisy" would probably come fairly near the top. Even Viz, I notice, now runs a strip called "Victorian Dad", in which a frock-coated paterfamilias harangues his family on the evils of the flesh before going off to masturbate himself senseless over a What The Butler Saw machine. It would be closely followed - and this is a selection of newspaper definitions charted in the past few weeks - by prudishness, emotional coldness, sexual repressiveness, inability to communicate with one's offspring and snobbishness. And all these are only private characteristics - never mind the public failures of racism, Imperialism, xenophobia, proto- Thatcherism and so on.

There is, of course, nothing new in any of this. In the hands of the great late-19th-century sceptics, "Victorian" had become a term of abuse well before Queen Victoria's death, and the severest fault-finders of the Victorian era were the Victorians themselves. Certainly the critic and later Liberal politician John Morley's complaint that Victorian England was "a community where political forms, from the monarchy down to the popular chamber, are mainly hollow shams, disguising the coarse supremacy of wealth ..." seems a great deal more pointed than late-20th-century whinging about "hypocrisy".

Predictably, for a period of English history that lasted longer than the average lifespan of the people caught up in it, the problem lies in definition. Like "Liberal" or "Radical", "Victorian" has so many meanings that it is practically meaningless. So many representatives, too. If Jeremy Bentham, with his stony utilitarianism seems one kind of quintessential Victorian, despite dying five years before Victoria came to the throne, then so does an aesthete like Walter Pater. Gladstone and Disraeli, the free-thinking Bishop Colenso, and the novelist George Gissing - each, however great the differences between them, lived at the same time and are susceptible to the same kind of blanket categorisation.

Talking vaguely about "the Victorian age" doesn't help, either. Historians tend to parcel up the 63 and a half years of Victoria's reign into three compartments: an early period peaking in the Great Exhibition of 1851, a second stage ending in the Reform Bill of 1867, and a long end-of-century twilight. Even this, though, barely papers over the chronological cracks. The gap between the 1880s and the 1840s is as profound as that between the 1960s and the 1920s. A few prominent exceptions aside - Gladstone, for instance, or Tennyson - scarcely a single major Victorian figure lasted the entire Victorian course.

Point out these discrepancies to the average journalist, though, and he or she will simply laugh at you, for it is a fact that to the late- 20th-century sensibility "Victorian" means something in a way that other epoch-defining adjectives such as "Tudor" and "Georgian" do not - a kind of compound of thin red lines, child prostitution and flunkies in tailcoats, all overseen by the stern, unyielding, bombazine-clad figure in Windsor Castle. But quite why it should have evolved into a byword for prudishness, reticence, emotional constraint and so on, is a mystery. Granted, Victorian ukases on what could and could not be said sometimes bordered on the insane - W.S. Gilbert was once forced to change a line about a villain living in chambers "fit for a king" to "fit for heaven" - but no one who has read, say, Thackeray's letters to his mother could imagine that either of them was prudish. In fact Thackeray is fairly candid about his sexual needs (his wife spent all but the first four years of their marriage in lunatic asylums, which, as he ruefully put it, made him "a widower with a wife alive") and the painful urethral stricture picked up in the Paris brothels of the 1830s. The same point could be made of Dickens's novels, with their send-ups of "Podsnappery" and "the blush on the young person's cheek" (it's significant, perhaps, that some later Victorians thought The Pickwick Papers, in which Mr Pickwick mistakenly strays into a lady's hotel bedroom, incorrigibly vulgar). Much private correspondence of the time is notably candid about sex, and even Queen Victoria, when informed that her child-bearing days were over, is supposed to have remarked "Oh doctor, does this mean I can have no more fun in bed?"

Similarly, shelves full of evidence survive to counter the idea of emotional coldness, Sir John Franklin's letters back to his wife from his final Arctic expedition (he never returned) are a fine illustration of the depths of feeling that could exist between husband and wife in an early Victorian marriage. Beyond wedlock, this was the great age of the passionate male friendship (Thackeray and Edward FitzGerald, Tennyson and Arthur Hallam), a time when fathers anxiously monitored their sons' moral and spiritual growth and exulted in the companionship it brought. Reading the correspondence between Archbishop Benson and his son Martin, in which the topics of the day are touched on in terms of perfect equality, it comes as a shock to realise that one of the participants was still an Eton schoolboy.

Then there is that eternal reticence and repression. How many essays has one read, for instance, pointing out the eagerness of Victorian writers to call a spade a large blunt instrument or to skirt round pressing emotional or sexual issues? And yet, however sharply defined the boundaries of expression, Victorian novels can deal with questions of sex and gender in a remarkably frank way - see for example the episode in Thackeray's Pendennis which hinges on the hero's putative seduction of a servant girl or the love affairs in Trollope that ooze sexual feeling ("My G---! She is my own!" Lord Chiltern yelps when his bride-to-be says yes, while charging across the carpet like a mad bull). It is arguable, too, that the constraints imposed on Victorian writers actually helped them to write better books - that George Eliot's analyses of emotion are that much more exact precisely because she isn't allowed to show her characters romping between the sheets.

Inevitably, through all these cultural cross-currents, stalks the shadow of historical relativism; the tedious assumption, made by shoals of modern cultural commentators, that the past is only important if it can be shown to resemble our own arrangements. Hence the habit of referring to virtually any unmarried Victorian man as a "repressed homosexual" - in other words invoking a construct of which in many cases he would have been simply unaware. Look at the Victorians on their own terms and, for the most part, they cease to be timid, emotionally starved, prudish hypocrites and become civilised and sophisticated human beings. And while there is no point trying to defend some of the more blatant Victorian scandals, this was also an age, to go back to Morley, in which "New truths were welcomed in free minds, and free minds make brave men."

One of my favourite books is a modest little volume called Putting The Clock Back, in which an elderly Quaker woman named Agnes Yates reminisces about her Somerset childhood in the 1870s. To a modern eye this is a world hedged about with chilling protocols and exclusions, doing what you were told beneath the gaze of an exacting deity. At the same time no one could doubt that the author loved her parents and relished the life they gave her. To forget these testimonies, in the rush to assault Victorian "hypocrisy", "repression" and other suppositious failings is simply to be false to history and, by extension, our collective sense of the people we are and have become.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London