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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.