Those alive in the Victorian age would be astounded to see our enthusiasm for their ideas. What does it say about us, asks DJ Taylor, that we are still working to their ancient templates?

When Queen Victoria died, HG Wells is supposed to have remarked, the effect was as if a giant paperweight had been removed suddenly from men's minds, allowing all kinds of things that had been sat upon and repressed during the past 60 years to tumble violently about.

The reaction against the huge, baggy monster known as "Victorianism", which set in long before Victoria's death, was as fervent as any of the tributes pronounced over the grave of its titular head: it took in everything from a debunking ironist's portrait gallery like Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918) to the early 20th-century revolts against Victorian architecture and Victorian aesthetics and the heroines of Edwardian fiction, who spend most of their time thanking God that they weren't born two decades earlier.

By the 1920s, the adjective "Victorian" had undergone a decisive shift; it ceased to indicate Imperial splendour or civic purpose and turned into a byword for stuffiness, too many children or moral inflexibility. All this led to some eye-catching cultural juxtapositions. To be pro-Victorian 20 years after the Queen's death either meant that you were very old and hopelessly conservative or very young and dangerously radical. When Evelyn Waugh and the Oxford forerunners of the Bright Young People embarked on a neo-Victorian cult of mahogany furniture and Pre-Raphaelite painting, it was framed as a deliberate insult to prevailing orthodoxies: the modern equivalent would be a cultural movement founded on bell-bottoms and cheesecloth shirts.

Eleven decades on from Victoria's passing, aged 83, at Osborne on the Isle of Wight while surrounded by her family, the queer thing is how resolutely the paperweight has been shifted back into place. Only a handful of humans survive from the dense and populous landscape which Victoria made her own. And yet we live in age of Victorian chic, where vast areas of our cultural and social life are permanently in thrall to the colonising spirits of the mid-19th century. The proof of this fixation exists in every bookshop and practically every TV-listings guide. The spring publishing season has already brought another clutch of "neo-Victorian" fiction, in the shape of Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie (South Sea adventuring) and Robert Edric's The London Satyr (the 1890s' pornography trade).

BBC2's four-part dramatisation of Michel Faber's novel The Crimson Petal and the White (1870s' prostitution) was extravagantly received, with ITV's adaptation of Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher barrelling down the tracks behind it. And 2011 just happens to be Thackeray's bicentenary, with a documentary helmed by his great-great-grandson, the comedian Al Murray, in the frame.

Rushing over the horizon to join them comes Dickens's 200th, with a strew of commemorative books by, among others, Claire Tomalin, Michael Slater and the great man's descendant, Lucinda Hawksley, due to come from the printing presses this autumn.

And all this is to ignore the steady, incremental drip of routine Victorianism: the shoals of detective novels starring resourceful sub-Holmesian sleuths and the respectful celebrations of every Victorian mania from spiritualism to seaside holidays. "I was born in 1927," says Nicholas d'Urfe, the self-absorbed hero of John Fowles's The Magus, the child of parents "themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria". Fowles was writing in 1966, but how much more elongated is that shadow now?

Searching for the roots of this obsession, one finds them, first, in the sheer immensity of the Victorian age. At a time when the average male lifespan was well under 50, Victoria's 63 years on the throne meant that she had outlived most of the people born during the first 20 years of her reign. As Lytton Strachey put it in his feline, but oddly affectionate, biography: "The vast majority of her subjects had never known a time when Queen Victoria had not been reigning over them. She had become an indissoluble part of their whole scheme of things."

The great late-Victorian intellectual monthly Nineteenth Century agonised over a change of name, once its chronological tethering-post was gone, but could only come with Nineteenth Century and After: what could possibly refine the achievements of the age now past? At the same time, the outward solidity of this great stretch of time is deceptive. Strictly speaking, there were at least five Victorian ages: an early period of relative uncertainty, marked by political unrest and worries about Chartism; a much more recognisable "early Victorian" decade culminating in the Great Exhibition of 1851; a third stretch climaxing in the second Reform Bill of 1867, which enfranchised most of the male electorate; the classic 1870s' and 1880s' epoch of prosperity and imperial splendour; and then a fin de siecle winding down, when some of the old expansionist certainties began to be called seriously into question.

These chronological fissures are enough to insert fathoms of clear water between some of the great Victorian personalities. The Duke of Wellington (who died in 1852); Thackeray (1863); Gladstone (1898); Oscar Wilde (1900) – they are all "Victorian", each as emphatically a part of Victorian life as Punch, crinolines, penny-farthing bicycles and Iolanthe, but the gap that separates one from the other is as great as the distance between Clement Attlee and Tony Blair.

To the sheer enormity of the Victorian project – the aggrandising spirit that chewed up large parts of Africa, the relentless urge to explore, exploit, classify, convert and improve – can be added the inevitable continuities that were left behind. In practically every area of our national life, from public-health policy to the transportation network, we are toiling in the shadows of mighty ancestors, building on foundations that a man in a frock-coat and a pair of side-whiskers laid down. The Victorian virus infects every part of the administrative bloodstream, from politics – where the influence of Manchester economic liberalism continues to make its presence felt around the Cabinet table – to professional sport – whose governing bodies and organisational protocols date mostly from the mid-19th century – and even to the more contestable arena of mass psychology. Judith Flanders's recent study, The Invention of Murder, for example, has no difficulty in demonstrating how the modern preoccupation with violent crime has its origins in the sensationalising topsoil of the Victorian penny-dreadful fiction.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this sense of ancient templates more obvious – and to a certain extent, more debilitating – than in the arts. In literature, painting and sculpture it was an age of unparalleled luxuriance, the inspection of which was calculated to leave the generation that followed in its wake with a disagreeable sense of its own insignificance . It would be perfectly possible to argue, for example, that the late 1840s, which brought the publication of Dombey and Son, Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre, was a high-water mark in the history of the English novel which no subsequent tide has come anywhere close to surpassing. Even more significant is that the big beasts of the early Victorian era were genuinely popular, borne out of an authentic compact between the novelist and the constituencies that sustained him.

Dickens may have had his hundreds and thousands of readers, but an equally vital part of his fan base consisted of his auditors – illiterates who paid two pence a time to hear his novels read aloud at subscription tea parties held in rooms above pubs. All this wove his work into the national imagination in a way that no subsequent writer, short of JK Rowling, has ever quite brought off: in his essay "Charles Dickens", George Orwell makes the point that for the half-century after his death, anyone who went on a music-hall stage and imitated one of Dickens's characters would stand a fair chance of being understood. Galloping modernism and the fracture of the mass audience into a series of smaller constituencies would change all this. But in the 1850s, Dickens's relation to the novel could be compared to The Beatles' relation to mid-1960s' popular music: an art form still capable of benefiting from the absence of a fatal highbrow-lowbrow divide stealthily at work to demarcate "taste".

If all this has the effect of making Victorianism incurably fascinating to anyone with an interest in how the cultural process operates, then this fascination never quite disguises the fact that there are more ignoble motives at work. In particular, however much we might admire the Victorians and however genuine our fascination with certain aspects of their lives, the myths subsequently concocted around them have always made a terrific screen on which to project some of our (self-diagnosed) moral superiority. One mark of this is the way in which scarcely any television documentary or novel adaptation set in the period between 1837 and 1901 sets out to depict Victorian life on its own terms. Rather, it is used to emphasise the 21st century's superiority to bygone arrangements: a little pat on the back for the world of iPods which ignores that the Victorians' technological pizzazz and innovatory drive puts our own efforts to shame.

This habit of using the past as a giant wood heap to fuel contemporary neuroses is especially noticeable in the field of Victorian sex, scarcely any treatment of which ignores the clichés about chair legs being covered up with sickening hypocrisy and the ladies encouraged on their wedding nights to lie back and think of England (significantly, the first of these is an urban myth and the second is post-Victorian, coined as recently as 1912). No doubt there were pillars of Victorian respectability who strode out of church into child brothels, just as there were Victorian grocers who hurried home from their dissenting chapels to sand the sugar and water the treacle. But the evidence of their private journals suggests they were by no means as "repressed" as modern orthodoxy demands. Even Queen Victoria confessed to getting very little sleep on her wedding night.

What the 2lst century sometimes fails to remember about the 19th is the latter's ability to compartmentalise the public and the private to the point where the former sometimes seems scarcely aware that the latter exists. Take, for instance, the Victorians' attitude to prostitution, over which the adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White practically salivated. The "fallen woman" is everywhere in Victorian life – the subject of Punch cartoons, William Gladstone's ministrations and best-selling novels – and yet nowhere: brought into public discussion (see Dickens's novels) by way of a private code that excludes anyone not already in the know. This dualism runs through the Victorian moral code. If a certain kind of Victorian was so resolutely prim, Anthony Powell once suggested, it was because a certain other kind was so incorrigibly rackety.

Impressed by the achievements of the Victorian age, dazzled by its personalities, bewildered by some of its serial misrepresentations, the 21st-century onlooker's relationship to this gargantuan panorama of a bygone time is horribly ambiguous. On the one hand, he (or she) is encouraged to feel faintly superior to this band of unenlightened hypocrites in their spotless cravats and varnished top boots. On the other, he is likely to be darkly conscious of the fact that in certain crucial respects they were much sharper operators than their descendants.

For all the similarities and unavoidable continuities, he will also be conscious of the vast chasm that separates so many aspects of Victorian life from our own: the sheer belligerence of the 1850s' club room, which could find one member virtually wrestling a carefully hoarded newspaper off another, or the chilly exactitude of its social protocols. (Thackeray, invited to the Whig salon at Holland House, remarked on its "free and easy" atmosphere to another guest. Why yes, the man replied, he had heard it was so free and easy that even Thackeray was asked.)

To read some of Thackeray's early fiction, with its sponging aristocrats and pushy barristers' wives who will give their "little dinners" if it bankrupts their husbands in the process, is to be plunged into a world that seems infinitely detached from our own. But one of Thackeray's key themes is upward mobility: the habit of certain parts of society to climb over the impediments to social advancement that a disapproving upper class puts in their way.

All this offers another clue about the Victorian age – its eventual unveiling as a middle-class project, which saw the gradual decline and emasculation of the landed, aristocratic interest and the inexorable rise of a new kind of Englishman: upwardly mobile, less keen on privilege and inherited wealth, with a copy of Samuel Smiles's Self-Help on his bookshelf, looking forward to a vote, a house and respectability. It is an exaggeration to say that the prosperous City clerk who in 1887 went out to cheer Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee – the Grossmith brothers' Mr Pooter, say – is the spiritual equivalent of today's Daily Mail reader, fretting about house prices and his children's college fees. But the twitch on the generational thread can hardly be ignored.

"Remember that I am a Victorian," MR James, arch-exponent of that quintessential Victorian genre, the ghost story, once observed. "And the Victorian tree cannot but be expected to bear Victorian fruit." Nearly a century and three-quarters after that bright June dawn when the 18-year-old princess was coaxed downstairs in her nightgown to find the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chancellor genuflecting on the carpet, we are still, all of us – you, me, the historical novelist, the aspiring biographer, the free-market economist and the producer of the racy new BBC period drama – gathering up apples from the Victorian orchard floor.

Derby Day by D J Taylor is published by Chatto & Windus (£17.99). To order a copy for the special price of £16.19 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit