A N Wilson: The Victorians' grand designs were the work of shameless monsters

Paxman's tour of the 19th century, with paintings as milestones, is oddly affectionate

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Should Jeremy Paxman's new TV series on The Victorians have been banned? It is obviously much more likely to upset delicate sensibilities than rude jokes by Jonathan Ross or Carol Thatcher. He was not perhaps to know, when he made the series (presumably last summer?), quite how bad things were going to get by the time it was transmitted. But now that the recession has begun in earnest, with each forecast by experts gloomier than the last, is it judicious to show us a portrait of a society – that of the Victorians – which was quite so cruelly, so horribly more successful than our own, and for such transparently obvious reasons? Is it wise to make it so abundantly clear what this success was based upon? Is he, perhaps, like the late Edward Heath, being paid by the Chinese?

At the moment, the governments of the Western world are all trying to be as un-Victorian as possible, pretending that it will be possible to cushion the blow of ruin which stares at least half of us in the face. But we all know what the reality is. One day, those who can't pay their way will be crushed by the pitiless system. We have not yet built workhouses, Marshalsea prisons, or penal colonies to mop up the human victims of the coming times. But Paxman made us wonder whether we should not pretty soon start constructing them all over again with a future that obviously lies with people who are prepared to be as unashamedly beastly as Mr Gradgrind and the Victorian mill-owners – that is, the Chinese with their slave factories, the equivalent of workhouses.

The Victorians were shameless monsters. We did not need Jeremy Paxman to tell us that, but he does so very entertainingly in his new series. The very fact that he is so genial makes it all the more appalling. We watch him chugging along on a canal boat. It could be a travelogue filmed with Judith Chalmers in the old days. But no. He is retracing the route taken by some remote rural forebears to escape starvation and find work in, of all places, Manchester. We muse on the strange fact that, once upon a time, there were Paxmans who were in the position of Eritrean peasants, dragging their half-starving offspring into the unknown to find a livelihood – little knowing that in the fullness of Darwinian time, their struggle out of adversity would strengthen the Paxman species to the point where it would be delivering killer questions on Newsnight and University Challenge. We watch him, in a sequence that might appeal to sadder male viewers, being made (by a beautiful blond National Trust curator) to eat up his gruel after a day's stone-breaking in a reconstruction of a workhouse. And we see him (a gratifying sight, no doubt, to many a politician) being lowered into Joseph Bazalgette's magnificent London sewers.

The programme is a meditation on the Victorian success story: how they invented the modern city and learnt to live in it. Behind each sequence is a pair of self-contradictory thoughts. As someone who has himself written about the Victorians, I completely sympathise with Paxman's dilemma. On the one hand, we recognise the sheer monstrous cruelty of it. On the other, how can you not admire the brilliance which constructed the London sewers, or the railway system, or the ever more ingenious machinery that spun cotton or smelted steel?

Paxman chooses to see the Victorians through the eyes of their painters, and this itself gives the series a deep poignancy. For, of course, as he says, most of the painters wanted to sell their canvases to rich patrons, and the rich patrons, though selfish bastards who were living off other people's poverty, did not wish to be reminded of the fact.

So, for example, Hubert von Herkomer, when depicting the lives of the impoverished oldies in the workhouse, did an engraving for the magazine The Graphic which was totally unsparing. Pathetic old crones peer myopically at their sewing, or totter up and down a cold bare hall, or sit slumped in demented daydreams. In the oil painting that he worked up for private sale, however, he put smiles on all the old women's faces. On the their bare work table, there appeared a cheering tankard of wild flowers and a cheery cuppa.

Paxman is good at examining how the pictures that were actually meant for private sale invariably sanitised the lives of the working classes. Eyre Crowe's wonderfully beautiful picture of mill girls, The Dinner Hour, Wigan, shows a group of maidens who have not so much as a smut on their cheeks. They could be the angels of a Quattrocento fresco on whom they were modelled. By hanging such a picture on his wall, the plutocrat could tell himself that his fortune was founded on clean-limbed, pink, happy people who loved their work, rather on the formula that makes China work today (and which has been forgotten in the Obama-Brown West): make one-third of the population aspire to success, and two-thirds be so afraid of failure that they consent, in effect, to be the other third's slaves.

Of course, the capitalist success story is complicated. Paxman gives a good reconstruction of the failed Chartist revolution of 1848. What conclusion do we draw from the fact that 20,000 socialists demonstrated and 90,000 men volunteered to stop them? The obvious conclusion is that the early Victorians wanted to get on. They saw the system with all its cruelties as an opportunity for self-improvement. The socialists offered a system which, if it worked (a big if), would make impossible the realisation of the Victorian dream – that, within one generation, an entrepreneur with enough cleverness and ruthlessness could lift himself from being a grime-covered toiler to a cigar-smoking grandee. Emblematically, their greatest engineering achievement was a sewer that hid the excrement from eye and nostril which, until that point had made Victorian London an intolerable Great Stench.

Paxman begins the programme by saying that, for the Victorians, paintings were their equivalent of cinema, and this is undoubtedly the case. He could have added, but was perhaps too modest to do so, that paintings were also their equivalent of TV documentaries. William Powell Frith, whom he much admires, gives us pictures of the Victorians at play. Luke Fildes shows the urban poor in their sordid decrepitude. James Sharples, a self-taught painter who worked 12 to 14 hours a day in a steel foundry, gives us what is in effect a documentary about working-class life. You could say that these are not the greatest artists of the 19th century, but even these small fry pose questions about the role of artists in our society.

The Victorian phenomenon was itself so interesting that their painters made their own society their subject, with crowd scenes on railways stations, or seaside resorts lovingly reproduced. Gustave Doré could come from France and reveal that London's East End was a modern-day Dante's Inferno, but most punters wanted to be told that everything was as cheery as a day's outing depicted by Frith.

What do the conceptual Brit-artists tell us about Britain pre-credit crunch? Not much, beyond the fact, which we could have learnt from reading the end-of-year balance sheets of RBS, namely that there's one born every minute and that there used to be people out there with money to burn.

It is all different now. What we want now is the kind of detailed art that the Victorian painters provided. That is the task of television and film. A film such as Somers Town (2008) – Polish migrant workers near Euston station – directed by Shane Meadows was trying to do this, though less successfully than his earlier film This Is England (2006) about northern yobbos joining the British National Party. What about the TV, though? Is Paxman the Frith of our age, painting a jolly scene to cheer us all up? Or is he in this new series planting in all of us the subliminal message that economic success is always based, and has always been based, on depths of immorality to which the Victorians sank as cheerfully as the present-day Chinese?

If so, was it wise to screen such material? For it is obvious that none of the political leaders in the Western world have the stomach for it. Until you hear a politician on Newsnight promising to bring back workhouses and debtors' gaols, be sure that we are staring ruin in the face.

A N Wilson is author of 'The Victorians'

Jeremy Paxman's 'The Victorians' begins at 9pm tonight on BBC1

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