Suddenly the Victorians have become controversial again. This is not because a new Lytton Strachey has sprung up in our midst, but because Mrs Thatcher – who polarises public opinion more forcibly than any prime minister since Gladstone – appropriates ‘Victorian values’ for herself and her party: ‘those were the values when our country became great,’ she told Brian Walden three years ago. The publication of these four books provides a timely opportunity for testing her claims. Historians, mostly on the left, have so far dismissed them, and even those not on the left rightly worry about the propagandist way in which Thatcher uses history; in a complex world their intellectual fastidiousness jibs at her confident certainties, simple remedies and evangelical tone. But her confident certainties are echoed on the other side: Michael Foot condemns her for praising Victorian values ‘without even a passing comprehension of the human suffering and indignity which the mass of our people had to endure in that pre-democratic age’.
The term ‘Victorian’ is used purely descriptively in the earliest citations that appear in the 1928 volume of the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘of or belonging to, designating, or typical of the reign of Queen Victoria’. The first citation comes from 1875: yet in embracing the term ‘Victorian’ with enthusiasm, Thatcher reverts to an even earlier usage. G.M. Young found Paxton Hood pioneering the term as early as 1851 and in a much less neutral context: Hood saw ‘the Victorian Commonwealth’ as ‘the most wonderful picture on the face of the earth’, for by that year prosperity was becoming the hallmark of an age which saw differentials in wealth as stimulants to enterprise and effort. By the 1890s, however, Young thought that the Early Victorian period had fallen into contempt, and by 1917 John Morley’s Recollections confessed that ‘critics today are wont to speak contemptuously of the mid-Victorian age.’ Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was published in May the following year – a revenge, at least in part, on the Victorian values which he blamed for an agonising war. In all this, the Liberals were avenging themselves on the Right, and Strachey’s assaults probably helped to mould, and were certainly reinforced by, Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1919.
Bertrand Russell read Eminent Victorians when imprisoned for resisting the war: ‘it caused me to laugh so loud that the officer came round to my cell, saying I must remember that prison is a place of punishment.’ A crop of debunking biographies followed. Yet Russell’s response already anticipates the counter-attack against Strachey, for one laughs loudest when one’s most deeply-held values are challenged. Russell had to admit that the Victorians ‘had immense energy, and they had genuinely (in spite of cant) a wish to improve the world, and they did improve it.’ In 1921, Strachey’s Queen Victoria began toning down his critique, and the rapid decline in his reputation began in Cambridge some years before his death, quickly gathered momentum, and during the Thirties spread to London and the United States. It is not surprising that a major figure in the counter-attack was the Conservative G.M. Young. ‘Mr Strachey has much to answer for,’ he wrote in 1932, referring to Strachey’s inferior disciples. Young later recalled that he began on the work that led to his famous Portrait of an Age (1936) ‘in a fit of wrath over what seemed to me a preposterous misreading of the age’.
Young performed a service by denying that all Victorians were ‘Victorian’ in their conduct; he rightly pointed out that ‘Victorianism’ (prudery, earnestness, family-centredness) exists outside Britain during the 19th century, and also in Britain at other periods – during the 17th century, or even in the Regency. Young ‘had always been convinced that Victorianism was a myth’, he tells us: ‘my own difficulty was to find anything on which they agreed.’ Thatcher’s Georgetown speech of 1981 concedes the point; her policies, she says, are ‘neither new nor experimental ... We have discovered the old verities. Individual freedom and responsibility are the springs of our prosperity, as well as the foundations of our moral order.’ Or, as she said last year in a radio phone-in programme: ‘Victorian values aren’t Victorian; they’re really, I think, fundamental eternal truths.’
During the Fifties the growth of ‘labour history’ brought the ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ interpretations of Early Victorian Britain into confrontation in the pages of the Economic History Review, and the Sixties saw controversy carried to new heights of fervour by E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and by bodies such as the Institute of Economic Affairs. By the mid-Seventies Victorian values were becoming a political football. The Labour movement ‘came into being’, Michael Foot wrote in 1983, ‘to vanquish the hard, pinched values of Victorian Britain’.
Must we take sides? No, for both sides are in some sense correct. The Labour movement’s struggles, Foot continued, involved ‘a fight to introduce civilised standards into the world of ruthless, devil-take-the-hind-most individualism’: but Victorian trade unions were more individualist, Victorian employers less so, than Foot and Thatcher respectively would have us believe. Furthermore, Victorians as prominent as Palmerston and Disraeli were never really ‘Victorian’ in conduct. Swinburne repudiated Victorianism in the 1860s, and the Victorians were good at self-criticism: as G.M. Young pointed out, ‘the truth is that much of what we call Victorianism is a picture at second-hand, a satirical picture drawn by the Victorians themselves.’
This internal dialogue is the central preoccupation of Gallagher, who rightly rejects the idea that texts can usefully be analysed separately from their contemporary context. For her, the alleged defects and ambiguities in Early Victorian industrial novels often originate in the doubt and indecision felt by Early Victorian society as a whole. Its tension between free will and determinism, and between providential and mechanistic views of God, reaches a climax in Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke, whose autobiographical mode enables the author to evade responsibility for resolving it. And in the 1850s a new tension, between the public and private realms of experience, moves to the fore: the family is held up as the ideal of social organisation while paradoxically, domesticated values require the family to retreat into ‘private’ life. Gallagher conducts her close analyses of plot in a rather pretentious vocabulary, and her final section – on how the franchise debate affects the theory and practice of literary representation – is particularly cloudy: but her subject-matter throughout provides a salutary warning against monolithic Victorianism.
Still, it is fair to say that some values, while never gaining universal Victorian acceptance, became more central to public life during Victoria’s reign than they had been at other times, gaining acceptance from both major parties, and receiving classic vindication in print. Thatcher is surely correct in drawing attention to four of them, each of which is apparent in the other three books under discussion: activism, voluntarism, respectability and belief in liberty.
The faith in reform that rejects cynicism sounds more loudly above contrary pessimistic themes during the Victorian period – ‘the age of improvement’, as it is labelled. ‘A stubborn belief in the reality of individual responsibility and the efficacy of individual attack’ is the quality Mary Stocks assigns to that very late Victorian, Eleanor Rathbone, and what Rathbone said of her father applied not only to herself but to many of her father’s contemporaries: ‘anything that savoured of irony and cynicism was repulsive to him.’ It was an outlook that owed much to Nonconformist and Evangelical attitudes now out of fashion – attitudes which in the Victorian period inspired activism and reinforced determination.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Victorian entrepreneurship, whether in industry or in good works. Both major Victorian parties sought to promote economic growth by freeing the spontaneous energies of the individual and minimising the role of the state, and all this has recently found a late 20th-century echo. ‘What kind of people are we?’ Thatcher asked the Conservative Party Conference in 1975: ‘we are the people that in the past made Great Britain the workshop of the world.’ Ten years later she complained of the ‘consistent tendency in our society to denigrate the creators of wealth’, and that ‘nowhere is this attitude more marked than in cloister and common room.’ The Victorians made a ‘colossal advance’, she told Walden, through the voluntary public provision of hospitals and schools; there was ‘a burgeoning of voluntary service’, she told listeners to the phone-in programme.
Victorian prisons might not seem to be the place to look for such activism, nor does Priestley (a former prison welfare officer) study them with this motive. For him, the Victorian prison conjures up ‘the features of Leviathan wearing that iron grin that so reassures our rulers and yet unsettles the rest of us in ways we can’t quite define’; he more than once likens the prison system to the machinery that constrained Victorian lives outside the prison gates. He uses prisoners’ autobiographies to weave together a composite portrait of prison life – beginning with arrival, moving on to the prison routine (the cell, chapel, hard labour, discipline, the scaffold), and concluding with release. The treadmill on his dust-jacket and the gloomy engravings throughout his text lend the book an oppressively institutional air.
Yet Victorian activism thrusts itself up between the lines, for Priestley’s chronology of British penal history shows an intermittent humanitarian advance: in 1820 the flogging of women is abolished, then hangings and floggings retreat behind prison walls, then transportation ends, then juvenile offenders are reserved for special treatment, and so on. No such optimistic chronology could be compiled for 20th-century prison history. Furthermore, amid the Victorians’ numerous, sometimes bizarre, and by no means always humane experiments in penal policy – the silent system, the separate system ... – there runs a faith in the curative impact of prison that we no longer share. Hence the Victorians’ readiness to invest in new types of prison building, whereas our more affluent society builds new prisons reluctantly and late, and then only because it fears the violence and corruption that result from overcrowding.
The blank stares of prison officers, mindlessly enforcing foolish rules, do not nowadays look like aids to moral progress – though humanity and common sense do somehow survive in odd corners within such a system. We have lost faith in the curative impact of prison, but we are not activists enough to come up with alternatives. Contrast the Victorians, ever experimenting, re-designing, innovating – convinced that, here as elsewhere, personal effort would bring about moral progress.
There is also good reason to think that Priestley’s method exaggerates the blackness of the Victorian prison scene. ‘Distress evidence’ is a perennial danger to historians, largely because it is often the only evidence that exists; contentment seldom reaches for its pen. ‘Distress evidence’ dominates Priestley’s book, and illustrates yet another dimension of the Victorians’ internal dialogue. Furthermore the two hundred or so autobiographies he relies upon were written by only a tiny sample of the prison population: during Victoria’s reign there were more than fifteen million receptions into the prisons of England and Wales.
Besides, autobiographers are usually in some way untypical, and here the accounts we have are largely those of the better-off. Lord William Nevill, Lady Constance Lytton, Jabez Balfour and the suffragettes: their views reflect the redoubled degradation felt by prisoners drawn from a better social class. In other words, his overall picture does not compensate sufficiently for the fact that, as he himself points out when discussing hard labour, ‘many of our authors were middleclass gents, quite unused to such exertions.’ And as he notes elsewhere, though only in passing, for the very poorest in society prison (to the disgust of the historian Thomas Carlyle) seemed a haven – a place of relative warmth in winter, and relatively good diet all the year round.
So as a survey of Victorian prison lives Priestley’s book suffers from its limited source-material: there is much subjective comment, but there are few statistics and few secondary sources on wider Victorian themes. The entire period is subdivided into thematic chapters, not all of which clarify their subordinate chronologies, and the reader is further hindered by the fact that the footnotes, off the page, can often be understood only when consulted in conjunction with the bibliography. The pattern of change cannot emerge clearly from making a mélange of Victorian prison experience at all times and places, for as Priestley himself admits when discussing prison diet, ‘like nearly every other element of Victorian prison life the menu varied by time and place.’
Intimately linked to Victorian activism is the second of Thatcher’s Victorian themes – that of voluntarism, the willingness of citizens to seek improvement by spontaneously organising to promote a cause. Lansbury focuses on two such causes: feminism and anti-vivisection. Well before Victoria came to the throne in 1837 the anti-slave-trade movement had shown that ‘one person with a belief is a social power equal to 99 who have only interests,’ as J.S. Mill put it: but it was during the Victorian period that the mass reforming movement reached its apogee. ‘Variety is one of the glories of the voluntary movement,’ Thatcher told the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service in 1981, and it is for his voluntarism that she admires Beveridge: ‘he gave state help, yes,’ she correctly pointed out in June 1983, ‘but added to it there must be plenty of scope for voluntary help and personal self-reliance.’
Lansbury begins by describing the Brown Dog riots of 1907. Medical students tried to damage a Battersea monument to a brown dog that had been vivisected in 1903 while the wound from an earlier experiment was as yet unhealed; the students thought suffragettes and anti-vivisectionists were in alliance, and so disrupted suffragette meetings. Lansbury’s technique in subsequent chapters is to unravel the wider significance of this incident, and convert it into a vignette of Late Victorian and Edwardian socio-political relationships. Her analysis of humanitarian pressures and literary conventions leads her to see workers and women as divided on women’s suffrage but united in opposing vivisection; both see animals’ sufferings as analogous to, or precursors for, sufferings of their own. Though wide-ranging in scope and source-material, Lansbury’s argument is curiously uneconomical and unsystematic, and is marred by two rather important mistakes. ‘If there was one issue which had no support among the trades unions and with working-class men generally,’ she writes, ‘it was the demand that women be given the vote.’ This is to confuse opposition to equalising the franchise – that is, to removing the sex discrimination from the existing property-related franchise – with opposition to women’s suffrage, and to assume that suffragettes were the sole campaigners for votes for women.
In reality, the TUC and Labour Party conference regularly advocated votes for women in the form of adult suffrage, and Keir Hardie even persuaded Labour MPs to advocate the equal franchise as well: in Parliamentary divisions, Labour MPs voted for women’s suffrage in a far larger proportion than members of any other party. It is possible that working people were being misrepresented by their leaders here, but Lansbury produces no evidence that this was so. Nor is she right to see trade-union hostility to women’s labour as running ‘counter to every social and economic interest of women’, and to include it in a chapter entitled ‘ignorant prejudices’. On the contrary, such hostility seemed at the time very much in the interests of married women, who wanted good pay and secure employment for their husbands: large families and burdensome housekeeping at that time made a division of labour between men and women seem sensible.
The wife who was a ‘good manager’ and conscientious mother was essential to the third of Thatcher’s Victorian values: the culture of respectability. The respectable Victorian artisan struggled to keep wife and daughters out of the factory, and backed them in a sequence of humanitarian movements. Thatcher would probably sympathise privately with such a position, for, as feminists have pointed out, ‘she’s no sister’; apart from the example she sets, she does little to encourage women to pursue careers outside the family. It is fashionable in some circles nowadays to depreciate respectability. In 1971 Brian Walden, in an earlier incarnation, condemned ‘the harsh vulgarity of modern Toryism’, and blamed it on the fact that it ‘has now been captured by its least secure and most unreasonable group of supporters. The carnivorous section of the lower middle class are running the show.’ The new breed of Tory scholarship boys
have worked hard and done well. A clear relationship between effort and rewards seems to them to be palpable. But they are not quite certain that life always reflects this moral opinion. They believe life should, and it is their mission to see that it does.
Yet people who have never had to struggle upwards readily criticise the socially mobile for their earnestness and concern for elocution, manners and appearances: by contrast, the Victorians were unashamed in promoting an opportunity society. ‘You were taught to work jolly hard,’ Thatcher said, once more discussing her upbringing with an interviewer in 1983: ‘you were taught to improve yourself, you were taught self-reliance, you were taught to live within your income ... You were taught self-respect.’ A moralistic rather than a theoretical economic impulse informs Thatcher’s assault on inflation, and a late 20th-century variant of Victorian thrift leads her to condemn the way ‘government after government plundered ... savings by what they called reflation.’
Lansbury’s second mistake therefore lies in her undifferentiated view of the working class – for the regional, religious, cultural and status divisions between Victorian working men are crucial to the debate on cruelty. Respectable values caused the respectable artisan to shun brutal sports for the same reason that William Lovett wanted political prisoners segregated from the rest: respectability must be insulated from bad company. The respectable working man, too, sought moral progress, and saw educated middle-class vivisectors as traitors within morality’s camp.
Respectable values foster an assault on state power, play down what politicians can of themselves achieve, emphasise the need for parental responsibility, free choice and diffused property ownership. ‘I very much want every man and woman to be a capitalist,’ said Thatcher in an interview of 1977, ‘because then they will have the means to support their own decisions, the means to stand up to someone in authority.’ In such a system, the trade unions retreat from corporatist involvement in framing government policy and revert to their original (and Victorian) role of representing their members’ interests in a situation of free collective bargaining: the one-time distance between trade-unionism and socialism once more opens out.
This brings us to the fourth of the recent shifts in attitudes to Victorian values: the pursuit of liberty. Josephine Butler said that her father, John Grey of Dilston, ‘would speak of the imposition of social disabilities of any kind, by one class of persons on another, with kindling eyes and breath which came quickly’. Anti-slavery and religious liberty were among the great Victorian success-stories, and liberty was seen as one of Britain’s most significant exports. Thatcherism entails the Right’s filching of liberty as a watchword from the Left, and echoes the 19th-century Liberal’s libertarian variant of patriotism – freedom as ‘Britain’s greatest gift to the world’.
Conservative digestion of Liberal recruits has been going on for decades; what is new about Thatcherism is its open embracing of the Party’s Liberal inheritance. Conservative historians have hitherto met the Labour critique of industrialism by stressing the aristocratic-benevolent Tory radical tradition, and enlarge upon the interventionist style of a Shaftesbury or a Disraeli. But Thatcher meets the critique head on, and dismisses Tory benevolence as ‘wet’. In his The Road to Serfdom of 1944, F.A. Hayek noted that ‘the name of Gladstone is rarely mentioned by the younger generation without a sneer over his Victorian morality and naive utopianism.’ No longer so, for Thatcher was applauded at the Conservative Party Conference in 1983 for claiming that ‘if Mr Gladstone were alive today, he’d be reapplying to join the Conservative Party.’
Constitutionalism was integral to Victorian Liberalism, and one reason for welcoming Belchem’s biography of the early 19th-century radical leader Henry Hunt is his emphasis on how central it was to the Party’s radical wing as well. Open and uncorrupt government, opportunity for enterprise and talent, popular political participation, equality before the law and restraints on government power – these became the hallmarks of Mid-Victorian Liberalism. The Party’s radical allies usually blazed the trail, but were followed cautiously and often reluctantly by its Whig leaders. Hunt kept the radical cause alive during a period of reaction, and has long deserved a scholarly biography. Quarrelsome, litigious, sometimes vain and inconsistent, he was nonetheless always his own man. Energy, courage and resilience mark the whole of his long career; his loyalty to his working-class admirers was complete, nor did prison shake his convictions.
Belchem is a child of the 1960s. ‘A change is gonna come’ is his epigraph, and he writes of ‘the exhilarating experience of studying history at the University of Sussex in the late 1960s and early 1970s’; modish, too, at that time was his critique of radical leaders for what he calls their ‘debilitating obsession with legitimacy’. Yet commitment can contribute as much as detachment to good history, and sympathy is essential to effective biography: indeed, nobody who disliked Hunt could have combed through such a mass of scattered Huntian material. The biography is ‘an essay in recovery, not in revisionism’, and aims at justice for a radical leader whose critics span the political spectrum, yet Belchem is not afraid to record his hero’s mistakes and defects. He and the Clarendon Press have done Hunt proud: the text is well-documented and the book is nice to look at.
Belchem’s interpretation is straightforward, independent and rather unreflective, like its subject. One would have welcomed more on how Hunt seemed to his critics; the platform was so central to his career that his rhetorical conventions could usefully have been systematically analysed – the ‘heaving sighs’ and ‘expiring groans’ of ‘martyrs’ in his speeches could usefully have been related to contemporary literary taste. But more important is the fact that Belchem’s precise locating of Hunt in the history of the British Left is controversial. Belchem rightly stresses that the constitutionalism of early 19th-century radicalism was anything but moderate and compromising: but because he sees radicalism and liberalism in the 1820s as ‘divided by an unbridgeable chasm’, and liberalism as having ‘no patience with old notions about political and economic justice ... at odds with every aspect of popular experience and culture’, he has to portray Hunt as the lone and pioneering John the Baptist, preparing the way for Feargus O’Connor, with Chartism as ‘his true memorial’. In reality, liberalism in the 1820s and later possessed great potential for leftward growth precisely because the gulf between itself and radicalism was always bridgeable, and because its Whig leaders were shrewdly aware of when and how the bridge needed to be crossed. As Wilberforce pointed out, when discussing Whig support for radicalism in 1819, ‘the cause of the seditions being patronised by men of rank and influence may tend to rescue the multitude out of the hands of the Hunts and Thistlewoods.’ The Whigs’ outmanoeuvring of Hunt during the parliamentary reform crisis of 1830-32 was but one of their many successful bids for the continued leadership of the British Left. Yet each manoeuvre involved ingesting radical ideas, thereby edging the Party gradually leftwards. So Peterloo was incorporated into the Liberal as well as the Chartist pedigree: in 1874 a short account of it was published in Manchester as a Liberal election leaflet, and ‘Peterloo’ was the inscription on a memorial jug that John Bright preserved at One Ash throughout his life.
Nor is the line from Hunt to Chartism as clear or as simple as Belchem supposes. E.P. Thompson rightly notes that ‘the reform movement might use the rhetoric of equality, but many of the old responses of deference were still there even among the huzzaing crowds.’ The contrapuntal rationalistic, moralistic, self-improving radical line, wary of demagogues, sceptical of rhetoric, runs from Paine to Carlile to the London Working Men’s Association to Lovett’s ‘New Move’ of 1841, and on to the earnest working-class followers of Cobden, Bright, Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain. By the 1970s this line had begun to run beyond the boundaries of the Left, and to become yet another tributary of Thatcherism. We do not yet know whether Thatcher’s revaluation of the Victorians will turn out to be anything more substantial than an ephemeral episode in political rhetoric, for it has as yet no scholarly dimension. But if Conservative historians do venture into this territory, they must reckon with the fact that the Victorians themselves carried all four of her Victorian values – activism, voluntarism, respectability and the pursuit of liberty – in directions Thatcher would not favour.
Victorian activism gradually eroded suspicion of the state, and lent the early Labour Party its strongly ethical flavour. Voluntarism was less clearly distinct from collectivism, especially at the local level, than is often supposed: indeed, the two gradually grew together. Working-class respectability might at some periods shun state aid and class conflict, but at other times it invoked both in the defence of customary living standards. As for liberty, Late Victorian and Edwardian Liberals soon found ways of redefining it so as actually to assist the growth of public welfare.
One final point. To Victorians who were playing for such high moral stakes, hypocrisy was a special hazard and integrity became the one essential quality. It was because the Westland affair called Thatcher’s integrity into question that what began as an essentially small matter soon became very big indeed.