Will the history of the Victorian age ever be written? Lytton Strachey was emphatic that it wouldn’t. It will never be written, he declared in the preface to Eminent Victorians, because we know too much about it. Neither a Ranke nor a Gibbon could master the vast ocean of material bequeathed by those prolific generations. The historian could do no more than row across it, sink a bucket, and retrieve a few random and suggestive samples.
Strachey was a solitary explorer, writing in 1918 for a war-weary public that could tolerate Victoriana only in small, savoury doses. He could not foresee the Victorian Revival: the huge appetite that would send a navy of researchers across the ocean of evidence, lowering buckets, trawling nets, and bringing to light more and more remains of that vanished civilisation. By 2001, the centennial of Queen Victoria’s death, shoals had been fished, wrecks raised, and so much written about the Victorian age that it seemed there could be nothing left to write.
Nevertheless, after reading Judith Flanders’s Consuming Passions, I’m convinced that Strachey was right – right in his prediction that the history of the Victorian age will never be written. But he was wrong in his diagnosis. The problem is not too much material; it is, rather, too little. The evidence is copious, but it’s not enough, because it’s mostly archaeological. Flanders’s survey reminds us just how rich the modern literature is about Victorian shopping, reading and travelling; about Victorian hobbies and pastimes; about the exhibitions, theatres, music halls, concerts, football matches and Christmases that filled up British leisure from the middle of the 18th century until the end of the 19th. Added to everything else we have been told about the Victorians, sick and well, at work, at play, at home, abroad, at school, at table, even in bed, it almost persuades us that we know them as well as we know ourselves; that they stand naked before us, and we confront at last the thing itself.
Yet how much do we know of the Victorian experience? Of the chemistry that transformed a world made into a world perceived? All our knowledge of this comes from a narrow and special source: from the Victorians of ‘substance’ – the better off, the highly literate and articulate. Their frame of mind has been mapped in intricate detail. But beyond it there is the hidden experience of the anonymous – the inner world of ‘the masses’, ‘the populace’, ‘the people’. These Victorians were collectively hugely conspicuous. In an age of industry, urbanisation and democracy they were significant as never before. They supplied the needs of an empire, made and unmade political destinies. Yet individually they scarcely exist. When we hear them it is always through the voices of others – novelists, journalists, playwrights, investigators of social conditions. Their experience is obscured by mediation and speculation.
At the beginning of this book there is a signpost. It points to where the author intends to take us. She wants to visit, she says, not the new world of work, but the new world of leisure that was created by the Industrial Revolution. Her goal is the universe of ‘colour, light and entertainment’ that came into existence at the same time as the dark satanic mills, and served as an antidote to their grimness. The Dickensian indictment of industrial capitalism is that it dehumanised its workers by turning them into ‘hands’. The proposal here is that it humanised them, by turning them into consumers. The new machinery of production, distribution and exchange liberated constricted lives and fertilised leisure with pleasure. The Industrial Revolution may have transformed Merrie England into Coketown, but it also transported Coketown to Sleary’s Circus. It made people cheerful by making things cheap, administering a sacrament of culture, kitsch and candyfloss.
It’s always been a part of the apology for the industrial economy that it democratises pleasure. The Victorians themselves, though, weren’t so sure. George Eliot reckoned that leisure had vanished from the industrial age (it was ‘gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons’), and that pleasure could not cohabit with frenzied consumerism: ‘Even idleness is eager now – eager for amusement, prone to excursion trains, art museums, periodical literature and exciting novels.’ Leslie Stephen complained that high-pressure marketing and advertising had created artificial needs. They had filled art galleries with bored crowds, turned tourists into hacks and vacations into a treadmill.
Flanders makes no use of responses such as these, and maybe she is right to ignore them; they are, after all, witnesses to a purely middle-class experience. But there is no witness at all to the wider experience, and for this reason she can’t take us to the world she wants to visit. She takes us instead to a world of commerce: a world of figures, statistics, dates and facts about packaging and selling. She says a lot about excursion trains, art museums, periodical literature and exciting novels, and a lot about much else besides. She stacks up information – much of it interesting, some of it dry – and evokes the teeming profusion and crazy gimmickry of a universe of shops and shows. She leaves us in no doubt that Victorian exhibitions, football matches, theatrical spectacles and tourist excursions meant big crowds and big money. But did they all add up to that innocent-sounding epiphany of colour, light and entertainment? Only the consumers can tell us, and consumers are conspicuously absent from this book about consumption. We turn page after page, and are still no wiser about the ‘shilling people’ at the Great Exhibition, the visitors to the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition, the audiences at the Alhambra and the Lyceum, and the spectators at the football matches than we are about the ancient Romans in the Colosseum.
The visual evidence is ambiguous. Prints and paintings of Victorian art exhibitions showing walls smothered in pictures, the upper ones hung so high (‘skied’) as to be virtually invisible without binoculars, leave us wondering how anyone could make sense of them, let alone enjoy them. Once, just once, in a photograph not in the book itself but on the dust jacket, we have a glimpse of something hinting at what Flanders is looking for: four Victorian women at the seaside, lifting their skirts and paddling. Two of them have their backs to us, and are no more than bundles of clothes; two are showing their faces; one looks alarmed and unhappy. She realises that she is being photographed, the other does not, and is laughing. It’s remarkable to see a laughing Victorian, and for a brief moment the statistics become human. But it’s only for a moment – before this woman, too, realises that the camera’s eye is on her. Then she will behave as the Victorians always behaved before the camera: she will pose, her features will lapse into cadaverous impassivity, and like the schoolgirls in the picture of a Victorian classroom (every one of them expressionless, eyes cast decorously down at folded hands), posterity will have no means of knowing whether she was happy or sad.
Is this fleeting betrayal of emotion a key to understanding the consumer revolution? The book itself is ambivalent, because it contains a story that is quite different from the one it aims to tell. It’s a story about leisure as a casualty, rather than a beneficiary, of the switch from the agricultural to the industrial calendar. We read of leisure curtailed, and of leisure reconfigured in the image of work. Flanders writes about emancipation, of women especially; but she writes, too, about regimentation, regulation and obedience: leisure governed by market criteria, logistic rigour and punctuality, the fiction of more choice disguising the reality of less. The railway timetable, with its fixed schedule of arrivals and departures, had, as the Times complained in 1861, turned holidays into work – and ‘tiring work’ at that. It demanded ‘perpetual attention to time, and all the anxieties and irritations of that responsibility’. National life was now ruled by ‘railway time’, and Thomas Cook subjected the nation’s leisure to factory discipline.
Leisure had always meant serious business. There was nothing new about recreation as a big market and big money. But a world in which almost every pastime was an industry, and industry was dependent on saturation advertising and accelerating consumption, was unprecedented in the magnitude of its promises and its forfeits. Flanders is at her most thought-provoking when she talks of Paxton’s Crystal Palace as a gigantic proto-supermarket, the first of the shopping malls, encroaching on the green recreational space of Hyde Park. She writes suggestively about the receding frontier of gratification, the more and more evident paradox of satisfaction postponed as civilisation advanced. The luxuries of one generation became the necessities of the next, and Joy’s hand was forever at its lips bidding adieu as a teapot arrived in every pantry, and a cistern flushed in every closet. The ‘standard of living’ was becoming a fetish, travel a meaningless migration between places more or less identical, consumption a mad rush to ecological catastrophe.
Flanders throws out some searching questions. Of the Great Exhibition she asks what and whom it was for, thereby opening up an intriguing view of Victorian leisure as the interface between conflicting ideologies. It was claimed by the advocates of commerce, of education and of moral improvement, as well as by the partisans of ‘culture’ who rallied behind Matthew Arnold. Her account of the debate about the function of the Royal Academy reveals the early skirmishes in the unending combat between market forces and artistic high-mindedness. But, having opened, the view quickly closes again. The wider perspective – including concern about the environmental impact of commercialised leisure – is not explored, and the book generally is short on discussion. Despite the powerful resonance of its themes, it cannot be described as deeply engaged. A few 18th-century and Victorian gurus – Adam Smith, Bentham, Ruskin – put in brief appearances, and Marx just makes it into a footnote. But of the later sophisticated theorists of things and social behaviour – Durkheim, Gramsci, Barthes, Bourdieu, Lévi-Strauss – there’s never a whisper. The author does not illuminate the record by arguing a case, and she sometimes seems unsure what to do with her material and where to put it. She gives us not a big historical picture, but a sequence of potted histories, which tend to sprawl and overlap. There’s no conclusion, no summing-up that reveals a pattern in the carpet. Nevertheless, alert readers cannot miss the portentous significance of the phenomenon she describes, and perhaps we should see in her inconclusiveness, her avoidance of a grand récit, a symptom of our postmodern indecision.
For there’s no doubt that in the Victorian apotheosis of consumerism we can recognise the origin of both our best hopes and our worst fears. Were the Victorians the last to know the art of enjoyment, the epiphany of leisure? Or were they the first to know its loss? Victorian intellectuals reckoned that leisure had gone where the spinning-wheels had gone. Now the nostalgia trip leads to where the brass bedsteads have gone, and the Morris wallpaper, and the mahogany toilet seats. Leisure has vanished with the Victorian idyll: with bandstands and Punch and Judy, railway hotels, teetotal excursion trains, collar-and-tie crowds at football matches, and unbuttoned moments at the seaside, captured by a Kodak. The lesson is clear. It’s always time to write the epitaph of leisure – and that, too, is why it will never be time to write the history of the Victorian age. We shall never make up our minds about it. It will always feature as it features here: as both contemporary and obsolete; as a momentous but imperfectly seen and fitfully audible event that eludes understanding and resists a summing-up. We can be sure only that it was a lot less serious than a funeral, and a lot more serious than a romp.