Signposts the Victorians: In the Second of Our Occasional Series Exploring the Ways in Which Topical Historical Subjects Are Being Tackled in a Variety of Media, Rohan McWilliam Examines a Time in Britain's History That Seems to Repay Frequent Revisiting More Than a Century after It Ended

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Bombastic, imperialistic, pompous: the charge sheet against the Victorians is extensive. Didn't Victorian gentlemen trumpet their moral values before visiting the local prostitute? Didn't they insist that poverty was the fault of the poor? Most conversations about Victorianism usually end up using the word 'hypocrisy' at some point. On the other hand, perhaps the Victorians were not so different from ourselves. They certainly won't leave us alone. Earlier this year, Jeremy Paxman's BBC television series, The Victorians, showed that 19th-century paintings offered a form of social history, a whole society caught on canvas. Other series such as The 1900 House and now The Victorian Farm, bring the Victorians into the age of reality television. As viewers of the BBC's stunning new adaptation of Dickens's Little Dorrit discovered, the Victorians knew all about debt and irresponsible financial speculation.

Ever since Lytton Strachey published his waspish Eminent Victorians in 1918, there has been a cottage industry in trying to capture the Victorian worldview that shaped us for better or worse. A.N. Wilson's The Victorians (Hutchinson, 2002) is the latest 'Portrait of an Age' (to echo the title of G.M. Young's great contribution to this particular genre in 1936). Wilson kicks off by saying: 'The Victorians are still with us because the world they created is still here, though changed.' This remains the justification for trying to understand the bustling, diverse and complex Victorian world, from the engineering triumphs of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the statesmanship of Gladstone to the Chartists who shockingly believed that democracy might be worth a shot.

Where scholarship and popular images of the Victorians differ is that historians are often sceptical about whether there is such a thing as Victorian values. G.M. Young rightly said it was difficult 'to find anything on which (the Victorians) agreed'. The 19th century was almost torn apart by forces of confidence and doubt (think Darwin) and by the terrible gap between the rich and the poor.

The 1960s was arguably the golden age of Victorian Studies when Asa Briggs and other social historians overturned decades of contempt for the Victorians. The big themes were the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of class society, urbanisation and the making of the modern political system. It was an age of improvement (at least for some). Railways transformed time and space and town halls proclaimed civic pride through massive Gothic architecture. The Victorians were a people on the move, characterised by relentless Protestant energy.

More recently, there has been a sea change in Victorian Studies. Take social class, for instance. Class was of course a major Victorian preoccupation. It shaped people's life opportunities, their attitudes and even their clothing. Early Victorian fiction (the novels of Charles Dickens, Mrs Gaskell and others) confronts us with the differences between the middleclass parlour and the workhouse. It is no wonder that one of the last great Victorian inventions was the Labour Party (founded in 1900), but historians are now writing in the age of New Labour. Few historians today would argue that class was unimportant but they increasingly draw attention to the aspects of Victorian life that cannot be reduced to class. Religion and patriotism have been reassessed as forces that glued society together. Working-class history (notably the scholarship inspired by E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class) used to focus mainly on male factory workers and radical artisans but the proletariat was more complex. As Andrew August shows in The British Working Class, 1832-1940 (Longman, 2007), working women and children lived different kinds of lives from working men. Today we are more aware of workers who could be deferential to their social superiors. These included domestic servants (often ignored in labour history) but many other working-class people respected the local factory owner and believed that the hierarchical system of the 19th century was the natural order of things. …