How respectable was the Victorian middle class? In spite of the period's identification as 'marking the emergence of a recognisably modern culture' and a 'new leisure world', there has been little exploration of this question.  Focus has been almost entirely on those more ordered and rational middle-class recreations seen as reinforcing the work ethic, thrift and respectability.  There has been little interest in middle-class leisure once the focus moves away from more formal, institutional and respectable recreations.
Yet leisure was contested cultural space. It was an arena where ideas about class, gender and ethnicity were articulated, debated and developed. Notions of class and class relationships have often been empirically linked by historians to the concept of respectability. Indeed, some historians have preferred to use respectability rather than class as a way of explaining the nature of social and political divisions and modes of social integration in Victorian Britain. Respectability, many have argued, was a sharp line of social division, consolidating bonds between middle and working-class respectables, in order to reform now distanced working-class roughs.  Others have found it more problematical because of its links with theories of embourgeoisement and the role of the labour aristocracy.  Use of the concept, however, helps to draw out more clearly the ways in which cultural factors contributed to both these developments within the working class. Even historians adopting a culturalist approach, however, have seen the middle classes as respectable. Cunningham, although seeing any rough/respectable division as "an extra-ordinarily crude tool for the description of social reality" has used culturalist analysis to develop notions of leisure cultures to describe different ways of life, and sees Victorian middle-class culture as a shifting entity but with a consistent attitude to leisure which was socially exclusive. He sees it as having a seriousness of approach, with the key function of 're-creating men for work', and establishing 'respectable credentials'. 
However, whilst respectability may have had ideological power, we need to question critically both the extent to which such beliefs were actually held and some of their impact, and explore the notion and significance of an unrespectable set of middle-class values. The historiographic investigation of Victorian values has already shown that they were contested, and that Victorian society was large, ramshackle, complex and diverse, embracing a multiplicity of cultural traditions.  Peter Bailey has argued powerfully that working-class men and their families for whom respectability was a staple and regular way of life were "rarer birds than contemporaries or today's historians have allowed." 
But Bailey's argument raises a major and equally significant question concerning the extent to which the ideology of respectability was universally accepted at all times into hearts and minds, as a lived code of values, across the whole range of the middle classes. Clearly, there were many for whom respectability was all-encompassing in private as well as in public life. There is plenty of evidence that much middle-class life was relatively sober, hard working, law abiding and pious. Nevertheless, there were others, although their numbers are as yet unclear, for whom there was a significant degree of instrumental manipulation of the role. For such groups or individuals respectability was practiced in a much more limited sense: limited by gender, by age, by situation and by role, so that there could be different modes of behaviour within a single life style, at different times and in different contexts. Not all the middle classes wanted to join the temperance movement with its rallies and pledges, or the emer ging 'amateur' sporting establishment. Nor did all wish to keep themselves morally distinct from the lower orders. The provenance of leisure historiography as an offshoot of labour and cultural studies has obscured our understanding of the place of less respectable pleasures in the middle-class Victorian world.
First however we need to examine the ideology of respectability itself. The Victorian middle classes themselves were certainly keen to foster notions of respectability, and it had two major rhetorical thrusts. The first was hegemonic, stemming from middle-class fears of leisure's moral misuse by workers and predominantly targeted not at themselves but at the workforce, most especially to encourage the emergence of the 'respectable working-man'. A second thrust was a generational one, aimed at discouraging middle-class youth from more sinful pleasures and curtailing potential leisure freedoms.
Whilst respectability was an extremely powerful rhetoric, active middle-class moralists and social reformers were always a small, although highly vociferous, minority. Their views were often shaped by evangelicalism, which saw the pursuit of pleasure and personal gratification as sinful, and duty and responsibility as central. 'Respectability' was "a creed and a code for the conduct of personal and family life," one which supposedly applied to all classes.  Both non-conformists and Anglicans focused on sin, guilt and the possibility of redemption. Internal systems of checks and the external support of the clergy gave rules of conduct which helped the living of a spiritual life, while the family was central to the struggle to reform morals and manners. But non-conformist evangelicalism had a dwindling membership by mid-century despite the high proportion of upper middle-class members in its congregations, even though their views acted as a very useful and continuing rationale for notions of social control, rational recreation and social Darwinism.
Support was also drawn from the moral wing of mid-Victorian Liberalism, appealing to temperate, self-improving, respectable, and socially responsible citizens of all classes in the interests of progress, and attacking reactionary defenders of the status quo, those involved in drink, in betting, in brutal sports or lacking sexual restraint.  Good citizenship, temperance, and firm commitment to the values of hearth and home were expected.
The ideology of middle-class respectability had become dominant by the 1840s, and, although slackening from the 1870s, was still powerful up to the century's end. It had some results, especially in terms of public rhetoric and public behaviour in some contexts. Certainly the upper classes adjusted their image to make it acceptable to middle-class morality. Its rhetoric, acting through preaching, the pages of the press, political platforms, and magistrates' pronouncements, can be seen as a powerful agent of hegemony.
The two contexts where social pressure for compliance was strongest were the moral, Christian home, and those of religious observance-the Sunday schools, church and chapel congregations. These were the places from which the public campaigns to attack immorality and support improving and uplifting rational recreations were mounted. Respectable public behaviour was underpinned by fear of pressure from church, neighbours, friends and family within these communities. Certainly contents of mid-Victorian diaries or private letters often seem dictated by rules of propriety and lacking in spontaneity, with few personal confessions or mentions of non-respectable behaviour, although some later Victorian writers were prepared to concede that even in the world of 1860s religiosity there was "a good deal of deliberate hypocrisy."  For middle-class men who wished to join the social elite of their town, attendance at the right chapel, wealth, involvement in charitable or philanthropic affairs, and the holding of public office were a common route to local fame and reputation; so respectability paid.
It was in leisure where the gap between …