More Sinful Pleasures? Leisure, Respectability and the Male Middle Classes in Victorian England

Article excerpt

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. [1] Focus has been almost entirely on those more ordered and rational middle-class recreations seen as reinforcing the work ethic, thrift and respectability. [2] 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. [3] Others have found it more problematical because of its links with theories of embourgeoisement and the role of the labour aristocracy. [4] 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'. [5]

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. [6] 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." [7]

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. …