Victorian Britain

By Hunt, Tristram | New Statesman (1996), January 8, 2001 | Go to article overview

Victorian Britain


Hunt, Tristram, New Statesman (1996)


Obsessed by a fear of revolution, haunted by a collapse of faith, it yet nurtured great minds, great art and a kind of socialism

Although it is said Margaret Thatcher had a thing for gay men, one doubts whether she would have seen eye to eye with Lytton Strachey. Yet together, the two of them, the louche Bloomsbury historian and the virulently uptight matriarch, managed to gut the reputation of the Victorian era. The combination of Strachey's Eminent Victorians, with its denunciation of the Florence Nightingale generation and its hypocrisy, and Thatcher's fond reminiscences of her parsimonious grandmother condemned the 19th century to being considered a time of cloying evangelicalism, repression and illiberalism.

Strachey's fellow traveller Leslie Stephen best summed up the 20th-century sentiment: "One thing is pretty certain, and in its way comforting, that however far the rage for revivalism may be pushed, nobody will ever want to revive the 19th century."

On 22 January 1901, the bells of St Paul's tolled across London and Queen Victoria finally departed to join her beloved Albert at the Frogmore mausoleum near Windsor. Now, a century later, it is time we celebrated the radicalism and excitement of the Victorian age. This is particularly apposite for the left, which has shamefully allowed Tory apologists to champion the century as their own - a tradition that reached its apogee in 1986 with Sir Keith Joseph writing the preface to a new edition of Samuel Smiles's Self-Help, so turning a radical text for the artisans of Victorian Leeds into a social handbook for Thatcherite economics.

When the young Victoria acceded to the throne in 1837, she took on a nation haunted by the collective memory of the French revolution. As the cold war and fear of nuclear annihilation drove European thought for the latter half of the 20th century, so the Jacobin terror dominated Victorian political culture. What unnerved those journalists who filled the Edinburgh Review, Quarterly Review, Westminster Review and Eclectic Review was the conviction that the revolution was the product of a collapse of faith; they feared that something similar would engulf Britain.

While Strachey rebelled against the 19th century as an age of overbearing Quakers and Evangelicals, the Victorians regarded themselves as a nation horribly fallen. Faith, and fear of a crisis of faith, persecuted the Victorian mind. No one described it better than Thomas Carlyle's autobiographical hero in Sartor Resartus: "To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb." The same apocalyptic fear occupied John Stuart Mill after his mental breakdown; Marian Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot, turned to the writings of Hegel for release from her spiritual sink.

The Victorians nailed faith even to business. A trinity of values governed the market: credit was virtuous, speculation corrupting and debt sinful. In an economy of growing share transaction and increased capital flows, the dread of debt and horror of bankruptcy consumed the imagination. Through Middlemarch's bankrupt financier Bulstrode, Eliot acutely described the religious terror of commercial failure: "Night and day, while the resurgent threatening past was making a conscience within him, he was thinking by what means he could recover peace and trust-by what sacrifice he could stay the rod." Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby and Melmotte (a part that Robert Maxwell was to emulate flawlessly a century later) in Trollope's The Way We Live Now played on the same abiding fear, which led to the draconian bankruptcy laws that the government has only now started to relax.

If a surfeit of faith governed commerce, it was the absence of Christian sentiment that disturbed architectural critics. …

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