Looking back over Victorian Times and English quality of life

It’s a hard Life

It is an interesting fact that most British people think of the Victorians as rather ‘heavy’ people, very staid and without zest. One reason is that the photographs we have of our grandparents are all from the early era of photography, when the person being photographed had to keep absolutely still for several seconds. Naturally the pictures always show an unnatural fixity of expression. And one tends to feel that they were like that in daily life too. We feel they moved in a fixed and ordered society, with classes distinct and everyone accepting his ‘station in life’.

This is quite untrue. The Victorians felt they lived in a world of tumultuous change, thrusting forward to unthinkable possibilities. One reason why they insisted is so much on the virtues of calmness, sobriety, steadiness and orderliness was that their world was being drastically upset all the time. Furthermore they themselves had the utmost difficulty in controlling their aggressiveness. Their scientific conferences often led to the most bitter quarrels, sometimes even fights; social order in general was often balanced on a knife-edge.

Sexual morals—under the pressure of the Puritanical dissenting sects—were supposed to be very tightly controlled: In fact for a long time the word ‘immoral’ meant only ‘sexually immoral’. If it was said of someone that he or she was immoral, it never meant ‘dishonest,’ or ‘cruel’—it always meant sexually unrestrained.

The repressed sexual energy became transformed in various ways; one of them was aggressiveness in the struggle to succeed in the world, and another opposite way was an impulse to help the unfortunate. Hard businessmen ruthlessly exploited their workers, and the wives of the same businessmen occupied themselves in doing charity to mitigate the effects of the husband’s ruthlessness. But these same wives would probably condemn absolutely a woman who was known to be lax in her sexual morals.

The Victorians were inclined to think of life as a school for developing ‘character’, and that sometimes just meant ‘will-power.’ They believed in Spartan and Stoical self-control. In Bernard Shaw’s early play You Never Can Tell there is a Victorian character —“he is a middle-aged man who has to have a tooth extracted by a dentist. He refuses to have an anaesthetic and have trained myself to be hard,” he boasts.

Some young people today doubt whether such people really existed, but they did exist, and there were many of them. My uncle, who was in the Navy, had a toe amputated without an anaesthetic. My mother told me that he absolutely refused to have anything to do with chloroform; he said it would be cowardly. So the doctors got some medical students to help with the operation. My uncle got very drunk on rum, and then the medical students held him firmly, and the surgeon cut off the toe quickly.

Whenever I met that uncle 1 used to think of this, and I always wanted to say to him, “After all to dull the pain by drinking a lot of rum is the same thing as having chloroform, isn’t it?”—but I never dared to say it.

I was often reminded of that uncle by stories of Meiji Japan—though in Japan 1 suppose it would have been a point of honour not to have anyone to hold the patient to prevent his moving involuntarily.

The Victorians knew that life was hard, and one of their favourite phrases was, “It’s a hard life.” This phrase is used quite a lot nowadays, but in quite a different way: now it is used as a joke. If someone has to stay overtime at the office one weekend, perhaps he or she will say in joke, “It’s a hard life.” But to the Victorians, the phrase was the literal truth. In the nineteenth century, about a third of the population of Britain did not have enough to eat; an investigation in London in 1901 reported that 30% of the Londoners did not get enough to eat for normal efficiency in work; in York a few years before, the figure was almost the same.

The Victorians therefore had reason to be frightened of poverty, and they had many interesting phrases about it. One of them parallels a Japanese phrase—the British phrase is “Clogs to clogs in three generations”. The poor people in the north of England wore wooden clogs—they could not afford shoes of leather. The first generation is a poor man wearing clogs, who by drive and ambition makes a small fortune; now he is wearing shoes. His son has been to a good school, and of course has never worn clogs in his life. The son maintains the fortune. But the grandson having been born in luxury has no idea how to handle money; he cannot imagine poverty because he has always been rich. So he squanders the money and becomes bankrupt. Everything is sold, and he is wearing clogs. “Clogs to clogs in three generations.” The Japanese San-dai-me seems to be similar.

A favourite Victorian maxim (especially among the wealthy) was that poverty is simply the result of laziness, and that anyone who works steadily is sure to succeed. I have often been struck when reading the speeches of some Japanese Shack’ s to the new company recruits, that their idea of work as a character training is very like the idea in Victorian Britain.

Children were made to learn things as character training, and it was sometimes felt that it would be a better training if the child did not like it. In most well-off families, all the girls had to learn some musical instrument, or sing, whether they had any interest in music or not. My mother, though she was not very musical, learnt to play the piano quite well, and so did her sisters. They all played, though only one of them had real musical talent. At Victorian parties (like some Japanese parties today) the guests one by one entertained the company with a musical piece, or a song, or a recitation of some famous poem, and so on; this was called one’s ‘party piece’. This phrase is still in use today, and the implication is that this is perhaps the only thing that one can do.

Some Quaint Pieces of Victoriana

The Victorians were obsessed with ‘class’—they believed that the old families had a different blood from what they called the working classes. And curiously enough, the working classes believed it too. One reason the so-called middle classes were so strict with themselves was that they believed they must show themselves superior in character to the working classes. Many of them genuinely lived up to their ideal of ‘respectability’; for instance, I never heard my father use an obscene word, or even swear.

My father’s mother was tremendously strict in her code of behaviour, but also convinced that the upper classes were in some way entitled to a privileged way of life. Her own family was an old farming family on the South coast, who could trace their ancestry back for a long time in the church records of births and deaths; but they had always been farmers. She thought that people should ‘know their place’, as it was said. So she did not approve of her son (my father) marrying into this old aristocratic Scottish family to which my mother belonged, just as the Scottish grandmother on the other side did not approve of it either.

My father while yet young was beginning to do very well financially; he did not marry my mother for money. But even so, neither of the grandmothers approved of the match: they felt that classes should not be mixed.

It is extraordinary how many traces of this attitude remain even today, when the barriers to advancement are down. Some poor families do not want their children to take advantage of the educational openings which are now open to everyone, rich or poor, equally. Any boy or girl who can pass the necessary examinations (which are not too difficult) can get a money grant from the local authorities, or direct from the Government, to study at a university; but quite often the parents dissuade the children from applying. “To go to a university is not for us; you wouldn’t be happy there.” In Victorian times a sort of conscious ness of inferiority was imposed which has still not been transcended. One of the little children’s rhymes taught in Victorian times was this:

“See the daisy of the field Peeping with its little eye,
Never sighing, never wishing
It were sitting up on high.”

The flower is a flower, and its place is on the earth, where it has its own humble beauty; it would be absurd for a daisy to wish to be a tree blossom. Sometimes the upper classes quoted texts from the Bible in order to make poor people contented with their hard life. In Japan I have heard some conservative people quote Dogen Zenji’s phrase: Tori tonde tori no gotoku; Uo yuite uo ni nitari. But I don’t believe that either the Bible or Dogen Zenji intended these phrases to be used as excuses for oppressing poor people.

Still, the Victorian Establishment wanted to kill the seeds of ambition in small children, and make them accept their place in life. Even the Non-conformists and Dissenters, who were ambitious and enterprising people, still brought up their children generally very tyrannically; they did not support dissent in children!

There was a great resistance to the idea of general education, which was not made compulsory till 1870; the ruling classes felt that it would make the workers less obedient (which in fact came true).

It was felt that for children and workers obedience was the most important thing in life, and blind obedience was the highest virtue for them. It was also taught to juniors in business. Here is a maxim from a book for the guidance of young men:

“Initiative is of course a good thing, but the truth is that the highest praise which can be given to any young man in business is this: He always does exactly what is expected from him.”

The upper middle classes and the rich had a special method of teaching obedience to children. Often the parents did not see their children much—sometimes perhaps only one hour in the day. The children were brought up by a governess—a ‘nanny’, who was supposed to be stricter than the parents—and therefore, by Victorian reasoning, better for the child.

Victorian discipline for children was based first of all on breaking the child’s will. This meant making the child accept without questioning commands which it could not understand; sometimes even commands which the child could see were obviously meaningless. To do some meaningless drudgery, just because it had been ordered, was believed to be an important training in obedience. To learn Latin, a dead language which described wars fought by peoples two thousand years previously, was a good discipline just because it contained little  interest. To learn French would not be such a good discipline because it might be interesting. A well- known writer has described how, when he was a child, he displayed a good aptitude for drawing, so his parents made him learn the violin as a discipline.

Another method of training was to make something unnecessarily difficult. This was supposed to make a strong character. The Victorians believed that with a strong character, and the exercise of reason, almost all the problems of this world could be solved. They were sometimes extraordinarily harsh. Many of them believed that to use spectacles was mere weakness, a foolish self-indulgence. Even in the 1880’s in some offices clerks with failing eyesight had to conceal their glasses in one hand; they would slip them on when the boss was not looking. When the boss came near, one of the fellow-clerks would hiss: “Take them off!” The boss regarded using spectacles as moral weakness, which might infect the whole character. It seems incredible to us now, but these things actually happened; they are mentioned in the popular magazines of the time.

The Victorian attitude towards disobedience was almost as though it was the Devil manifesting himself; they determined to drive out the Devil by harshness.

Archbishop Benson had forbidden his son to go on a picnic, and the son went; when the father found out, he told his son that the boy was unfit to eat with the rest of the family, or even talk to them; the son was made to stay in his room for a week, eating only bread and water. (It should be added that the Archbishop’s three sons all became successful writers, so they were not crushed by his harshness.)

Children soon learnt to control the expression of their feelings. And this often lasted for the rest of their lives. Heine said of the English, then in the middle of the Industrial Revolution: “Just as machines in England seem like human beings, so are Englishmen like machines …. Deprived of his soul, the Englishman pursues his daily round in machine-like fashion, at appointed times eating his beefsteak, making parliamentary speeches, brushing his nails, boarding his stage-coach, or hanging himself.” But to the Englishman of the time, Heine’s Continental, with his ‘soul’, seemed merely an unpunctual, unsystematic idler, dreaming away his life in unproductive reveries. The Englishmen had very strong feelings, but they believed that feelings must be rigidly controlled, and directed into channels selected by reason. Heine’s characterization of the English of the time as ‘machinelike’ reminds me of Arthur Koestler’s characterization of the modern Japanese as ‘robots’. It is just as far from the truth.

In the early twentieth century there was a great reaction against the Victorians—led by men and women of genius who had been children under that oppressive regime. Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell could be taken as typical—their whole lives they were rebellious children, who always sought to mock the mental rigidity, self-righteousness, lack of taste, and hypocrisy of the typical Victorians. Even when Shaw and Russell were venerable white-haired figures themselves, they still kept this desire to shock. In 1918 Lytton Strachey wrote an enormously influential book called Eminent Victorians in which he exposed to ridicule some of the ‘father is figures’ who had been heroes, such as General Gordon. It is true that he often distorted the truth in order to attack the subjects of his biographies, but the popularity of the book showed how relieved people felt at finding that these giants were only human beings— or even less than human beings, as Strachey portrayed them. Florence Nightingale did not escape his barbs.

However, it is an interesting fact that Strachey tried to follow up this success with another book called simply Queen Victoria, and there is no doubt that he intended to do the same thing with the Queen. But in fact the book turned out to be favourable. A famous critic said, “Queen Victoria, though dead, defeated him.” He ended up by being impressed with her sincerity and sense of duty; her personality was stronger than his.

Something of the same sort of thing is happening now among the public. After seventy years of sneering at the Victorians, especially for their lack of taste and their insensitivity, there is now a fashion for ‘Victoriana’ (Victorian things). Even ornaments which are recognized to be hideous are now taken to be ‘quaint’. Buildings like the Albert Memorial, for years pointed out as the quintessence of over-ornamented bad taste, are now looked at with affection.

This is not happening in clothes—men do not want to go back to the plain black frock-coats and high stiff collars, or women to the unhealthy tight-lacing. But in some other things there is a Victorian revival. In a humorous book written in the late Victorian period, the author Jerome K. Jerome remarked on how things seem to become beautiful when they are a hundred years old. He says, “I am now looking at a china dog, owned by my landlady. It is hideous. But I suppose that after a hundred years, if this dog is discovered somewhere in an attic, scratched and with one paw and one ear broken off, people will reverently clean it and put it in a place of honour in the house. They will comment on its artistic composition, and speculate on the beauty of the paw which is missing. And they will speak of us as ‘Those magnificent old Victorian artists of the 1890’s, who produced those china dogs!’”

This has actually happened—though not in quite the way Jerome foresaw. The china dogs are now being manufactured again, carefully imitating the glaring and tasteless colours of the originals, and they are being sold in the shops!

There are not many people alive today who can remember the rigours of life in Victorian times, and the whole era is beginning to assume a hazy charm for modern Englishmen.

The Victorian racialism and ultra-nationalism represented by Disraeli and Kipling (though not by Gladstone) will probably never come back. Kipling wrote a typical short story about a minor Indian official in in a little town who had “one drop of white blood in his body, from generations back”. This man with his fellow officials is faced with a mob riot; the others shrink back afraid, but he finds an unexpected self-possession and courage rising in him, and takes effective action  which prevents the riot—the mob are overawed by his self-possessed calm bravery. Immediately afterwards he has a fit of hysterical weeping, and Kipling writes, “This was the one drop of white blood burning itself out—afterwards he would be just the same as his colleagues.” Nobody would write that today—Gandhi and his doctrine of passive resistance demonstrated very great courage, much greater courage than is needed for fighting, where anger helps to reinforce courage. Most British people now do not believe that there is any intrinsic racial superiority at all. It is being recognized that there may be superiority in tradition, but that is not the same thing as an inborn superiority.

It is extraordinary how a tradition sometimes manifests itself unexpectedly, among people who consciously reject it. For instance, one great Victorian ideal was imperturbability in crisis—they respected calm bravery, self-possessed bravery, far more than emotional bravery, which they called fanaticism. Oscar Wilde wrote an ironical little tale about the ideal of the ‘Englishman calm in a crisis’. He wrote: “There was a big fire at the front of a small theatre, and people made a rush for the only emergency exit. A man on the other side of the theatre jumped on his seat and shouted in a voice of thunder, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen! Remember you are British! No panic please! Return to your seats and file out in order!’ The English people were ashamed, and left the exit clear and returned to their seats. Then the man jumped down from his seat and dashed out of the now free exit. As he got away, the door collapsed and everyone else was burned alive.”

Most people do not realize how this Victorian ideal is still alive today. Recently an aircraft full of British passengers had just landed when there was an explosion. The air hostesses called to the passengers, “No panic please! Don’t push—file out of the emergency exit in order I” The passengers did this—but one passenger, an East European, dashed past the queue and jumped through the emergency exit. Just as he got away, there was another explosion and everyone else was killed. He related the story himself, without any embarrassment. An Englishman, even if he had done so, would never have mentioned it.

The famous General Gordon went into battle at the head of his troops, with no gun or sword, only a light cane. I had always wondered about that. Later I came to understand that he had been ‘typed’ by his men as a hero, and he was simply acting out the role with conviction.

Gordon met his death in 1885 because of his absolute refusal to listen to the voice of caution. One of the favourite pictures of the Victorians was “The Death of General Gordon at Khartoum”. A reproduction of this picture hung on one wall in our house for a time. It showed General Gordon at the top of a flight of wooden steps leading to the veranda of his house. The enemy Sudanese soldiers, with guns and swords, were just beginning to climb it. At the top stood Gordon, perfectly calm, awaiting his death. I remember thinking as a child that I would at least have drawn the sword and killed a few of the attackers. It was much later that I discovered that the sword was a ceremonial part of the general’s uniform, and had no edge; he never carried any weapon or used one.

Lytton Strachey in his book treated Gordon as a mere fanatic. But now opinion is beginning to change and people are coming to think that we must pay more s respect to the Victorians. In 1970, the last of the ‘great three’ Victorians died—amazing survivals, like dinosaurs, from another age: Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Churchill. All of them have profoundly influenced our present lives; they were largely free from the besetting Victorian sins, hypocrisy and cruelty. They all displayed the great Victorian virtue—calm resourceful and courageous energy in pursuit of ideals. We are beginning to look for inspiration to these virtues.

© Trevor Leggett 1976


1.Ways in which British people think and act

2.My Husband and I

3.The Public School System

4.The Gentleman Ideal

5.The Ideal of Balance

6.Looking Back Over Victorian Times

7.The Post-Beatles Generation


Similar Posts