To call something “Victorian” is, in left-liberal parlance, to say that you don’t like it. The fact that hardly anything routinely called “Victorian” accurately characterizes the era of Queen Victoria’s long reign, from 1837 to 1901, is one of the great historiographical tragedies of the 20th century. Thus, when a large number of African bishops at the Church of England’s 1998 Lambeth Conference dared to suggest that the Church should not condone homosexual behavior because the Bible condemns it, American bishop John Shelby Spong dismissed their reasoning on NPR as “Victorian moralism”—as though the Victorian moralists were known principally for their arguments from Scripture, and, furthermore, as though no one in the history of Christianity ever made much of biblical passages condemning homosexuality until well into the 19th century. What Spong meant was I don’t like it.
It is the noble task of British journalist Matthew Sweet to show that nearly all of our notions about what was typical in Victorian Britain are either mostly or entirely untrue. Inventing the Victorians contains 12 mid-length essays on various aspects of life in Victorian England. Sweet begins each by calling up one of our preconceptions about the era—that most Victorians were naive and prudish about sex, that Victorian interior decoration was characterized by clutter and chinz, that the rules governing manners were arbitrary and impractical—and then sets about demonstrating that the truth is very much otherwise. Even most of the “facts” cited to illustrate these preconceptions are often untrue: There is no evidence that anyone ever draped the legs of a piano, or that anyone ran screaming out of the room in which the Lumière brothers first screened an oncoming train, or that Prince Albert pinned his genitalia to his pant leg in order to hide the bulge that would otherwise appear.
Sweet is not an academic; he is a journalist—a film reviewer of all things—for the British Independent. This book, evidently the first of which he is the sole author, is both well researched and well written. Sweet examines an impressive array of primary sources—advertisements in the London Times and the News of the World, novels by unknown authors, long-forgotten children’s books, unpublished journals—and brings them to bear on his subject in clear and engaging prose.
He is, moreover, capable of discerning the degree to which the works he examines should be taken as representative of the era. One reason the Victorians have been so successfully turned into creatures to which they bore only the slightest resemblance is that there is so much material to mine. A bit of mischievous selection does wonders; obscure manuals are regularly cited by sneering English and history professors as though every last subject in the British Empire adhered to them without scruple, while more obvious examples of social commentary are ignored.
One of the delights of this book is that its author dismantles stereotypes that even those of us who are instinctively sympathetic toward the Victorians have unwittingly adopted. In “A Defense of the Freak Show,” for example, Sweet examines the lives of actual “freaks,” from Tom Thumb and Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man) to the now forgotten Julia Pastrana (the Nondescript) and Hassan Ali (the Egyptian Giant). However unfortunate, these people were treated far better than is customarily thought and were, in fact, happier—and, as a result of their performances, wealthier—than 20th-century portrayals such as David Lynch’s 1979 film The Elephant Man have led us to believe. By contrast, he contends, those profoundly troubled people who appear on The Jerry Springer Show—an exhibition of freakery far more revolting than anything the Victorians had to offer—get next to nothing for their performances. In this respect, as in many others, the present age has little to be smug about.
Why have the Victorians been so often and unjustifiably maligned? The answer, in part, is intellectual laziness. It is simply easier for the professor of Victorian literature, lecturing to a roomful of 18-year-olds or writing an article for one of the trendy academic journals, to use these generalizations as foils for his own brilliant theories and “readings.” Throw around that word “Victorian”—or, better, “mid-Victorian” or “high Victorian”—and you sound informed, enlightened, wise. Like all lies and myths, these perpetuate themselves by sheer inertia.
But the invention of the pseudo-Victorians owes chiefly to that peculiar need almost all liberals seem to have of feeling morally superior to their—to our—forefathers. This may sound like a crude bit of political point-scoring, but it is simply true that the lies and myths about Victorians and Victorian culture rightly loathed by Sweet have been generated, with few exceptions, by the left. This is a problem for Sweet, who is, alas, a liberal. (He seems to consider himself a centrist, or at least ideologically autonomous; by the evidence in this book, however, his politics are several notches to the left of center, especially by American standards.)
This explains his repeated and rather lame attempts to distance himself from conservative assessments of the Victorian era, which he calls “nostalgic.” So, for
instance, after cataloguing numerous misrepresentations and falsifications purveyed by those of obviously liberal viewpoints, he mentions Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956) and Vivian Ellis’s Bless the Bride (1947), which
use the Victorian period to indulge escapist fantasies about romance uncomplicated by anxiety about sexual equality—equality which most of us would be unwilling to relinquish. A political adaption of that same nostalgia was deployed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party in 1983, when it made enormous electoral capital from its invocations of a mythic nineteenth century of Tory content: a utopia of personal thrift, ruined by the foundation of the welfare state and the promulgation of Keynesian economics.
Two musicals and the 1983 Tory campaign: These are about the only instances of misrepresentation propagated by the right that Sweet can recall. (He mentions the campaign three or four times.) Never mind that Thatcher’s claims had a great deal of truth in them, for a political campaign especially; but putting My Fair Lady on the same level with the intentional rewriting of history—as if every age isn’t idealized in novels and musicals—is ludicrous.
On the final page of the book, Sweet drops this conceit: “Why do we hate these people?” (italics mine). The answer is obvious. The left’s central doctrine is that human nature is essentially malleable and improvable; thus, the 20th century—the century in which liberalism has come to dominate almost every area of intellectual life—must be portrayed as a time of continual progress. Given the difficulties involved in framing the present era as the culmination of a century of moral improvement and cultural advancement, it helps to portray the average person of the preceding century as a racist, a xenophobe, a moral ignoramus afraid of his own body, a cold and cruel boor who thought women had no brains and who was neurotically shy about sex.
Sweet’s agitated effort to distance himself from conservative “nostalgia” (a term he absurdly applies to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book The De-Moralization of Society) causes him, at several points, to overplay the degree to which the Victorians were “like us,” especially in sexual matters. He is quite right to point out that diatribes against “Victorian patriarchy” are almost invariably based on an extremely narrow selection of sources; but to conclude from several eccentric books for adolescent boys that Victorian men were “as puzzled about the nature of their social role as twenty-first-century men” is quite a stretch. Confusion about what it means to be a man rarely, if ever, emerges in straightforward form in 19th-century works, whereas today it is never far below the surface. Again, Sweet believes that the 1890’s were “the high noon of sexual ambiguity”—i.e., a time when mix-and-match sexuality was common enough, but when the German psychoanalysts had not yet burdened us with all the paranoia-inducing categories. Well, maybe; but this does not change the fact that the great majority of Victorians believed homosexuality to be a perversion. It was no fluke, as Sweet seems to believe, that the decadent heroes Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley were publicly disgraced well before the decade was out. The Victorians simply cannot be made over in our own image—not even those of the 1890’s, who were Victorian mainly in the sense that Queen Victoria was still on the throne.
None of this is to suggest that Inventing the Victorians is dominated by left-wing politics; it is not. In fact, there is at least one passage in this book (in the chapter on freak shows) that very few American liberals would have the courage to write. Matthew Sweet has written an instructive and altogether readable work that is also a scholarly contribution of real merit. It may be a bit too polemical for a book of this sort, but the juvenile attitude toward the Victorians assumed by almost every liberal intellectual since Lytton Strachey doesn’t deserve reverence.
[Inventing the Victorians, by Matthew Sweet (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 256 pp., $23.95]