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I was going to write about students today.  It’s exam week, and I’m being inundated by people who cannot tell time, and who all seem to have computers that malfunction at a drop of a hat, and in the same way, too.  And, of course, they’re sure that if I just let them hand in all ten papers this week, they’ll at least be able to pass, if not to do much better than that.

It’s enough to make you crazy.  But I’m not thinking of students today.  I’m thinking about Victorians.  A Christmas Carol is a Victorian novella, but it’s not the only Victorian fiction I’ll read this Christmas, and the longer I live the more Victorian I feel.  Sort of.

I wonder sometimes what the necessary and sufficient conditions are.  It’s common enough that you have to put up with something unpleasant to get something you find much too valuable to miss.  I get up at an unGodly hour of the morning in order to make sure I have time to write and do the rest of the things I want to do before Real Life sets in.  Until I started writing for a living, I rarely got up before noon and didn’t see why anybody would bother.

But I don’t know what part of the Victorian world was necessary and what was not–necessary to keep the things I like about it, I mean.

Those things are, first and foremost, the balance between the traditionalist and the scientific, the religious and the scientific, that is what I think it is you actually need for a decent life.  I think both the religious people who want to turn everything into God’s Gountry and people like Hitchens (whom I generally love) who think “religion spoils everything” are fundamentally wrong. 

As I’ve pointed out before, there seems to be something about largely secularized societies–at least, the ones we have up to now–that lacks drive, or something.  People don’t seem to get committed to science or reason, they just seem to get disconnected from everything, to become more concerned about their short-term comfort than about anything else, even their own children, if they bother to have them.

But I don’t have to go into a big spiel on the problems with strongly religious societies, because those have been outlined  by better people than I will ever be.  Let’s just acknowledge the know-nothing reaction to science, the need to police orthodoxy, and what seems to me to be the almost reflexive need to police the sexuality of women. 

The Victorians were caught in a moment of balance.  Christianity was strong, but so was the rationalist reaction to Christianity, and one modified the other.  Christianity took from the rationalists the need to be rational itself.  The rationalists took from Christianity the commitment to improve the lot of all men everywhere, because of the moral equality of all men everywhere.

The Victorians believed in honor–personal honor–without the overwrought irrationality of the Romantics. They outlawed dueling, but they demanded of their friends, their families and even their acquaintances a commitment to honesty and integrity that brooked no, or few, exceptions.  They believed in self discipline, and in living well-regulated lives.  Their distaste for divorce, and for “irregular” living arrangements like cohabitation, had less to do with their mythical dislike of all things sexual than with their very real dislike of all things chaotic.  Divorce muddied the waters, put inheritance and property into question, cost a lot of money one way or the other, made it difficult to know who and what belonged to whom.

I know, of course, that many Victorians were “hypocrites,” by which most writers today mean people who do not live up to their expressed ideals.  But that makes us all  hypocrites, and it’s not the actual meaning of the word.  A hypocrite is someone who not only doesn’t live up to his expressed ideals, but doesn’t try to, and works to punish other people for failings for which he expects to be given a pass himself.

Still, I think that having high ideals of personal conduct and at least trying to live up to them is better than the attitude I run in too often today–back to students, again–that, really, there’s no use in even bothering to try and nobody ever makes it anyway.  You’d be amazed at how many of my students will argue passionately that, say, Shakespeare didn’t really write those plays or that Einstein plagarized the special theory of relativity.

The idea seems to be that nobody ever really achieves anything, that there’s no reason to make them feel bad about themselves by expecting them to actually do any work to be better than they are.  Well, the Victorians insisted on trying to be better than they wre, and they had a strong sense of duty to themselves, their family, their country, and their world.

It’s easy to laugh at the “white man’s burden”–and not wrong to cringe at the implicit racism of the idea, either–but the fact is that the British Empire did a lot of good as well as harm, and did it because it insisted on “imposing its values” on societies it decided fell short of the ideal that the Victorians would have considered to be objectively good for all societies everywhere.

And we’ve only recently come out of the modern fog to accept the fact that there is a dilemma here, and not a simple straightforward split between the badness of “cultural imperialism” and the goodness of self determination for all peoples everywhere.  We can only uphold that point of view by carefully ignoring the fact that for some peoples in some places, self determination means the decision to carry out wholesale genocide, or to destroy the lives of generation after generation of women by purdah and female genital mutilation.

Of course, having the example of the British empire in front of me, I’m not all that sanguine about the ability of one nation to impose civilization on another–at best, it seems to work about half well.  At worst, well, people are people.  They behave like human beings.  This is not always a good thing, but it always leads to snobbery and social exclusion and condescension. 

So I don’t know the answer to that.  I know enough history to know that civilization has almost always been spread by the sword, and that some empires do indeed leave their subject peoples better off than they had been before.  On the other hand, other empires have simply destroyed anything and anything that got in their way.

But there are things I definitely do not like about the Victorian period–the formality, for one thing.  I’m not a very formal person, and I like the idea of slouching around the house in loose clothes with a large cup of tea in my hands.  Nor am i fond of the Victorian tendency to police social behavior by a set of public markers that often had very little to do with anything–a young woman could be “ruined” by so many innocuous circumstances that she required a chaperone nearly twenty-four seven just to stay out of the “trouble”she wasn’t actually in to begin with, and if she got into such trouble her sisters were often considered “ruined” along with her, sort of guilt by association.

Debtors’ prisons don’t seem like much of a good idea to me, either.  I never did understand the rationale.

But I suppose what I’m getting at here–and in the meantime working up to the subject of the next book I intend to read, which is Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister–is that I wish I knew what was and wasn’t necessary to build a society like the ones the Victorians managed for themselves, and what that society had within itself that eventually destroyed it.

There’s an absolutely wonderful scene in a novel by P.D. James, where a young university student with passionate left-wing political attachments histrionically declares to her magnificent Victorian grandmother, “You’re world is dead!  Dead!  And it’s never coming back again!”

And the grandmother says, very drily, “Yes, I know.  I was there in 1918, when it died.”

I’m dredging the James up from memory, which means I know for certain what the grandmother said, but I’m not so sure about the entire accuracy of the granddaughter’s quote. 

But  you see what I mean.

Or maybe not.

Written by janeh

December 16th, 2008 at 12:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Victorians'

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  1. Well – that’s what killed the Victorian world, WW I. It would have been my guess too, although I don’t remember the James quote. It must have been in one of the books I haven’t read.

    So what caused WW I? The Victorian tendency to muck about with secret treaties and diplomacy by warfare? Societies have been doing that since time began! Maybe that particular war got out of hand because technology advanced a bit unevenly giving the armies much better ways of killing each other without sufficiently advanced methods of communication to enable the commanders to find out fast enough what was going on at the Front.

    Maybe the destructive seed wasn’t military derring-do, but economic disparity and the nihilists and anarchists and such that were inspired by it.

    I do have a weakness for much of the Victorian era, particularly their ideals, but I have a lowering suspicion that I would have been born a scullery maid in that era. And of course, even if I weren’t born into the serving classes, middle and upper class ladies had to observe such strict decorum!

    If I were going to be born as a Victorian lady, I think I would have liked to be one of those indomitable lady explorers, like Mary Kingsley.


    16 Dec 08 at 1:46 pm

  2. The best book about life in WW1 that I’ve read in “Testamnet of Youth” by Vera Brittain. Its the autobiography of a young middle class girl who became a nurse and lost her brother and most of her male friends in the war. I recommend it very highly.

    IIRC, “The Face of Battle” by John Keegan has a long chapter on the Battle of the Somme. Cheryl is correct, the commanders lost touch with the fighters once the infantry left the trenches.


    16 Dec 08 at 5:08 pm

  3. If Victorian society was stable and killed by the World Wars, then maybe by reason or experiment we can find out what parts were essential. I rather suspect the formality between strangers and very distinct sexual roles would be hard to remove from the mix.

    But if the Victorian Era were just a section of an arc, it couldn’t last, and I believe that to be the case: The Victorians may have built the British Museum, but Marx is in the Reading Room, taking notes. Bentham is walking the streets, and so is Jack the Ripper, hiding in the biggest wave of immigration in British history. Labour is organizing, and it’s not “New Labour” yet, but hard working men bent not on reform but on revolution. The Suffragettes and their kin are out there too, and many recognized that changing the status or women would change a great deal else. Perhaps without the great diaster of 1914-1945, more might have been preserved, but I’m afraid much of what made Victorian Britain unique was already doomed in Jubilee Year.

    We carry our own deaths with us, from the moment of our births. It seems to be true of our societies as well.


    16 Dec 08 at 5:56 pm

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