Our Favorite Ghosts
Why are we still so obsessed with the Victorians?
Wilson is a young London-based writer (the picture on the dust jacket makes him look 14: He should put on a hood) who has the wit, fluency, stamina, and intelligence to pull off a surprising feat. The Making of Victorian Values is a conscientiously researched history that professionals can admire, but if read with any curiosity about the past at all, the book is as gripping as a heavily flogged, trashy page turner. It's best to see Wilson as a scholar/journalist, that hybrid we badly need: someone who believes in rigorous academic research, developed collectively and held to high standards, and at the same time believes that history should engage a wide audience with its need for cultural memory. Most impressively, it summons the tonic otherness of the early 19th century—the epidemic of hypochondria, the scandal of Byron, the 67 nights of carnival protest at the new Covent Garden Theatre (old prices! no private boxes!), the 50,000 prostitutes of London—even as it persuades us that the problems for the Victorians (What to do with the uproar? How far to interfere in lives not our own?) are unresolved legacies for us.
As good as it is, you should still read this book with brown paper over the cover, so that you don't have to look at the obscene title. It's not obscene because it uses bad words, only because it uses wooden abstractions—values, decency, dissent—that cannot possibly capture the granular detail and the pithy street stuff that Wilson collects: the hilarity, absurdity, fecundity. Abstractions can be obscene, too. Even those words making and Victorian are distortions, since the "values" were as much improvisation as design and as much the effects of modernization (new economies, technologies, population movements) as moralistic reactions to bedlam in the street.
If lusty and unrepentant John Bull languished in the 19th century—with the end of public executions and cruel sports, and the policing of "bawdiness, low-level violence and drunkenness"—it wasn't just because the Victorians grew fussy and fastidious. It was because all of society, rich and poor, dirty and clean, was becoming more normalized and regulated. And if the people gave up bull-baiting and the chaos of Bartholomew Fair, they were still capable of resistance. But now the resistance (in the factory, in Trafalgar Square) was often as organized as the morality. Sure, there were heavy dogmatists that fit the stereotype, and yes, they had coercive power over the weak, the poor, the young, the old, the ill, the insane. But in every Victorian decade, they were challenged, and increasingly so. This wasn't only the age of severe Mrs. Grundy, but also the age of Marx and working-class consciousness, of divorce legislation and public libraries, Darwin and the New Woman.
Interestingly, refreshingly, Wilson at his best wavers in the lessons he draws from his abundant materials, and this is because of an imaginative strength that resists abstractions like those in his title. Early in the book he is an enemy of moralism who repeatedly quotes Byron's attack on the cant, the pious fraud, of the smug agents of goodness. He shows consistent sympathy for the defiant underclasses (sermonized at, moralized over) who, after long hours at work, released the animal spirits of imperfect Britons, stamping their feet, swilling their beer, and jeering at authority. But the book concludes in very different terms. The last pages accept that it is right to press for the improvement of others, even at the risk of being called hypocrite, or Victorian. In this way, The Making of Victorian Values follows the arc of history that it describes. A sympathy for raucousness passes into appreciative regard for the benefits of education. But then, in his final sentence, Wilson gives one last glance to the stubborn and abiding power of eccentricity that no ethics or politics can ever dissolve, then or now—ending with Kant's wise saying that from "the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever fashioned."
The uncertainty is a virtue not a defect. It is a triumph over abstraction that lets us see why we need those Victorian ghosts—because they were never ghosts at all, but real lives, worthy of resurrection, defying the pat simplicities of generalization. They provoke the double thought raised by all strong history. That's how they were. How should we be?
Michael Levenson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.