Ben Wilson's The Making of Victorian Values.

Reading between the lines.
March 22 2007 8:12 AM

Our Favorite Ghosts

Why are we still so obsessed with the Victorians?

Ben Wilson’s The Making of Victorian Values

We keep calling them back, the Victorians, but why do we? It's not only the academics, the eccentrics, the architects, and the Brits—most everyone walks around with some Victorian picture in the head. Why are they our favorite ghosts? What do we want from them any longer?

Last summer, David Cameron, the smart, slick, young leader of the resurgent British Tory Party, made headlines when he recommended more sensitive attitudes toward the ominous-looking urban teens who give bad dreams to the middle class. "Hoodies," he observed, "are more defensive than offensive," not the problem "but a response to the problem." In the next spin cycle, the phrase "Hug a hoodie" is what Cameron was said to have said (he didn't), and the phrase became (and has stayed) the tag. Then, as summer turned to fall, the crime debate took another surprising turn when the shadow attorney general, the aptly named Dominic Grieve, took the old sharp line. "You can argue," Grieve thumped, "that our Victorian forebears succeeded in achieving something very unusual in changing public attitudes by instilling moral codes. ... There was a much greater sense of shame in respect of transgression."

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It was a made-for-the-tabloids British political comedy. What were the Tories doing? Were they trying to go soft, more touchy-feely than New Labor, or, as they scrambled to retune their message, were they still Scrooge? Behind the farce, still twitching as I write, is the vivid memory of Margaret Thatcher's famous declarations of 1983. "I was grateful," said Thatcher, "to have been brought up by a Victorian grandmother. … We were taught to work jolly hard; we were taught to taught to prove ourselves; we were taught self-reliance; we were taught to live within our income." Victorian values "were the values when our country became great."

Ben Wilson's new book inscribes itself within the distant dates 1789-1837 (the French Revolution to the accession of Queen Victoria), but from its opening pages, it recalls the flapping controversies of our times. Wilson knows, but not does not overstress, that we only always pretend to have left the Victorians behind, and that they irritate us partly because they prefigured and created us: For the last 200 years, we have lived within a reaction formation that they started and we can't stop.

Perky and readable, the book is a collection of stories, recovered tales of singular lives, that crowded the pre-Victorian scene and prepared for the Victorian recoil: quack doctor Samuel Solomon, who peddled the Cordial Balm of Gilead; radical tailor Francis Place; the fastidious dandies around Beau Brummel; black beggar Joseph Johnson with a model of HMS Nelson on his head; the prurient founding members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. At the turn of the 19th century, much of British society was bawdy, boisterous, freedom-asserting, straight-speaking, and heavy-drinking. Hypocrisy was detested; so were overrefinement and the pretentious cant of the respectable classes. But the unruliness of this vigorous society became too much for the polite elites—especially utilitarian philosophers (led by Jeremy Bentham) and evangelical reformers (led by William Wilberforce)—who longed to bring the street carnival to an end.

A fear of the stroppy lower classes and an overreaction into delicate moralism: This is the narrative that Wilson teases from his material. Transfixed by images of lusty pandemonium (drinking, singing, lovemaking, catcalling), campaigners like fear-mongering magistrate Patrick Colquhoun called for discipline, morality, and a new police force to suppress the "[v]icious habits, idleness, improvidence and sottishness" of the poor and to ward off a "gangrene in the body politic." Here, according to Wilson, was the making of Victorian values and also the making of our own self-woven snares—the temptation to legislate goodness, to moralize affections, to fret whether we should hug (or not hug) a hoodie. Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. But Wilson shows that there was farce from the start: the farce of planting moral stakes in the ocean of imperfect humanity, as when the SSV went in hot pursuit of obscene prints, collecting more than 1,200 under triple lock and key, so that the radioactive box could be opened only when all three key-holders were present.