VICTORIAN ENGLAND THE AGE OF “COMPROMISE”Category: 19th century
The term “compromise” is an early arrival in any study of Victorian England. The society of these years (the 1850s) represents a series of compromises. There were of course many protests against this society, but during this decade no really important changes were made: these came later. The principle of “Live and let live” was at work, even if only within certain well-defined limits. It encouraged a decent piety and, failing that, at least an obvious respectability. The upper class and the middle class (especially if it had money) came closer together. The Reform Bill, dating back to 1832, leaving five men out of six without a vote because they were not £10 householders, was already out of date, but there would not be another Reform Bill, enlarging the franchise, until 1867. The new oligarchy the old Bill had helped to create had settled down and felt quite comfortable.
The English system avoided revolution or indeed any startling radical changes by opening the Establishment to any new powerful class. In politics and actual government, as distinct from the general tone and style of society, the upper class in the 1850s was still surprisingly dominant. The foreground in the Westminster scene was filled with Lords. Room had to be made for a few commoners, notably Disraeli, and Gladstone who became Chancellors of the Exchequer, but it was the Lords who took over most of the chief ministries, no matter how often cabinets were formed. It would be many years before a popular wit like W. S. Gilbert could raise a laugh by saying that the House of Lords did nothing in particular and did it very well. In the 1850s the House of Lords did a great deal, though not always very well. Quite apart from accepting or rejecting bills already passed by the Commons, this ‘other House’ still had a considerable influence on the actual composition of the Commons. In the country elections a local peer, a great landowner who was important both in his economic patronage and his social pull, might easily decide what safe men should represent the constituency. Many men who resented his patronage and pull might not have had any votes, or, if they had, would find it hard to influence other voters. These might know only well how their bread could be buttered or might act out of downright snobbery. For one result of the upper class and the more affluent middle class coming together, no longer glaring at one another across a barrier, was the rapid spread of social snobbery. After all, Thackeray’s “Book of Snobs” was written only a few years away from 1850.
The House of Commons often seems to be filled with shifting factions rather than large strongly-opposed parties. Forming a new government and making a fresh list of cabinet ministers-and this happened very often-began to look like playing an immensely elaborated game of noughts-and-crosses. Step back only a little from this scene, and you are reminded at once of the wonderful burlesque of it in Chapter XII of “Bleak House”.
Dickens’s radical sarcasm offers a clue to what was wrong with the politics of the 1850s. The Westminster scene of these 1850s appears dull, narrow, almost futile, a perfect target for Dickens’s mockery and irony. This is because its leading politicians were not doing the work they should have been doing. They were not moving forward but marking time. They were trying to ignore that vast crowd of “supernumeraries”, the people.
Some statistics tell their own tale: in 1850 the people born in Britain but now living in the United States numbered 1,364,986 whereas by 1860 the figure had risen to 2,224,743. In the later 1850s it was estimated that about 48,000 mixed British and Irish emigrated every year to Australia and New Zealand, most of them going to the goldfields of New South Wales. There were lands of opportunity awaiting all these people, but even so, emigrating at this time could be a very rough and risky enterprise and there must have been some pressure on a man, especially one with a wife and family, for him to undertake it.
The housing situation was no better, perhaps even worse, than it had been. There was a constant drift into London and the industrial cities and towns. The slums multiplied like the families who had to live in them.
We seem to be groping our way through certain dark chapters in “Bleak House”, deep in the realm of King Cholera and Queen Tuberculosis. And we are not even in the East End, a wilderness of such slums, but only a short walk from Mayfair, and only another ten minutes from Westminster, where Parliament was so busy with its own affairs. Victorian Noon-Time indeed!
The new bourgeoisie was enormously proud of having fought its way to a position from which it might command power and influence. Both at home and far away, in the East and in the West. In the Victorian mind the ideal of strength is a combination of force and firmness. On the one hand, there is enormous admiration for the power of machines, and of the men who make them and run them; for the combative and even belligerent temper with its refusal to recognize defeat or mistakes, and its useful assumption that those it dislikes are knaves or weaklings.
On the other hand, there is the complimentary admiration for “character”-the mastery of the passions, patience and resolutions, the controlled energy focused on work.
The Victorian Englishman is armed with self-content and tenacity, he successfully shoulders his way through the troubles of the universe. He is combative and enthusiastic. In this can be traced the lineaments of John Bull who was a national symbol of the time. He is one of the vigorous stock of strong silent people, scornful of logic and intellectual pursuits but wonderfully equipped with obstinate toughness of muscle and toughness of heart, which means persistence, hopeful and even desperate.
“Punch” carried the cartoon which described John Bull as wearing top-boots, a low-crowned hat, and carrying a cudgel in his hand. He is capable of standing his ground against the most vigorous adversary even when it comes to blows. His twinkling or angry eyes, his beetle brows, the entire expression of his countenance, betray marked animal characteristics and the choleric temperament. His forehead is small, his intellect barren; his ideas are few and petty. By way of compensation, he is gifted with good sense and energy, a fund of good temper, loyalty, perseverance, and determination; that firmness of character, by means of which a man gets on in the world.
More exciting than any scientific or executive strength was the sense of personal power. Never before had the captains of industry controlled so many men or so much capital on such a global scale. Furthermore, the struggle for power against personal rivals, domestic and foreign competitors, or rebellious hands who joined unions and organized strikes, released the most aggressive impulses; and the more readily because the duties and obligations of the old feudal system were now scrapped, leaving economic life under the new system of laissez-faire.
Of all the criticisms brought against them, the Victorians would have pleaded guilty to only one. They would have defended or excused their optimism, their dogmatism, their appeal to force, their strait-laced morality, but they would have confessed to an unfortunate strain of hypocrisy. To understand the charge, it must be broken down into three specific counts. One, they concealed or suppressed their true convictions and their natural tastes. They said the “right” thing or did the “right” thing: they sacrificed sincerity to propriety. Second, and worse, they pretended to be better than they were. They passed themselves off as being incredibly pious and moral; they talked noble sentiments and lived-quite otherwise. Finally, they refused to look at life candidly. They shut eyes to whatever was ugly or unpleasant and pretended it didn’t exist. Conformity, moral pretension, and evasion-those are the hallmarks of Victorian hypocrisy.
Based on: Victoria’s Heyday by J. B. Priestley and The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870 by W. E. Houghton