Victorian values, a practical guide: enforcement

The former Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave the Reith lectures 2020, with the title How We Get What We Value. His thesis is that society has lost its way, putting financial values above human ones: “the drift from moral to market sentiments” risks “the undercutting of the social foundations of the market, the corrosion of values arising from pricing of goods, services and civic virtues, that have been traditionally outside the market, and the flattening of values by forcing decisions to be made according to utilitarian calculations.”

Well, now you tell us, Mr Big Shot Economist. I’m pleased about this Damascene conversion, but it’s easy for values talk to become window-dressing. In fact, when Mr Carney gets down to business, he focuses on narrowly-defined areas like COVID and global warming, where the role of people’s values is to push governments and firms to take action.

Let’s examine a society which really did try to enforce its values: Victorian Britain. This isn’t because we ought to go back to Victorian values. They’re out of date, and the Victorian value system eventually contributed to its own demise. Instead, I’m interested in the “how”. What does it mean to implement moral values in a large-scale, modernizing society?

This is a huge topic. I’ll split it into two parts, maybe more. Here, I’ll focus on enforcement. How did the Victorians demand good behaviour, by their standards, and sanction bad guys?

Social exclusion

Anthropologists and game theorists tell us that social norms can be enforced by social exclusion. Small societies like the Inuit preserve their norms by warnings, followed by avoidance and shunning. Victorian society did the same, only on a much bigger scale: people who misbehaved were cut off from social contact.

This worked because the Victorian economy was more “embedded” in society than today’s economy. There were no employment agencies or online job databases: to get a job, you had to meet an employer. There was no Tinder, so to get a spouse you had to meet them. And social contact cost time and effort: to talk to someone you had to be physically present. As a result, face time, especially face time with important people, was a scarce and vital resource. By making access conditional on good behaviour, elites could shape morality.

Let’s start at the top. The upper classes — Society with a capital S — would first be introduced to each other via a third party. Next, they would leave a calling card at the other person's house; cards delivered personally, rather than via a servant, would have their corners folded down. Finally they might start paying calls. Relationships were valuable investments and could not be formed casually. As a mid-century manual of etiquette said, “an introduction is a social endorsement, and you become, to a certain extent, responsible for the person you introduce. If he disgraces himself in any way, you share, in a greater or lesser degree, in his disgrace.” To prevent a relationship forming, you could “cut” the other party by ostentatiously ignoring them. This structure extended downwards from the Royal family: young ladies of the social elite would be introduced to the queen, in a yearly ritual which acted as their passport into Society. By 1854 the process was so formalized that printed certificates of the presentation were available.

Further down the scale, Victorian society had a thick foliage of voluntary associations — Societies for the Propagation of this and that, Town Missions, building societies, Infant School societies, horticultural societies — which combined sociability and do-goodery. They provided an opportunity for doing good, being seen to do so, and meeting others while you did it. A father might turn down a potential son-in-law because he was “not a public character”, i.e. not involved in public work of this kind.

Churches too were gatekeepers to potential custom. The Quakers had their own dentists, and Anglican evangelicals their own favoured doctors. In small towns each trade might have its own “church” (of England) and “chapel” (dissenters’) shop. Clergymen were powerful local figures: they could help people find employment, provide basic legal advice, and give introductions. Friendly societies did likewise. The Kentish Oddfellows took no members with “bad character”, who led a “dissolute life” or kept “bad company”. This had a practical side: because the Oddfellows provided mutual insurance, they had an interest in excluding bad risks.

Women had a special role as arbiters of social standards. “The moral world is ours,” wrote one. An industrialist wrote to his wife: “I hope you will 'preach' to me whenever you feel prompted to do so.” Queen Victoria, at the apex of Society, had the maximum of social influence and used it: for example, she refused to be introduced to anyone connected with a divorce case.

Social exclusion worked throughout society. “Respectable” working class parents kept their offspring away from “rough” children. A man who deserted a woman and child might have to leave the neighbourhood, or face hostility and ostracism. The power of the local community rested on the same social embeddedness as the power of the elite. Neighbours borrowed from each other; minded invalids; baby-sat each others' children, and might take them in for longer periods after a parent's death or imprisonment. In all these ways the individual depended on others, who could insist on his good behaviour.


To see enforcement at work, we can check out some juicy Victorian scandals.

Lady Caroline Lamb began a dramatic and public affair with Lord Byron, and then wrote a book about it, including some unkind pen-portraits of her own family. At this point, Society closed to her. Her own cousins avoided her. She was cut by former acquaintances and scratched from her club. She retreated into private life, half-mad and increasingly addicted to alcohol and laudanum; her husband, Lord Melbourne, treated her kindly. The upper class, like the Inuit, had used shunning to preserve its social norms.

Stretching our time period a little, the life of Edmund Kean, the great Shakespearean actor, was as dramatic off-stage as on: he was a philanderer who had sex with prostitutes in the interval of his plays. Eventually, he was sued for adultery by the husband of one Charlotte Cox. At the height of this scandal, he was signed to play Drury Lane. The performances became a contest of moralities: crowds gathered to cheer and boo the star. Kean won London over, but met with disapproval on tour. In the US, debating societies held meetings to decide what should be done about him. In Edinburgh his arrival led to riots. He died, ‘despised and all but forgotten’, in 1832. The newspapers were key to this one: editorials by Thomas Barnes of the Times helped to catalyze public disapproval. (Predictable side note: Barnes himself lived with another man’s wife.)

Social disapproval did not just come from the top. When the Austrian general von Haynau visited Britain in 1850, he was chased down Borough High Street by a mob of draymen, who objected to his brutal repression of the Hungarian uprising the previous year. By 1861, London street-singers had recorded the event in ballads. More typically, poor people took action against rule-breakers in their own communities. Across Europe, there were institutions of public shaming, with names like “rough music,” “charivari” or “skimmington”. If you slept with someone else's spouse, married an older woman, or beat your wife, you might wake to see a procession coming past your house, beating pans and bearing an effigy. You might then be captured and ridden backwards on a donkey, or thrown into a ditch. These public festivals crystallized a united front in defence of social norm; the event might have been decided beforehand in an informal local “court”. Community action was also linked to more formal proceedings. Judges used the threat of naming and shaming to discipline offenders. Specialized newspapers reported on court proceedings: being named there might lead to revenge by the mob.

One last example from fiction. In Vanity Fair, the wicked Becky Sharp inveigles herself into the highest society. Nemesis comes when her husband is arrested for debt, finds her in compromising circumstances with a corrupt aristocrat, and leaves her. She is reduced to a life of poverty, gambling and blackmail on the continent. The agent of this nemesis is gossip. She moves to Boulogne, but loses her lodgings when the landlord hears that English ladies will not sit down with her. She takes up the church, and gains some new, gullible friends, who reject her after learning about her past from higher class acquaintances:

From one colony to another Becky fled uneasily. From Boulogne to Dieppe, from Dieppe to Caen, from Caen to Tours—trying with all her might to be respectable, and alas! always found out some day or other and pecked out of the cage by the real daws.

The picture is dramatized, but it tells us how contemporaries saw their social system working.

Twitter charivari

What we learn from all this is that value enforcement isn’t necessarily pretty. It leverages self-interest just as much as free-market neoliberalism, though in different ways, and also other forces, like snobbery and hypocrisy. If we move back to a more values-based society, it may also have its ugly side—think of online mobs. An example has stuck in my mind. Here, the values conservative Charles Murray meets some rather different values, and is led to a wry reflection:

Next time I’ll describe another aspect of Victorian values: how they transmitted them and inculcated them. By the way, some of the material above comes from the book I’m writing, so if you’re interested, check it out.

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