Victorian values: conclusions

In part one of this series I talked about how Victorian society enforced its values and sanctioned violators. Part two described how it transmitted those values. In this (I promise) last part, we’ll look at the outcomes.

Who, whom?

Lenin said we should always ask “who, whom?” Who did all this moralizing, and to whom? The classic Marxist answer was that Victorian morality was a trick by elites to create obedient, disciplined workers for the new capitalist market.

That’s true to some extent. In particular, Victorian values were done by some to others. They were not just secreted by the whole society. Victorian Britain was a pullulating urban mass of people living cheek-by-jowl, expanding by breakneck population growth. Hannah Arendt said that every generation suffers an invasion of barbarians, called children: this period faced a Mongol Horde. So there was an urgent need to integrate this new society. In fact, elites made huge efforts to spread their values down the social scale, to servants, workers, and the emergent industrial proletariat. They founded institutions for moral education, including charity schools, Sunday schools, reform schools and board schools. They encouraged church attendance. They handed out Bibles, gave lectures, visited the poor and told them how to behave.

And some of the motivation for this was political. After the French Revolution, the British upper classes believed that the social order was in danger. They might protect themselves by teaching the working classes appropriate beliefs, in the wisdom of the current order of things, including the division between rich and poor, and the wrongness of attempts to change it collectively, by riots, strikes or revolution.

The first problem with this Marxist view is its naïve approach to collective action. It says: the upper class had a collective interest in preventing revolution, so that’s why they implemented all these moral crusades. In turn, the working class had a collective interest in revolution, so that’s what the upper class had to fend off. People who’ve read their Mançur Olson will know that these arguments don’t make sense. Collective interests don’t automatically lead to action. By default, they don’t lead to anything. In fact, collective action is only made possible by norms and ideals — which means that it is inflected by those ideals. William Wordsworth was typical, when he called for state-funded education, in putting enlightened self-interest and ideals on the same side:

... so that none,
However destitute, be left to droop
By timely culture unsustained; or run
Into a wild disorder; or be forced
To drudge through a weary life without the help
Of intellectual implements and tools;
A savage horde among the civilized,
A servile band among the lordly free!

The second problem is that Victorian values aimed to curb social disorder, not political insurrection. They were aimed at drunkenness, gambling and prostitution. In fact, the working classes themselves took part in these campaigns, sometimes a leading part, and allied them to political radicalism. The teetotal movement, a radical wing of the temperance movement, was founded in Preston. Its early membership was working class, at a time when Parliament supported the interests of beer house owners. One of its founders recalled in 1867: “We seemed as if we would turn the world upside down.... Our working men — sawyers, mechanics, and men of all trades — were constant speakers at the meetings; they went everywhere and no others were listened to with equal attention.”

Working-class political organizations were imbued with the language of Victorian Christianity. One tactic of Chartist radicals was to assemble on Sunday, arrive at church early, take the free seats — ignoring the convention that the best were paid for by wealthier parishioners — and even sometimes suggest a text for the service. Maybe “Go to now, ye rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you” (James 5:1). Socialist politicians in Britain were famously more likely to quote the Bible than Marx.

It would be weird if this wasn’t true. Collective political action requires responsible, altruistic agents, just as much as Victorian employers did. Working-class radicals had a good reason to be moralistic. Modern historians sometimes see these moralizing reform movements as attacks on working-class communities and their undisciplined forms of enjoyment. In doing so, they are reproducing the attitude of nineteenth-century Tories, who also defended drinking and gambling as the working man’s harmless pleasures.

Did it work?

Not always. No matter how hard the surrounding culture talks, not everyone listens. Thomas Arnold was regularly dejected by setbacks in the struggle to Christianize Rugby. The author Edmund Gosse, brought up by Plymouth Brethren, wrote: “through thick and thin I clung to a hard nut of individuality, deep down in my childish nature.” Gosse eventually rebelled, respectfully but definitively, against his upbringing and religion. At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, James Mill’s plans to make his son the perfect utilitarian led to a similar reaction. John Stuart Mill had some kind of nervous breakdown when he realized that he did not, in fact, solely wish to maximize the planet's utility; he started reading Romantics like Coleridge, and emerged with a world-view that he had forged for himself. Similarly, at the end of this period, Gwen Raverat described how she worked out her own moral code:

The grown-ups pretended that it was what you did on purpose that mattered. This was, and is, quite untrue. No one ever really regrets doing a Badness on purpose.... But if you were unkind or rude by mistake to someone you loved—Ah, then you just wished you were dead.... My own code of virtue, System B, took this strange fact into account, but the grown-ups’ System A was not realistic enough to do so.

She added: “Goodness never made me feel nice afterwards; I must be abnormal, for the reputed afterglow of virtue simply did not occur.”

Less determined individualists might pay lip-service without necessarily taking their ethical education to heart. A good example of edificatory over-reach is the late Victorian campaign against masturbation and homosexuality in (single-sex) boarding schools. Denunciations of these unnameable vices could reach peaks of hysteria. Did this change actual behaviour? Numerous memoirs and novels suggest not. According to one contemporary, public school boys were saved from being corrupted by boarding schools, because they had already been corrupted by grooms and maidservants.

Victorian social norms were part of a broader and more diffuse culture, encompassing stories, examples and ideals as well as rules, and disagreement as well as agreement. Each new generation reacts to the messages it hears, reshaping it creatively. One cannot judge the success of a moral system by counting whether people conform to it literally. It is more important to see whether the system pulls individuals and society in a certain direction, setting expectations and changing behaviour at the margin. People at the time certainly thought this was the case. As an ordinary man born in 1895 said, his parents aimed to make “God-fearing, respectable, law-abiding citizens. Respect for the law and respect for your parents. We were taught the Ten Commandments, and they were pretty well drilled into us.”

People often say that complaints about declining moral standards are perennial. (A classic example is “We have fallen upon evil times and the world has waxed very old and wicked. Politics are very corrupt. Children are no longer respectful to their parents,” words from an Akkadian stone tablet in 3800 BC.) But the Victorians thought their societies were getting better materially and morally. These were two aspects of a single process: they would have thought it strange to separate material progress out and quantify it in GDP numbers. The radical Francis Place wrote the Improvement of the Working People, describing their “acquisition of knowledge” and “reformation of manners” during his lifetime. Macaulay, the period’s great optimist, described English history since the Glorious Revolution as “the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement.”

What about us?

In the past generation, concern about social values has moved from an eccentric hobby, pursued by Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Whitehouse and their ilk, to the mainstream. In particular:

  • There is a large body of evidence about declining social trust and community participation in most Western societies.

  • We’ve moved from the homo economicus view of human choices as rational, to a psychologically-informed view, where choices are often foolish or self-harming.

  • We are worried that democratic institutions, which look great on paper, are threatened by collective mistrust and fanaticism.

And on the other hand:

  • With the rise of social media, we have untold opportunities to publicly shame and denounce each other.

Those are important ways by which shared values are articulated! So it seems natural to ask if Victorian society has lessons for us, and even whether we could build the kind of moral consensus that they did.

I think the lesson of history is that it’s not that simple. First, Victorian society had more tools available to it than tweetstorms. In particular, its economy was embedded in a society where social connections were central. It had an education system, in the broadest sense including families and schools, which prioritized character ahead of technical skills. And it had a hierarchy in which cultural prestige, political power and economic wealth were tightly interlinked.

Perhaps social media will be equally ubiquitous in future, and we can certainly see modern influencers parlaying prestige into power and wealth. But it’s notable how much of modern norm enforcement seems to focus on what you say, rather than what you do — perhaps because words are easier to check than actions, from behind a keyboard.

Second, to a degree, Victorian values were more demanding because needs must. State provision of public goods was embryonic, so more had to be done by the network of voluntary societies and charities; police enforcement was basic, leaving more to be done by the community; the economy relied more on trust, before the invention of scientific management and performance measurement.

The strongest difference between then and now is that Victorian elites and middle classes shared a relatively strong moral consensus. That is far from the world today: actually, we can’t even agree what shape the world is. At the moment, social media is a centrifugal force.

Victorian values weren’t built in a day. They had roots in the chaos of the reformation, in the Anglican compromise that emerged from that chaos, and in the competition between established church and dissenting sects that made 19th-century Christianity so vibrant and so central. Right now, we appear to be closer to the 16th century than the 19th. New communications technology is upending our world, and there may be a long period of chaos to go through before any new order is built. Until then, Victorian society is likely to be most illuminating as a contrast.


If you liked this content, then I would love you to do three things:

  1. Subscribe to this newsletter. It’s free, posts are occasional, and subscribers make me happy.

  1. Share Wyclif’s Dust on social media. This newsletter is a new venture, so by telling your friends and/or followers, you’ll be doing me a huge favour.

Share Wyclif's Dust

  1. Read about the book I’m writing. It’s called Wyclif’s Dust, too. You can download a sample chapter.