Despite a generation of scholars who have tried to persuade the world of the liveliness of 19th-century English life, the term "Victorian" seems destined to evoke images of sexual repression, joyless Sundays, punitive treatment of the poor, general hypocrisy, and the reign of cant. In "The Making of Victorian Values" (Penguin Press, 464 pages, $27.95), Ben Wilson relates with considerable humor and laughter how this age of self-induced rigor and order came to be.
Mr. Wilson's protagonists are social and moral reformers including evangelicals, utilitarians, and political economists who saw disorder, lasciviousness, mendacity, vagrancy, inefficiencies, and lack of personal discipline permeating the lives of the poor and working classes. Mr. Wilson argues that this generation of "vice suppressors" and "makers of manners" grew up fearful of revolution, foreign invasion, and other forces that might overturn society. Their response to fear was to impose new proprieties upon their social inferiors and at the same time make their social equals reject the kinds of sensibilities and sympathies that led them to works of ill-conceived charity and social benevolence. Charity was not to be administered in a forgiving manner but in one that would inculcate discipline. Sentimentality must not undermine godliness.
The Quarterly Review declared that a manager of the poor "must divest his nature of all that ennobled feeling and cultivated humanity, which are the best privileges and distinctions of his rank in society; and he must acquire the stern and impassive obduracy which is created in the manner and conversation of those who, as taskmasters or jailors, must hold authoritative intercourse with the bases of mankind." Behind all this thought lay the stark evangelical Protestant vision of the fundamental sinfulness of humankind.
Early 19th-century English society was generally seen as less policed than that of the continent, but there was no shortage of efforts to bring about a more orderly society. As the great utilitarian Jeremy Bentham declared, "I do really take it for an indisputable truth, and a truth that is one of the corner stones of political science — the more strictly we are watched, the better we behave." Local magistrates administered the Vagrancy Act of l824 with puritanical zeal subject to only modest judicial appeal. The age witnessed both reform and experimentation in prisons with convicts working themselves to exhaustion on the recently invented treadmill. Bentham had gone so far as to envision automated whipping machines throughout the nation. More informally, evangelical reform societies, such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice, sought to impose order and social propriety. No wonder that by l859 John Stuart Mill needed to publish "On Liberty."
Many who objected to the imposition of morality upon the poor, the eradication of many harmless recreations, and the suppression of sympathy saw hypocrisy at work all round them. "Cant," as Lord Byron believed, manifested itself everywhere.
Mr. Wilson's most striking contribution is his exploration of that term as used by contemporaries to denigrate the hypocrisy that lay behind so much of the early 19th-century moral reformation. While Mr. Wilson sympathizes with those who criticized the imposition of new moral standards and social orderliness, he also clearly and frequently recognizes the profound sincerity that informed the impulse to moral reformation. Mr. Wilson prefers the term "Pharisaic Morality," coined by the editor of the Examiner.
Where Mr. Wilson so brilliantly departs from previous scholars of this phenomenon is his general refusal to paint even the protagonists he dislikes as villains. Mr. Wilson does not see among his protagonists conspiracies against the poor, who were often as difficult and humanly disappointing as the reformers found them and in general capable of exercising all too little agency for their own moral improvement. For his part, Mr. Wilson concludes, "It was no doubt a more respectable time, but the morality that made appearances and conduct a priority allowed double standards to exist without being condemned as hypocritical — the definition of Victorianism for many now." But others of the day, such as Francis Place, the politically radical tailor of Charing Cross who had climbed from a youth in poverty and lower class debauchery, saw the matter differently. During his lifetime Place thought the English had become "a much better people now than we were then, better instructed, more sincere and kind hearted, less gross and brutal" and had come to "have few of the concomitant vices of a less civilized age." Perhaps hypocrisy is one of the fruits of civilization.
Mr. Wilson's is a welcome fresh, young voice in the writing of British history. Much that he says is familiar, but the verve of his style, his eye for the most delicious detail, such as his memorable portrait of the successful quack Samuel Solomon and Patrick Colquhoun's hysterical fear of the poor, as well as his measured sympathy for all those groups that found themselves at the short end of the disciplinary stick are remarkable. He has what at the end of the day is the greatest of gifts for a historian: He can tell a story in a memorable fashion.
Mr. Turner is the John Hay Whitney Professor of History at Yale University.