Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Defending the Victorians

The Stowaway takes place in 1908, well into the Edwardian age. But Vivian Drew and Captain Hook were both born during Victorian times, and my research has wandered into that span of years as well. Through this, I've come to realize that many of the common conceptions we have of Victorian England are unfair.

Yes, the Victorian era--1837-1901, the years of Queen Victoria's actual reign--was a time of inequality and colonialism and classism. But there were also many advances, both technological and social, upon which we still rely: railway tunnels, sewer systems, the combustion engine.

The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1858.

And contrary to current popular opinion, the Victorian era was also marked by humanitarian progress, including trade unions, old age pensions, and social mobility, as well as the growth of a middle class. Service jobs, despite their reputation for drudgery, offered a chance for advancement, and the employees had rights under the 1823 Master and Servant Act. Women's suffrage (as early as the Kensington Society of the 1860s) first gained ground then, as did free universal education and child labor laws. And the telephone, telegraph, typewriter, sewing machine, and cash register led to larger numbers of women finding employment outside the home and thus their greater emancipation.

We have a mental image of the repressed Victorian woman stuffed into a corset and unable to pursue work outside her home. But women first entered male-dominated professions during the Victorian era, won property rights, and found self-sufficiency through jobs in new industries like telegraph offices. A full third of the labor force was women, in jobs from blacksmith to pawnbroker to bookbinder. They also gained new rights in custody acts, property and inheritance laws, and divorce decrees. Women's colleges, starting with Queen's College in 1848, led to greater educational opportunities. (And as regards corsets, Ruth Goodman compares Victorian undergarments to underwire bras and shapewear, and finds that our foundation garments come up wanting.)

Let's not forget, aggressive gendering exists today, from the moment a pink or blue cap is tucked on the head of a baby in the hospital nursery. More women attend college than men, but their representation in the higher echelons of the work force is not equal to their abilities or numbers.  (For example, see The 5 biases pushing women out of STEM.) Books like The Rules should lay rest the notion that "traditional" ideas of female decorum are out of style today. And I can't help but notice the little-girl main characters of literature that is still popular today--Alice, Dorothy--despite the prevailing notion today that boys won't read books about girls.

Illustration by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll's
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

"Characterised as the police force of obsolete, chauvinistic ideologies, Victorian men have been forced to embody many of our negative views of nineteenth-century culture," writes historian Matthew Sweet in Inventing the Victorians. Adventure novels of the day depict feats of daring which no human could hope to emulate, perhaps showing that men of that era, not just our own, were often confused as to their optimal role in society. Regardless, men like Charles Darwin took an active role in domestic life and did not consider it anything out of the norm.

The Labouchere Amendment, of which Oscar Wilde so famously ran afoul, actually changed the sentence for "buggery" from life to two years, Sweet writes. Labouchere seems to have intended to law to protect working-class men from the predation of aristocrats, and also to protect children from pimps, regardless of how it was interpreted in later years. In fact, according to Sweet, "[t]he 1890s were the high noon of erotic ambiguity, the last moment of freedom before the system of personal pathologies through which we have come to view our own sexualities became fixed."

Victorian England had no anti-immigration laws (sorry, UKIP), and saw the election of the first Asian members of Parliament. The first black footballer, Arthur Wharton, kept goal for several teams during the 1880s and 90s. Mary Seale, a Jamaican nurse, was as famous then as Florence Nightingale. In 1868, an Australian cricket team made up entirely of Aboriginal players met an English team in an international match. Small advances, perhaps, but the 20th and 21st centuries are marked by their own share of "firsts."

"The Libertine's Death," from Rose Mortimer,
or, The Ballet Girl's Revenge
, 1865

In many ways, we are not so different from the Victorians. Advertising and pornography were thriving industries during the 1800s, as they are now, and both societies share struggles with human rights and housing and pollution. And to claim our own era is a pinnacle of achievement is misguided. This is a time of tremendous medical advances (assuming one can afford them), the democratizing effects of the internet, and the growth of civil rights, absolutely. But we also live with the constant worries of school shootings and climate change and mass extinction. American economic inequality is worse now than at any time since the Great Depression, when it was similar to the inequality of the Gilded Age of the second decade of the 1900s. In many ways, our Victorian forebears would be as appalled at our own society as we so often are at theirs.

Why have we come to regard this particular era as so opposed to the ideals we most cherish today? For one, because every generation defines itself in opposition to the last. We feel better about ourselves in comparison. And the Victorians found enemies in people like Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury Group who spoke vociferously and effectively against its failings.

Also, the Victorians are judged by what is left of their literature, including advertising and editorials--and also tracts written by clergymen and schoolmasters, little-read at the time but looked upon now as representative of the time. Theories of the best way to live abounded, as they do now, which says nothing of how often they were implemented. If future generations look at us through the kind of sparse and arbitrarily-selected ephemera that we think of as representing the Victorians, the 20th century will be remembered primarily for two world wars, mass genocide, and the threat of nuclear destruction. Our own progress in human rights and medicine could go unremarked, just as we overlook the positive aspects of the Victorian era.

Queen Victoria, photograph by
Alexander Bassano, 1882

Progress stumbles and halts. History is a continuum, not a list of unrelated events, and no age is completely a golden epoch or a hell of oppression. And human nature has changed little since the first civilizations, as a look at the writings of Plato or Shakespeare will confirm. An inaccurate understanding of the past, including the Victorian era, makes it easy for a society to fall into an unearned complacency. And this, in turn, makes it more difficult to discern the most constructive actions to take next.

Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet
Pocket Guide to Edwardian England, Evangeline Holland
How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life, Ruth Goodman

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