When asked about Victorian values, what's the typical response? Most of us imagine Victorian society as sombre and strict atmosphere. Victorians are well-remembered for their Puritan attitudes toward sex, drinking, atheism and general revelrie. Vivid images come to mind: naughty children being beaten with the cane in school, a fondness for black clothes and outfits, austere religious ceremonies and chair legs covered by little skirts to protect their modesty. Class tensions, notably a contempt for the poor, whose troubles were believed to be down to their own financial incompetence and moral bankruptcy, are seen as a staple feature of Victorian society.
If you want a bit more fun, you need to look back at the previous era. The Georgian period is remembered as a time of extravagance and frivolity; wigs, wine and bawdiness! Taking inspiration from Charles II's lavish lifestyle, the aristocracy and anyone lucky enough to belong to Georgian high society engaged regularly in unhealthy bouts of drinking, dining and dancing. In fact, the aristocrats competed with one another to appear to be the richest and most popular.
These are, generally-speaking, the conventional memories of the Georgian and Victorian periods. One was a time of indulgence and mischief, the other a time of restraint and discipline. Of course, historians enjoy revising our conventional understandings of events, periods or movements. Many discoveries about the Victorian period have led historians to conclude that our recollection of the period is long out-of-date. For example, the Victorians are remembered for extremely strict attitudes towards sexuality, yet there is plenty of evidence for the existence of Victorian erotica and pornography, booming prostitution trades in the cities and nude photography. It was in the Victorian era that the first 'snuff film' was made.
And of course, Queen Victorian did not say, "we are not amused." That is a myth...
This is not to say that we have completely misunderstood the Victorian era - that the Victorian period was full of scandal, moral delinquency and the like; but there exist a number of contradictions between what the Victorians sought and what the Victorians actually did. There is plenty of evidence to confirm our original thoughts, that the Victorians sought a humble, refined, restrained society, but there is also evidence that many of these values were never kept, even by those who publicly praised them.
My research into etiquette manuals poses similar contradictions about the Victorian period. Etiquette manuals were the third of a 'trilogy' of manuals that appeared in British society. First came courtesy books, written for the sons of members of the nobility in the 1700s. These books were written to provide these young men accurate guidance for good conduct, helping them ease into the roles expected of them. These guides adhered to timely principles of taste and refinement. Here, manners and morals were "indistinguishable," writes Marjorie Morgan, in my view the best authority on the subject, in Manners, Morals and Class in England, 1774 - 1858 (1994).
Following courtesy books were conduct books. The audience of these books widened to include the existing 'middle class' (the existence of which is a very contentious subject among historians...) and the instructions turned the focus away from universal principles of good behaviour to the behaviour recommended by religious texts. In these books, one could find references to God and the afterlife.
The third part of the series took a much less moralistic tone. Etiquette manuals, in contrast to the manuals that had come before them, possessed a "smiling indifference to ethics," writes Kent Puckett in Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel (2008). The moral didacticism was fading away fast, replaced by guides to fashion - specifically, the fashion of the ruling class. Etiquette books were intended for those climbing the social ladder, who had acquired wealth at levels on par with the existing aristocracy but had not received the same education. These men were "inexperienced but newly-enriched, middle class adults seeking the manners, dress and external polish suitable for mixing in fashionable 'Society'," Morgan adds.
Michael Curtin contributes an explanation for the decline of courtesy literature and rise of etiquette literature in his essay "A Question of Manners: Status and Gender in Etiquette and Courtesy" (1985) (and I bet he writes more about it in his book Propriety and Position: A Study of Victorian Manners , if only I could find a cheap copy). Curtin argues that courtesy literature declined after numerous revelations relating to the high society that courtesy literature promoted. It seemed that the very people who were held in high regard were also guilty of grave misbehaviour. Adding to this, Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son were (unintentionally - someone else published his letters after he had died) an explosive exposé of how men were using manners and guides to them with the main intention of climbing the social ladder rather than becoming decent gentlemen. To Chesterfield's many critics, he "seemed ... to associate fine manners with the frivolous preoccupations of a rentier class, not with the serious aspirations of the community as a whole." Courtesy literature lost its reputation; in came etiquette manuals, especially popular among the new middle class who sought to learn about "the specific details of the aristocratic life-style" in order to blend in.
If my research has been successful, etiquette manuals were guides to fashion and behaviour according to the standards of the upper class; they were handbooks detailing how high society behaved for those who wanted to gain access to it. (Whether this was possible, thinking of Victorian attitudes to class and the contradictions of the etiquette manuals themselves, is the subject of my dissertation.) Etiquette manuals stood in contrast to the strict moral guides of the 1700s. Don't these findings contradict our typical understanding of the Georgian and Victorian periods? I would have thought guides to fitting into fashionable society and blending in with the rich and famous would be more appropriate to 1700s gentlemen, not the 1800s bourgeoisie. The nature of the manuals would suggest that it was the Georgian period in which high society preached discipline and perhaps saintly conduct, contrasting with Victorian high society's focus on elegance and politeness.
Histories of manners, politeness, etiquette and deportment, sometimes in conjunction with masculinity, feminity and gender, are thoroughly interesting and if I had more time and more words in the dissertation, these would likely be the subjects of my inquiry. But throughout these investigations, there are several contradictions that arise, relating to the Georgian and Victorian attitudes to gentlemanliness, behaviour and gender, largely because both societies preached A and practised B.
Do you know the greatest straw men of today? It's "the Left" and "the Right". No, I don't mean the political left and right, nor am I admitting to be a centrist. I mean the two political terms so often used by commentators, pundits, journalists, politicians and others. "The Left" and "the Right" are two political terms with a huge space under which so many things can come. As a Fabian I should think I belong to "the Left" but that should not automatically associate me with Leninism, Stalinism or communist revolution. My Thatcherite friend should not be equated with Neo-Nazism, religious fundamentalism or a fondness for dictatorship. Because of this, writing about "the Left" or "the Right" is, in my opinion, fruitless, as it is never clear what "the Left" and "the Right" actually are. Nonetheless, plenty of people continue to bemoan one or the other, labelling scores of people with the same criticisms.
Elements of "the Left" can include Marxists, socialists, social democrats, centrists, communists, republicans, egalitarians, secularists and critics of religion; elements of "the Right" can include conservatives, traditionalists, monarchists, aristocrats, racial supremacists, Nazis, libertarians and fascists. But should even these ideas or ideologies be associated with either "the Left" or "the Right"? A few centuries ago, the doctrine we have come to know as classical liberalism belonged to "the Left" whereas nowadays classical liberalism is seen as belonging to "the Right." Nationalism, libertarianism and anarchism exist in both left-wing and right-wing forms. Even in the present day, we disagree on how to categorise political parties and ideologies. Many critics of Blair's New Labour said that it had taken a left-wing party into the centre ground; Peter Hitchens argues that the Conservative Party and UKIP are left-wing; some Telegraph journalists think that the current Labour Party is infested with Trotskyists and pursuing a radical left-wing agenda. Most people consider Donald Trump a right-wing populist, but classical liberal economists such as Steve Davies say that he advocates left-wing, collectivist economic policies.
In every country or political atmosphere there exists a left wing and a right wing, but there is, I believe, a difference between the context-dependent political left and right and "the Left" and "the Right". What we list under the ignorant banners of "Left" and "Right" is influenced by context, circumstance and our own prejudices. Unfortunately, commentators like to write about "the Left" and "the Right" as vast entities, carelessly smearing many people with criticisms attached to them simply because they are an element of the political left or right.
I've written about this before, so I don't want to simply duplicate what I have written before, but I see the terms "the Left" and the "Right" thrown about even more so than before and it continues to frustrate me. Consider the titles of some opinion pieces from the British press:
Why do they do it? I should think that it's because it's easy: it's so easy to ridicule and dismiss a school of thought if you describe it in a misleading way. If you bundle numerous contrasting political and economic philosophies into one big bubble, you can take one big swipe at the whole thing. Dennis Prager, the American conservative commentator, does this quite a lot. Most recently in his long career, he's produced a series of videos for his pet conservative educational project 'Prager University' on the differences between "the Left" and "the Right" (and as you'd expect, "the Right" comes out positively every time). On Prager University's YouTube account you can also find a speech he gave a little while ago at a Prager University dinner, in which he says that "the Left" "are crazy about power" and refers to the Nazis and "the Left" in the same sentence. A video released a few days ago sees Prager arguing that "the Left" is out to remove Christmas.
Whenever possible, I avoid writing about "the Left" and "the Right". If I have a problem with a political faction, I address the problem and the faction specifically: I would be critical of the Conservative Party, laissez-faire economics, the privatisation of public services etc. ... I would hate to be compelled by an editor to write about my problems with "the Right". Writing about an inflated, non-existent entity succeeds only creating a binary mentality - it's us or (say) "the Left" whose policies and ideas are anathema. It's not helpful to lump everything into one term and then to complain about it. What about those on the political left who are in favour of the private property or a small government? Yes, they do exist and to think that they don't only confirms, at least to me, that you have subscribed to the portrayal of "the Left" that has been given to you by these ideologically-motivated journalists and commentators.
Some people use the terms "the Left" or "the Right" as a synonym for the organised force of the political left or right in their country. The Telegraph journalists who argued that there is a problem with anti-Semitism in "the Left" in Britain were likely referring to the accusations of (and inquiry into) anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party. But this is lazy - it still lumps everyone on the political left into one large group, accusing them all of having sympathy with anti-Semitism.
Using intentionally vague terms leads to unhealthy politics; it leads to people distrusting and fearing an immense political entity, carelessly constructed by incompetent critics. It contributes to an us versus them mentality where it's sensible people versus "the Left" or "the Right".