Comment: Don’t believe the myth of a genteel Victorian England

By Clive Bloom

We look at the Victorian age as an assured, stable period, but underneath the veneer of respectability it was a period of unremitting chaos.

My book, Victoria’s Madmen: Revolution and Alienation, is the story of Victorian struggle, far from the genteel image of the period which we experience today. It was a political, personal and cultural struggle from which the modern world emerged. Here are those Victorian individuals whose often strange ideas created the atmosphere of changing times.

It is the story of a number of extraordinary men and women, some of whom are remembered and some who are now all but forgotten and were literally considered mad by most, if not all, of their contemporaries. Their mainly utopian ideals were pursued against the prevailing norms of the day. They were Victorians against the Victorian age.

The Victorian age has long been seen by historians as one far more diverse in every respect than earlier commentators liked to think. Nevertheless, this newer Victorian landscape is also oddly traditional, in as much as the sense of the period has still been partially created by the leading voices of the age rather than those in partial or complete shadow.

Such discussions were often framed by the expression 'spirit of the age', a phrase invented in the eighteenth century by David Hume, but endlessly repeated by writers such as William Hazlitt, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle. For Mill, the period was one of 'transition' and 'intellectual anarchy', where the old ways had been outgrown, but new ways were not yet available. For Carlyle, it was an age caught between scepticism and belief and for Bulwer Lytton it was time of bleak utilitarianism, the age of romanticism having passed with the death of Lord Byron. Benjamin Disraeli saw the age as one of social and economic strife divided between 'two nations'.

The story includes celebrities such as Oscar Wilde and T E Lawrence; writers such as H G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and the lesser known Edward Fawcett; the many revolutionaries and radicals of the times, from Karl Marx, Annie Besant, Charles Bradlaugh and Eleanor Marx to the dubious charms of Oswald Mosley; the messiahs 'Octavia' and 'Jezreel'; the occultist Aleister Crowley and his 'scarlet woman'; murderers like Richard Dadd and Jack the Ripper; early town planners and ecologists such as Ebenezer Howard, Harold Booth and Archibald Belaney; Indian nationalists and anti-imperialists such as Mohandas Gandhi and Vinayak Savarkar; the Latvian anarchists who killed three policemen in the East End of London; the Green Shirts of the Kibbo Kift and many more: ideas and people tumble into the Twentieth Century with new and dangerous concepts developed in the mental laboratory of the Victorian age.

We are the products of what went before, but the attempt to denigrate or actually obliterate our Victorian foundations makes problematic history. We are the inheritors of a world that we consider, at best embarrassing and at worst something to be denied altogether, the point is however, that we are also nearer that part of the Victorian age that the very Victorians refused to countenance.

The peculiar Victorian 'essence' is for many of us still one of coal steam, factories, imperial adventures, spices, fog and workhouses, uniformed servants, middle-class propriety and colourful musical halls. On the one hand, Victoria gave her name to an era, on the other to a sensibility and an emotion: Victorian and Victorianism. 'Victorian' designates the period from Queen Victoria's accession in 1837 to her death in 1901, conjuring in its wake everything from the London of Dickens to the bridges of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Victorianism seems also to designate a claustrophobic attitude of mind hardly conducive to anything other than a narrow consensus and conformity of thought but the term might equally cover those who embraced revolution, Communism or the occult. Above all, Victorianism is about the life of ideas and how these flourished beyond the Nineteenth Century and became the language of counter-cultural modernity.

The very term 'Victorianism' created the grounds for a number of visionary thinkers born into, but emotionally divergent from the very age in which they lived, many of whom found their rightful place in the historical movement of ideas long after the specific circumstances of their own lives were forgotten.

For most thinking Victorians, the period hung between the problems of doubt and belief, science and the spirit, social reform or revolution. The 'new Jerusalem' was waiting to be built in the future and the new world would be ushered in over the wreck of old beliefs. This wreck, left after the destruction of old certainties would lead some to explore the edge of insanity as others might explore the world in search of new physical discoveries. The world was all inside your head. This realisation would effectively allow the future to be born from the margins of Victorian consciousness rather than from imperial action.       

The Victorian period as defined here was above all a period exemplified by its 'isms'; the times marked by a search for a way of life different from that inherited from the past which those very 'isms embodied. Ideas heralded coming times and the new person whose modernity was expressed by adherence to one or a combination of the following: anarchism, hedonism and individualism, bohemianism and avant-gardism; collectivism, syndicalism, suffragetism, communism and socialism; vegetarianism, nudism and sun worship; Zionism, anti-semitism; Islamism; medievalism, Christian gothicism, atheism and secularism; spiritualism, theology and social Darwinism; demon worship; free love and drug addiction; fairies and woodcraft – all were powerful ideologies at one time or the other.

The stable world of Victorian proprieties was to be shaken to its foundations. Nineteen years after the death of Queen Victoria, the writer Gerald Gould could predict that "there is going to be a revolution in Great Britain". It was an extraordinary prediction, and one almost unthinkable before 1900 except by a huddle of fanatical cultists of one sort or the other. The First World War was not the decisive break with the past, but the culmination of imperial rivalries as well as revolutionary forces and the release of those pent up revolutionary movements that had gestated throughout the previous century.  

Secularism was the religion of the intellectual mid-Victorian. For William Morris, it was this triumph of the 'religion of humanity' which would eventually release humankind from its subordination to heaven and hell, allow beauty to flourish and 'the world' to live in harmony with its creatures. Sociology was to be the new religion of the humanist.     

The great unwashed would no longer be the recipients of charity for now they would be the laboratory of the new society. The quest for a set of ideas of the self and an ideal politics in which that self might thrive seemed ever on the brink of fulfilment, the new secular Jerusalem on a horizon ever nearer. Winwood Reade, the explorer, Darwinian and secularist put the case in a work that would become the handbook of every atheist utopian who had signed up to the Victorian counter culture.

For many nineteenth century outsiders, the question was this: now I have lost my faith in God, religion and society how am I to be reborn into that reality that is more myself and more closely resembles the reality that others do not see; how is one spiritually resurrected and in whose name? The answer was clear. First one must detach oneself from bourgeois mores, become 'bohemian' internally if not also in external appearance; communalism; rational dress, sandals and a diet of nuts were solutions that satisfied some; Marxist-socialism satisfied others; occultism, new religions, free-love and drugs appealed to others. Many looked to the East, to the Arab world and Hinduism to release them from bourgeois desire and delusion, others to history itself to free them.

From the pronouncements of the French Revolution onwards, nineteenth-century rebellion was dedicated to the notion of future time. Nothing was left from the ruins of the past except outdated concepts and outdated relationships. History was now to be defined as ethical progress replacing the City of God with that of humanity. 

By the end of the nineteenth century, everyone knew that Darwinism taught that species evolve and that some die out. Herbert Spenser had applied Darwinian ideas to society and others had extrapolated from it to predict the end of the upper class, but the aristocracy was more powerful than ever, social inequality more marked and entrenched, psychological questions more burdensome and terrifying. In so many ways, Darwinism solved nothing – neither explaining the existential pain of the intellectual and artist nor the spiritual void of the toiling masses.

George Bernard Shaw was just one outsider figure. The outsider's conundrum is how to live whilst others are 'dead'; how to make sense out of chaos and meaning out of meaninglessness, live the 'truth' and not be put in an asylum. The central question of freedom is where to locate the 'reality' of existence in such a way as both to embody that reality and to present it to others clearly. 

This would be the problem that would motivate such diverse personalities as Aleister Crowley, T E Lawrence or Oscar Wilde, but it would also drive others to insanity explaining the other side of the story of the myth of Victorian certainties.

Described by The Times as a polymath, Clive Bloom is emeritus professor of English and American Studies at Middlesex University, as well as a best-selling author and publisher. Clive was the historical consultant to the BBC and a number of national and international newspapers on the G20 and the summer riots in Britain. He is an occasional feature writer for the Financial Times, the Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Irish Times and the London Evening Standard and he regularly appears on television and radio.

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