7 3 mins 7 yrs

We all know what “Victorian values” are. It’s common knowledge that the 19th-Century was all Gradgrind and Hard Times, an era of stern, uptight, moralistic corporal punishers who even draped furniture and piano legs. Well common knowledge has it completely wrong.

On the face of it this caricature doesn’t stand up. Any comparison between 1837 (when Victoria ascended to the throne) and 1901 will show the obvious; they were revolutionary, free-wheeling, imaginative, exciting, adventurous times. A nation of stiff prudes couldn’t begin to accomplish what our wonderful forebears achieved.

I don’t know why, but it’s always been in my mind that the Bloomsbury Group was mainly responsible for propogating most of the myths and propaganda about “Victorian values” which are still widely accepted. It was a spiteful campaign but highly successful. It’s interesting to see then that AN Wilson has written about these myths, and finding that the Victorians were always much more fun and liberal than is imagined. His explanation for why we have it so wrong –

So where did this dour image of the Victorian age come from? How did we get the idea that they were all puritanical, unsmiling, and cruel?

When Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher, was jailed during the First World War for being a conscientious objector, his warder was surprised to hear laughter coming from his cell. He went in and saw Russell reading a volume by his friend Lytton Strachey, called “Eminent Victorians”.

Russell, the grandson of the Liberal Prime Minister Lord John Russell, had experienced an austere upbringing, largely at the hands of a rather frightening grandmother. Strachey saw many such alarming parent figures in the upper class world to which he and Russell belonged, and when they grew up and formed the friendship group that came to be known as the Bloomsbury Set, they determined to lampoon everything about the Victorians.

And from there common knowledge grew to be completely wrong. No, the Victorians did not dress scandalously uncovered furniture. No, Queen Victoria did not refuse to sign a Bill which would have outlawed lesbianism, famously refusing to accept that lesbianism could exist in the first place. These are lies which became widely accepted beliefs. In fact naturism was much more widely practiced than it is now, and Queen Victoria was a high spirited, intelligent, fun, open-minded woman. But these truths don’t fit the comfy caricatures.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere. Maybe it’s not just with the Victorians, but also with other common beliefs that things ain’t necessarily so.

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  1. Queen Victoria was a high spirited, intelligent, fun, open-minded woman.

    Yes, AN Wilson’s recent TV programmes about her letters showed that. I think the impression of her as dour and unsmiling comes from the hundreds of formal photographs, usually with some of her extended family, in which she never looks and the camera and never smiles. But there is a photograaph of her in an open carriage on her diamond jubilee day (1897) in which she is roaring with laughter.

  2. Victoria was the first monarch to have her photograph taken in 1837, and such was the infancy of the new science it could sometimes take over an hour for the image to imprint itself on the plate.
    Maintaining a smile for that period of time was nigh-on impossible, so sitters were obliged to look poker-faced to ensure a decent picture.
    Thus was born the idea that the Victorians were humourless.

  3. Thus was born the idea that the Victorians were humourless.

    The music halls were plenty of fun. And of course it was well known that the old queen was partial to a drop of the hard stuff.

  4. The Victorians were no less humans than other generations. They wanted fun and sex and liquid (or narcotic) pleasures as much as any other. The only difference being they were less honest and more publicly hypocritical about it. A trait that continued in British life until recent decades.

  5. Stephen Fry clearly believes in an ‘Interventionist’ God, or rather he thinks there should be one. A rather literary, materialist interpretation of what is meant by a ‘God’, if you ask me.

    Even Jesus didn’t fall into the trap of wondering why humans had to suffer cruelty and disease; He was surrounded by it in every conceivable form, and accepted that there was no ‘fairness’ in the lives of those he preached to.

  6. I think Tolstoy (at the end of War and Peace) gave the whole “God” thing a bit more thought than Stephen Fry.

    If we had an interventionist God, what would have been the point of him giving us all free will in the first place.

    God: “Ah lads, you’re not using free will the way I wanted, I’ll just have to step in here and do a few miracles to set you right.”

    I think Mr Fry is just using populism to make a point in favour of atheism. Fair enough…but it doesn’t make him right.

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