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.