Our Favorite Ghosts

Why are we still so obsessed with the Victorians?

We keep calling them back, the Victorians, but why do we? It’s not only the academics, the eccentrics, the architects, and the Brits—most everyone walks around with some Victorian picture in the head. Why are they our favorite ghosts? What do we want from them any longer?

Last summer, David Cameron, the smart, slick, young leader of the resurgent British Tory Party, made headlines when he recommended more sensitive attitudes toward the ominous-looking urban teens who give bad dreams to the middle class. “Hoodies,” he observed, “are more defensive than offensive,” not the problem “but a response to the problem.” In the next spin cycle, the phrase “Hug a hoodie” is what Cameron was said to have said (he didn’t), and the phrase became (and has stayed) the tag. Then, as summer turned to fall, the crime debate took another surprising turn when the shadow attorney general, the aptly named Dominic Grieve, took the old sharp line. “You can argue,” Grieve thumped, “that our Victorian forebears succeeded in achieving something very unusual in changing public attitudes by instilling moral codes. … There was a much greater sense of shame in respect of transgression.”

It was a made-for-the-tabloids British political comedy. What were the Tories doing? Were they trying to go soft, more touchy-feely than New Labor, or, as they scrambled to retune their message, were they still Scrooge? Behind the farce, still twitching as I write, is the vivid memory of Margaret Thatcher’s famous declarations of 1983. “I was grateful,” said Thatcher, “to have been brought up by a Victorian grandmother. … We were taught to work jolly hard; we were taught to taught to prove ourselves; we were taught self-reliance; we were taught to live within our income.” Victorian values “were the values when our country became great.”

Ben Wilson’s new book inscribes itself within the distant dates 1789-1837 (the French Revolution to the accession of Queen Victoria), but from its opening pages, it recalls the flapping controversies of our times. Wilson knows, but not does not overstress, that we only always pretend to have left the Victorians behind, and that they irritate us partly because they prefigured and created us: For the last 200 years, we have lived within a reaction formation that they started and we can’t stop.

Perky and readable, the book is a collection of stories, recovered tales of singular lives, that crowded the pre-Victorian scene and prepared for the Victorian recoil: quack doctor Samuel Solomon, who peddled the Cordial Balm of Gilead; radical tailor Francis Place; the fastidious dandies around Beau Brummel; black beggar Joseph Johnson with a model of HMS Nelson on his head; the prurient founding members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. At the turn of the 19th century, much of British society was bawdy, boisterous, freedom-asserting, straight-speaking, and heavy-drinking. Hypocrisy was detested; so were overrefinement and the pretentious cant of the respectable classes. But the unruliness of this vigorous society became too much for the polite elites—especially utilitarian philosophers (led by Jeremy Bentham) and evangelical reformers (led by William Wilberforce)—who longed to bring the street carnival to an end.

A fear of the stroppy lower classes and an overreaction into delicate moralism: This is the narrative that Wilson teases from his material. Transfixed by images of lusty pandemonium (drinking, singing, lovemaking, catcalling), campaigners like fear-mongering magistrate Patrick Colquhoun called for discipline, morality, and a new police force to suppress the “[v]icious habits, idleness, improvidence and sottishness” of the poor and to ward off a “gangrene in the body politic.” Here, according to Wilson, was the making of Victorian values and also the making of our own self-woven snares—the temptation to legislate goodness, to moralize affections, to fret whether we should hug (or not hug) a hoodie. Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. But Wilson shows that there was farce from the start: the farce of planting moral stakes in the ocean of imperfect humanity, as when the SSV went in hot pursuit of obscene prints, collecting more than 1,200 under triple lock and key, so that the radioactive box could be opened only when all three key-holders were present.

Wilson is a young London-based writer (the picture on the dust jacket makes him look 14: He should put on a hood) who has the wit, fluency, stamina, and intelligence to pull off a surprising feat. The Making of Victorian Values is a conscientiously researched history that professionals can admire, but if read with any curiosity about the past at all, the book is as gripping as a heavily flogged, trashy page turner. It’s best to see Wilson as a scholar/journalist, that hybrid we badly need: someone who believes in rigorous academic research, developed collectively and held to high standards, and at the same time believes that history should engage a wide audience with its need for cultural memory. Most impressively, it summons the tonic otherness of the early 19th century—the epidemic of hypochondria, the scandal of Byron, the 67 nights of carnival protest at the new Covent Garden Theatre (old prices! no private boxes!), the 50,000 prostitutes of London—even as it persuades us that the problems for the Victorians (What to do with the uproar? How far to interfere in lives not our own?) are unresolved legacies for us.

As good as it is, you should still read this book with brown paper over the cover, so that you don’t have to look at the obscene title. It’s not obscene because it uses bad words, only because it uses wooden abstractions—values, decency, dissent—that cannot possibly capture the granular detail and the pithy street stuff that Wilson collects: the hilarity, absurdity, fecundity. Abstractions can be obscene, too. Even those words making and Victorian are distortions, since the “values” were as much improvisation as design and as much the effects of modernization (new economies, technologies, population movements) as moralistic reactions to bedlam in the street.

If lusty and unrepentant John Bull languished in the 19th century—with the end of public executions and cruel sports, and the policing of “bawdiness, low-level violence and drunkenness”—it wasn’t just because the Victorians grew fussy and fastidious. It was because all of society, rich and poor, dirty and clean, was becoming more normalized and regulated. And if the people gave up bull-baiting and the chaos of Bartholomew Fair, they were still capable of resistance. But now the resistance (in the factory, in Trafalgar Square) was often as organized as the morality. Sure, there were heavy dogmatists that fit the stereotype, and yes, they had coercive power over the weak, the poor, the young, the old, the ill, the insane. But in every Victorian decade, they were challenged, and increasingly so. This wasn’t only the age of severe Mrs. Grundy, but also the age of Marx and working-class consciousness, of divorce legislation and public libraries, Darwin and the New Woman.

Interestingly, refreshingly, Wilson at his best wavers in the lessons he draws from his abundant materials, and this is because of an imaginative strength that resists abstractions like those in his title. Early in the book he is an enemy of moralism who repeatedly quotes Byron’s attack on the cant, the pious fraud, of the smug agents of goodness. He shows consistent sympathy for the defiant underclasses (sermonized at, moralized over) who, after long hours at work, released the animal spirits of imperfect Britons, stamping their feet, swilling their beer, and jeering at authority. But the book concludes in very different terms. The last pages accept that it is right to press for the improvement of others, even at the risk of being called hypocrite, or Victorian. In this way, The Making of Victorian Values follows the arc of history that it describes. A sympathy for raucousness passes into appreciative regard for the benefits of education. But then, in his final sentence, Wilson gives one last glance to the stubborn and abiding power of eccentricity that no ethics or politics can ever dissolve, then or now—ending with Kant’s wise saying that from “the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever fashioned.”

The uncertainty is a virtue not a defect. It is a triumph over abstraction that lets us see why we need those Victorian ghosts—because they were never ghosts at all, but real lives, worthy of resurrection, defying the pat simplicities of generalization. They provoke the double thought raised by all strong history. That’s how they were. How should we be?