Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes, 1851-67

Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes, 1851-67

by Asa Briggs

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This text looks at the people, ideas and events between the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Second Reform Act of 1867. From "John Arthur Roebuck and the Crimean War", and "Samuel Smiles and the Gospel of Work" to "Thomas Hughes and the Public Schools" and "Benjanmin Disraeli and the Leap in the Dark", Asa Briggs provides an assessment of Victorian achievements; and in doing so conjures up an enviable picture of the progress and independence of the last century.

"For expounding this theme, this interaction of event and personality, Mr. Briggs is abundantly and happily endowed. He is always readable, often amusing, never facetious. He is widely read and widely interested. He has a sound historic judgment, and an unfailing sense for what is significant in the historic sequence and what is merely topical. . . . Above all, he is in sympathy with the age of which he is writing."—Times Literary Supplement

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ISBN-13: 9780226219479
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/31/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 324
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Victorian People

A Reassessment of Person and Themes, 1851-67

By Asa Briggs

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1972 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-21947-9




The period of English history which begins with the Great Exhibition of 1851 and ends with the second Reform Bill of 1867 is one of the least studied and least understood chapters in English history. There are two main reasons for the lacuna: the first, political complexity, a jumble of ministries, and a constant shifting of political alignments; the second, relative quiet in the world of events. The picturesque battles of the nineteenth century fall on either side of the period. On the one side, there are the sharp conflicts of the 1840's, when contemporaries talked openly of class war and imminent revolution, and, on the other, there are the bitter struggles of the 1880's, when Irish nationalism molded English history and Victorian radicalism overlapped with twentieth-century socialism. The middle years of the century form a great plateau bounded on each side by deep ravines and dangerous precipices.

Yet the plateau has a fascination of its own — a fascination which has increased in recent years, when writers and thinkers of the twentieth century have found far more points of interest in Victorian England than their iconoclastic predecessors. The period from 1851 to 1867 was the period of high-Victorian England; from its social balance it produced a distinctive civilization of its own. The key words of the times were "thought," "work," and "progress." Clear thinking was preferred to impulse or prejudice and the battle of ideas to the dictatorship of slogans; hard work was considered the foundation of all material advancement; and both clear thinking and hard work were deemed essential to continued national progress.

The stress on thought, work, and progress, carried with it smugness, dulness, and what contemporaries, particularly the bright young intellectuals of the Saturday Review, called "cant." But it was accompanied also by heightened national pride. The 1851 Preface to G. R. Porter's Progress of the Nation catches the mood: "It must at all times be a matter of great interest and utility to ascertain the means by which any community has attained to eminence among nations. To inquire into the progress of circumstances which has given pre-eminence to one's own nation would almost seem to be a duty." This was the mood of 1851; it survived down to 1867. The period as a whole was a crucial one in the development of English national consciousness:

Pride in their port, defiance in their eye, We see the lords of human kind go by.

Five main influences conditioned the national mood. The first was the direct influence of prosperity. The economic troubles of the preceding generation vanished almost as if by magic. From 1850 there was a rise in prices brought about by the diversion of investment to ventures which yielded their results over a long period of time or, like war and gold rushes, yielded few economic returns at all. Britain was the world's workshop, the world's shipbuilder, the world's carrier, the world's banker, and the world's clearing-house. Free trade was the dominant commercial philosophy of the age, and it seemed as unchallengeable as Magna Carta. Yet landlords retained substantial social and political power and farmers and workers as well as businessmen shared the prosperity. Although the farmers had been robbed of protection by the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, they continued to enjoy the natural protection afforded by the geography against imports on cheap food; as much as the manufacturers, they benefited directly from the expansion of the railway system. So too did the workers, for real wages continued to rise as well as prices. The general reduction of taxes on food and the shortening of the length of the working day permitted unparalleled working- class progress. Such a balance of interests and a relative freedom from economic cares made it possible to avoid the political storms of the 1840's or the 1880's, when the interests of landlords clashed with those of manufacturers and when skilled as well as unskilled workers were goaded by "knife-and-fork" questions into a state of angry revolt.

The second main influence was the sense of national security. Britain ruled the waves, and there was no real outside threat to England's naval supremacy or to the safety of the realm. It was even the boast of Lord Palmerston that "as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong."

Prosperity and security together encouraged a belief in the superiority of English representative institutions. They had withstood the revolutions of 1848, when even English prophets like Carlyle felt that "their hour had struck," and they continued to stand firm when European countries were swinging from freedom to autocracy and when the United States of America was torn by civil war. Although there were no organic changes in the constitution, there was a movement of unremitting adaptation and reform carried out without violence in

A land of settled government,
A land of just and old renown,
Where Freedom broadens slowly down
From precedent to precedent.

This third influence — trust in institutions — was never seriously shaken. It was an indication of social stability that strong government was considered neither necessary nor desirable.

The fourth and fifth influences reconciled order and change. Belief in a common moral code, based on duty and self-restraint, was shared by most groups in society, including scientists, creative artists, and intellectuals. Institutions like the school, the voluntary organization, the trade-union, and, above all, the family emphasized the maintenance of those values which held society together. Even those rebels who refused to accept Christianity demanded that men should be good for good's sake, not God's; and in practice it was difficult to tell the difference. At the same time there was belief in free discussion and inquiry. Men with conflicting points of view were prepared to debate their differences without wishing to exchange blows if they had the worst of the argument. As John Stuart Mill put it in his Essay on Liberty (1859): "It is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. ... Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners."

It did not prove possible in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to maintain the balance of the period from 1851 to 1867; even in that period itself the balance was always changing and was never at any moment perfect. Although there was freedom from economic cares, there were years of economic crisis in 1857 and 1866, when there were many business bankruptcies and great working-class distress. Although there was no threat to English security, there were war scares in 1852 and 1859. Although there was a belief in the superiority of English representative institutions at particular moments, as in 1854 and 1855, they were more vigorously attacked than at any other period in the nineteenth century. Although there was a common moral code, it was often stretched at the edges or superficially maintained with the support of cant and hypocrisy. Although there was free discussion, the range of the discussion was limited, and many topics were deliberately left unexplored.

It is a mistake to make ambitious generalizations. The unity of the period is somewhat deceptive. The general prosperity did not save large sections of the population from social distress. According to Matthew Arnold, the untaxing of the poor man's bread resulted not only in cheaper food for the poor but in the creation of many more poor men to eat it. Machinery had added to national wealth, but it was continuing to produce "a multitude of miserable, sunken and ignorant human beings." Certainly the comfortable distinction between the respectable poor and the the rest of the poor obscured any close examination of the origins of poverty. It covered social questions with a blanket of morality.

Free discussion was possible only because a relatively small number of people took part in it. The free interchange of ideas was for the few rather than for the many, and it was more often conducted in private than in public. Within the limits of debate there was more confrontation of opinions than reconciliation. As one of the first critics of the Victorians, G. W. E. Russell, put it in his Collections and Recollections in 1909: "In all departments of life and thought the Cocksure seem to have possessed the earth. ... Differing from one another in points neither unimportant nor few, they [the participants in debate] were at one in this — they were sure that they were right." Russell exaggerated, for there were important elements of doubt in mid-Victorian England, but he did not falsify.

Even the stability of the period can be overemphasized. The instinct for violence and interest in violence remained. The first was satisfied by casual rowdyism, which reached its peak at election times, or by the Crimean adventure and distant struggles in the colonies; the second was satisfied vicariously by reading of crime and horrors, witnessing public executions, or surveying events in Europe. Two hundred and eighty thousand copies of the gruesome ballad written for the murderer Müller's execution were sold in 1864; no single event more powerfully affected the mind of that generation than the "Indian Mutiny" in 1857.

A more serious threat to permanent stability was the growth of militant radicalism in the cities. There was always a great gulf between the industrial community and the small town or village — a gulf which it was difficult to bridge. "Suppose you fell asleep tonight and woke up in 1860," G. M. Young begins one of his essays. "What is the first thing you would notice?" There is no single answer. It depends where you woke up. The crowds of the cities and the leaders who influenced them were preparing throughout the whole of the period for the great unleashing of popular power, which was made possible by the Reform Bill of 1867. When the urban working classes came into the open to clamor for reform, the intellectual arguments of Robert Lowe were powerless to prevent a complete change in the political balance. In the same way the mixture of reason and dogma which passed for political economy was incapable of explaining or controlling the economic blizzard after 1873. From that date onward, in the words of Robert Browning, it was "never glad, confident morning again."


A fair appreciation of the unity and form of this mid-Victorian period has only become possible in the middle years of the twentieth century. "One thing is pretty certain, and in its way comforting," wrote Leslie Stephen, "that however far the rage for revivalism may be pushed, nobody will ever want to revive the nineteenth century." The first historians of the present century echoed his judgment and went further by often succumbing to the temptation of staging a war of the ages. H. G. Wells, for instance, in The New Machiavelli (1911), described "the Victorian epoch" as "a hasty trial experiment, a gigantic experiment of the most slovenly and wasteful kind." "Will anyone, a hundred years from now, consent to live in the houses the Victorians built," he asked, "travel by their roads or railways, value the furnishings they made to live among or esteem, except for curious or historical reasons, their prevalent art and the clipped and limited literature that satisfied their souls?" Victorian people were "restricted and undisciplined, overtaken by power, by possessions and great new freedoms, and unable to make any civilized use of them whatever."

A very different twentieth-century historian, Lytton Strachey, in Eminent Victorians (1918), adopted "a subtler strategy." Attacking the Victorian age as a whole, he proceeded not by frontal assaults but by lightning operations in unexpected places — on the flanks or at the rear. The task of the historian of Victorian England was to "shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity." The bucket was of elegant design, and the characteristic specimens were suitably nasty. Contemporaries were impressed. Strachey's brief and brilliant biographical sketches took the place of the fat Victorian official Lives, which he conveniently dismissed as part of the cortege of the undertaker, wearing the same air of "slow, funereal barbarism."

Wells and Strachey were men in revolt. They did not foresee, any more than Stephen, that the dusty Victorian biographies would be pulled down from the shelves, while Victorian bric-a-brac would be sold at exorbitant prices. They were so interested in dismissing the Victorian past that they forgot the twentieth-century future.

Interest in the nineteenth century has increased with the growing complexity and insecurity of the contemporary world. The publication of the capacious volumes of Early Victorian England, edited by G. M. Young in 1934, was a major landmark in historiography. Since then, the ideas and beliefs of the Victorians have been frequently revalued in an attempt — as a recent radio symposium put it — to shed "light on matters which puzzle us today." It has now become fashionable to turn back with nostalgia to the England of the Great Exhibition of 1851; and no one was surprised when a surviving Victorian, Algernon Cecil, claimed in 1953 that he could "breathe more freely in the Victorian air" than in that of the twentieth century. "In our own unpleasant century," another writer, Basil Willey, has said, "we are mostly displaced persons, and many feel tempted to take flight into the nineteenth as into a promised land, and settle there like illegal immigrants for the rest of their lives."

Unfortunately, the meaning of the word "Victorian" remains as vague when it is used by historians of escape as it was when used by historians of revolt. It is no more possible to embrace the whole of Victorian England than it was to battle against it. There was no single Victorian England, and there can be no easy return to the Exhibition of 1851 or to the Jubilee of 1887. The nineteenth century can be understood only when we realize that many of the roads back to it are blocked and that the historical landscape we hope to explore looks at first glance like a terra incognita. We can only understand Victorian England by examining particular segments of it, such as the segment discussed in this book. The real continuity of the nineteenth century begins to be apparent only when the unity of the individual periods within it is fully explored.


There are various ways of displaying the unity of a period. The greatest historian of mid-Victorian England, G. M. Young, thinks in terms of "the generation"; his Portrait of an Age (published separately in 1936) depicts with brilliant impressionism the hopes and fears of each succeeding Victorian generation. His strongest point was that he never forgot that he was painting a moving picture and not a series of camera stills. "The sequence of the generations," he writes, "is a continuous stream, so that everybody is a little older or younger than somebody else." The debate between age groups in any period is as important as the debate between rich and poor or between Liberals and Conservatives. "Culture is not a state but a process. ... The judgements of parents, nurses, governesses, pastors and masters of all degrees, are, on the whole, the voice of society in equilibrium and bent on maintaining its equilibrium. The judgements of the younger generation are, on the whole, the voice of society dissident and exploratory." Within each period the unity depends upon a balance; in mid-Victorian England the balance was so nicely adjusted that it permitted order and change. "Of all decades in our history," Young concludes, "a wise man would choose the eighteen-fifties to be young in."

Writing as foreign commentators, two other historians of the ninetenth century have adopted different techniques and styles. Professor W. W. Rostow, in his British Economy of the Nineteenth Century (1948), has divided Victorian England not into early, middle, and late but into "trend periods" of rising and falling prices. To him mid-Victorian England acquired its unity through the price rise, "what is referred to, with some considerable ambiguity, as the great Victorian boom," running from about 1850 to the financial crisis of 1873. Breaks within the period coincided with shifts in the volume and movement of capital exports and fluctuations in general business activity. This analysis is stimulating and suggestive and throws new light on some of the dark corners of the period, but it is of very limited value to the social historian.


Excerpted from Victorian People by Asa Briggs. Copyright © 1972 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Introduction
2. The Crystal Palace and the Men of 1851
3. John Arthur Roebuck and the Crimean War
4. Trollope, Bagehot, and the English Constitution
5. Samuel Smiles and the Gospel of Work
6. Thomas Hughes and the Public Schools
7. Robert Applegarth and the Trade-Unions
8. John Bright and the Creed of Reform
9. Robert Lowe and the Fear of Democracy
10. Benjamin Disraeli and the Leap in the Dark
11. Epilogue
Bibliographical Note

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