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Mike Huggins, ‘Exploring the Backstage of Victorian Civilized Respectability: A Reply to Andersson”

2016 April 11
by lucinda matthews-jones

Mike Huggins  is Emeritus Professor of Cultural History at the University of Cumbria and has published widely on the histories of sport, leisure and education. He is currently writing a cultural history of horse racing and society in Britain 1664-1815. His website can be found here.

This post responds to Peter K. Andersson’s Journal of Victorian Culture article ‘How Civilised were the Victorians’. This article can be downloaded here.

Andersson’s argument that scholars have devoted disproportionate attention to the disciplining and civilizing discourses of the Victorian period is highly welcome. Certainly Elias and Foucault have attracted substantive though I suspect often merely ritual reference. But the reasons for the sustained scholarly attention to such discourses are less clear, given that as Andersson points out, the Victorian period was multifaceted and complex. Of course university English and History departments represent themselves as civilising places and as such have always accorded higher status to and rewarded such studies. And I suspect that the need to defer gratification in order to further a scholarly career means that the two discourses have appealed to many scholars, some of whose backgrounds may have been similar to those Victorian cultural groups which gave more emphasis to civility and restraint such asthe self-improving rationalist and secular reformist groups or perhaps the religious reformist leisure cultures rooted in nonconformity and the evangelical Church of England.

Like Andersson, I found the same in-balance a few years ago, when I began to research my recent book Vice and the Victorians (London: Bloomsbury 2015). Vice is a fluid and slippery concept, and its discourses and language certainly needed much exploration, as did its relationship to virtue, respectability and social reform. But in reading the secondary material on vice’s themes, however defined, it was clear that the balance of scholarly work had been on the social and moral reform of ‘vice’ rather than vice itself. Across the Victorian period there were regular debates over gambling, the drinking of alcohol, and sexual pleasures outside marriage, all with peaks and troughs. But in secondary work there was plenty of emphasis on temperance and much less on drinking culture. There was a good deal of material on the problematics of working-class gambling and anti-gambling reform but almost nothing on the substantial extent of the enjoyments of gambling by the Victorian middle classes, despite the popularity of the London Stock Exchange Derby sweep, and many other office sweeps on major races, or the existence of legal credit betting offices across Britain catering for middle-class betting, or the significant numbers of the middle-class attending race meetings.[1] There was a substantial literature on prostitution, on Munby, on the Contagious Diseases Acts, W.T. Stead, the vigilance associations, and on Oscar Wilde’s problems, but less on some other aspects of sexual behaviour.

Likewise, the Victorian press gave much coverage in its columns to sermons, anti-vice organizations, activities, publications, reports and political meetings, attacking and attempting to repress behaviours deemed problematical, and regularly reported the prosecutions of evil-doers. The reformist groups were culturally powerful, vociferous and possessed cultural capital and much zeal, even if active members were relatively few in number. They dominated the literary sources that survive. So anything seen in print by others was usually phrased in a manner calculated not to cause offence to readers, most certainly, though that did not stop editors or novelists addressing such material in careful ways. The police might appear to have been active in imposing certain types of values, but they saw working-class behaviour through working-class eyes and the practical realities of policing meant that they responded to behaviour contingently. A particular response would be situational, but also dependent on the attitudes of senior officers, the local bench, or pressure coming from complaints in the press.  Middle-class drunks might be put in a cab and sent home after a tip was proffered.  Local policemen, it is also clear, ‘read’ local behaviour and appearance in ways often quite different to the readings offered by outside reformers.

Then as now what people said publicly, and how they behaved privately, were not the same. Andersson talks about ‘civilizing masks’ (452); Peter Bailey talked  about roles and performances, of people calculatedly adopting the surface trappings of appropriate behaviour and appearance for a particular context.[2]   Either way, we need to do more to explore the backstage of Victorian life, but far more broadly than at present, right across the spectrum of class, but also in terms of other forms of identity, including gender, generation, Tory or Liberal political orientation, attitude to faith, and ethnicity. As Andersson says, ‘plebeian women were seldom given a voice… in Victorian studies’ (442) but the same goes for middle-class unrespectable women. We need to do more to identify which groups might have been repressed and constrained and to what extent, and when and where they were and were not, and amongst which groups

Certainly the issues of civility and restraint were situational, most effective in certain occupational contexts, amongst members of a church congregation or in respectable homes with respectable neighbours.  They were culturally contested, incorporating contradictions and involving multiple, diverse and individual responses and interpretations. There were, for example, spatial contexts where repression had less effect. These included not just the slums, so often discussed, but music halls and variety theatres, sports and pleasure grounds, racecourses and fairs, places  away from home, in distant towns, and the seaside or foreign lands.

Andersson makes another appeal, for Victorian studies to extend its toolbox of methodologies and sources to place more emphasis on visual material. Many visual sources have, as he points out, yet to be explored. Many Victorian magazines, from The Day’s Doings to Punch, include many pictures and cartoons which hold up to readers’ amusement the less civilized behaviour of their middle-class readers.

Frontcover of 'The Day's Doing' May 27th 1871.

Likewise, Victorian narrative paintings, such as Frith’s Derby Day, like many of the painters themselves, often subvert the dominant discourses. Frith’s Derby Day shows the large crowd bent on gambling, eating and drinking, flirting and other sensual pleasures, with no sense of moral danger, even if he also draws on ideas of physiognomy, phrenology and social types in his representations.

There is a wide range of available methodologies available for exploitation, including semiology, discourse analysis, content analysis, psychoanalysis, content analysis or audience and reception studies, alongside the more usual use of visual sources as empirical evidence.[3]  There is much out there waiting to be explored: early film, advertisements, book illustrations, flags, standards, paintings, photographs, engravings and cartoons and material objects such as gravestones or clothing. Since reading Andersson’s material I can feel the enthusiasm building to revisit this material and read this much more against the current grain.


[1] Mike Huggins, Flat Racing and British Society 1790-1914 (London: Frank Cass, 2000).

[2] See Peter Bailey, Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

[3] See for example, Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Material (London: Sage, 2014).

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