‘Victorian People and Ideas’ by Richard D. Altick

 1974 (first edition)  309 p.

This book is subtitled: ‘A companion for the modern reader of Victorian literature’.  This qualification is an apt one as the book is intended,  as Altick makes clear in the preface, to be a background accompaniment to literature rather  than a history in its own right.

This book is rather like of of those “Music Minus One” records of a concerto, in which the orchestral accompaniment is present but the solo instrument lacking.  The different voices of Victorian social and intellectual history here provide the background, that is to say, the thematic material which in a fully realized concerto is developed by the solo instrument.  The unheard soloist- the real center of interest- is, of course, Victorian literature itself… The chapters that follow are designed, then, to supply the accompaniment by which Victorian literature can be made more intelligible and pertinent to a reader in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  The accurate understanding of any era’s literature depends to a greater or less extent on a grasp of its historical context, but the danger of misreading and of anachronistic criticism increases when one deals with literature so intimately connected with contemporary life as was that of the Victorians. (p. ix)

The mentions of vinyl records and the ‘last quarter of the twentieth century’ remind us that this book is now forty years old.   It was written before the various ‘turns’ that have spun historiography around during the last 35 years (the ‘linguistic turn’; the ‘cultural turn’ etc.).  Although it styles itself a ‘companion’, it is in fact a history, but largely shorn of the historian’s footnotes and references.

There are a number of factors that complicate any attempt to examine Victorian literature or society generally.  The first is that ‘Victorian’ covers so many years, and multiple epochs, extending even beyond the 63 years of Queen Victoria’s reign.  As he points out:

Seen in a century’s perspective, the age merges at either end into epochs of a very different tone, from which, retrospectively in the one instance, by anticipation in the other, those earliest and latest years acquired their distinctive coloration. p. 1

He is thus careful to distinguish between ‘early’  and ‘mid’ Victorianism, and in several respects notes the decay of Victorianism even before Victoria’s reign was over.  He notes that the 1830s were a period of transition from the romanticism of the early 1800s, and that the early years of Victoria’s reign were “bathed in [the] gawdy twilight” of the Regency era.  The prudery and strict moral conduct that is synonymous with ‘Victorianism’ in our mind today began, in fact, during the Regency period, evidenced by the publication of Bowdler’s santized version of Shakespeare (from which we get the term ‘bowdlerism’) in 1818.  What we know as ‘Victorianism’ did not spring forth fully formed in 1837, and it did not stop in its tracks in 1901.

Second, in examining Victorian literature in particular, it is both an expression and a product of its time.  Author and audience are both ‘Victorian’ and each shapes the other.  Altick discusses Dickens, Eliot, Wilde and Ruskin both as authors who were forming the mind-set of their readers, but also as products themselves of their own intellectual and social milieu. He doesn’t discuss individual works as such, but he does use their characters  to exemplify the major  themes, concerns and mentalities of the day.

As such, this is a light-touch intellectual history, with well over half of the book devoted to utilitarianism, evangelicalism,and attitudes towards art and culture. There is quite a bit of church history here, but this is important in defining the Victorian temper.  Hence he explores the development of evangelicalism first within the Anglican church then as it split oft into non-conformism, and the influence of the Oxford Movement and Tractarianism. He distinguishes between utilitarianism (in its purest form known as Benthamism) and laissez-faire, and the political and social implications of each. He suggests that if you depicted utilitarianism and evangelicalism as two irregularly shaped designs, and then superimposed one upon the other, you would be struck by the number of portions that would merge into a single image.  Both promoted the value of work (evangelicals for its moral benefit; utilitarians for efficiency and because it is a ‘good’) and both looked askance at artists (evangelicals disliked their warped morality; utilitarians saw them as parasites).

Periodization of an individual’s thinking is complex.  As a biographer/historian, I find ‘habits of mind’ the most slippery aspect to pin down.  I am working on a man born in the closing decade of the 18th century, educated in the Regency years, whose career was at its zenith (such as it was) during the decade immediately before and after Victoria’s ascension to the throne, yet to all intents and purposes is very much ‘the Victorian man’.  But how old is the core of him?

Thinking of myself,  I was born in the 1950s and hence ostensibly a baby-boomer, and I have tumbled into a different millenium in a digital, market-oriented world.  But if I had to nominate the decade with which I most closely identify, it would be the early 1970s when I formed my political ideas, embarked on my bed-rock career and became at my core the adult I am.  This core has been overlaid by later experiences and influences, but at my very centre is a Whitlam-era, middle class, suburban Melburnite.  Is it common for the age of roughly 20 to be the setting-point for an individual generally, or was there something about those particular years in my case?  What about you- what decade is the core of you set in?

And so, I have found this book useful in teasing out the intellectual currents and concerns that manifest themselves in the 19th century English worldview that was tucked up and carried to different outposts of empire.  It does not pretend to explore them at any great depth and does not do so, but it does complicate and give depth to the ‘Victorian’ mindset so definitively stamped into our literature and culture generally.

4 responses to “‘Victorian People and Ideas’ by Richard D. Altick

  1. As a protester at the Leonda restaurant against the Whitlam dismissal, it was when my political opinions were formed. Some decades later, I am now at an age where I am quite conservative in my thinking, but I cannot forget my passion to right the world. I still want to right the world, but now I know of the difficulties. Young = black and white. Old = many shades of grey.

    • I suspect that we’re of a similar age then??! Whitlam was very, very influential for me too- so was it the experience of 1972-4 in and of itself, or of the age we were then? I asked my 83-year-old father this question (certainly no Whitlamite ONE LITTLE BIT!) and he identified his early 20s, when he first went into business for himself.
      I think that I’ve become more activist in recent years, or at least more aware of what’s going on around me. I can thank Alexander Downer for that. I was so outraged about his attitude to East Timor oil (i.e. they’re receiving aid from us, so they should just shut up) that I decided to become more politically involved.

  2. Pingback: ‘What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew’ by Daniel Pool | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  3. Pingback: Ben Wilson ‘The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain 1789-1837′ | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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