Edmund William Gosse: The Agony of the Victorian Age

For a considerable time past everybody must have noticed, especially in private conversation, a growing tendency to disparagement and even ridicule of all men and things, and aspects of things, which can be defined as "Victorian." Faded habits of mind are lightly dismissed as typical of the Victorian Age, and old favourite poets, painters, and musicians are treated with the same scorn as the glued chairs and glass bowls of wax flowers of sixty years ago. The new generation are hardly willing to distinguish what was good from what was bad in the time of their grandmothers. With increasing audacity they repudiate the Victorian Age as a sæclum insipiens et infacetum, and we meet everywhere with the exact opposite of Montaigne's "Je les approuve tous Tun après l'autre, quoi qu'ils disent." Our younger contemporaries are slipping into the habit of approving of nothing from the moment that they are told it is Victorian.

This may almost be described as an intellectual and moral revolution. Every such revolution means some liberation of the intellect from bondage, and shows itself first of all in a temper of irreverence; the formulas of the old faith are no longer treated with respect and presently they are even ridiculed. It is useless to close our eyes to the fact that a spirit of this kind is at work amongst us, undermining the dignity and authority of objects and opinions and men that seemed half a century ago to be more perennial than bronze. Successive orators and writers have put the public in possession of arguments, and especially have sparkled in pleasantries, which have sapped the very foundations of the faith of 1850. The infection has attacked us all, and there is probably no one who is not surprised, if he seriously reflects, to realise that he once implicitly took his ideas of art from Ruskin and of philosophy from Herbert Spencer. These great men are no longer regarded by anybody with the old credulity; their theories and their dogmas are mined, as were those of the early eighteenth century in France by the Encyclopædists, by a select class of destructive critics, in whose wake the whole public irregularly follows. The ordinary unthinking man accepts the change with exhilaration, since in this country the majority have always enjoyed seeing noses knocked off statues. But if we are to rejoice in liberation from the bondage of the Victorian Age we ought to know what those bonds were.

The phenomena of the decadence of an age are never similar to those of its rise. This is a fact which is commonly overlooked by the opponents of a particular section of social and intellectual history. In the initial stages of a "period" we look for audacity, fire, freshness, passion. We look for men of strong character who will hew a channel along which the torrent of new ideals and subversive sentiments can rush. But this violence cannot be expected to last, and it would lead to anarchy if it did. Slowly the impetus of the stream diminishes, the river widens, and its waters reach a point where there seems to be no further movement in their expanse. No age contains in itself the elements of endless progress; it starts in fury, and little by little the force of it declines. Its decline is patent—but not until long afterwards—in a deadening of effort, in a hardening of style. Dryden leads on to Pope, Pope points down to Erasmus Darwin, after whom the world can but reject the whole classical system. The hungry sheep of a new generation look up and are not fed, and this is the vision which seems to face us in the last adventures of the schools of yesterday.

But what is, or was, the Victorian Age? The world speaks glibly of it as though it were a province of history no less exactly defined than the career of a human being from birth to death; but in practice no one seems in a hurry to mark out its frontiers. Indeed, to do so is an intrepid act. If the attempt is to be made at all, then 1840, the year of Queen Victoria's marriage with Prince Albert, may be suggested as the starting-point, and 1890 (between the death-dates of Browning, Newman, and Tennyson) as the year in which the Victorian Age is seen sinking into the sands. Nothing could be vaguer, or more open to contention in detail, than this delineation, but at all events it gives our deliberations a frame. It excludes Pickwick, which is the typical picture of English life under William IV., and Sartor Resartus, which was the tossing of the bound giant in his sleep; but it includes the two-volume Tennyson, "chiefly lyrical," the stir of the Corn Law agitation, the Tractarian Crisis of 1841, and the History of the French Revolution and Past and Present, when the giant opened his eyes and fought with his chains. Darwin was slowly putting together the notes he had made on the Beagle, and Hugh Miller was disturbing convention by his explorations of the Old Red Sandstone. Most of all, the discussion of permanent and transient elements in Christianity was taking a foremost place in all strata of society, not merely in the form of the contest around Tract 90, but in the divergent directions of Colenso, the Simeon Evangelicals, and Maurice.

The Victorian Age began in rancour and turmoil. This is an element which we must not overlook, although it was in a measure superficial. A series of storms, rattling and[Pg 316] recurrent tempests of thunder and lightning, swept over public opinion, which had been so calm under George IV. and so dull under William IV. Nothing could exceed the discord of vituperation, the Hebraism of Carlyle denouncing the Vaticanism of Wiseman, "Free Kirk and other rubbish" pitted against "Comtism, ghastliest of algebraic spectralities." This theological tension marks the first twenty years and then slowly dies down, after the passion expended over Essays and Reviews. It was in 1840 that we find Macaulay, anxious to start a scheme of Whig reform and to cut a respectable figure as Secretary of State for War, unable to get to business because of the stumbling-block of religious controversy. Everything in heaven and earth was turned into "a theological treatise," and all that people cared about was "the nature of the sacraments, the operation of holy orders, the visibility of the Church and baptismal regeneration." The sitting member goes down to Edinburgh to talk to his constituents about Corn Laws and Sugar Duties and the Eastern Question; he is met by "a din" of such objections as "Yes, Mr. Macaulay, that is all very well for a statesman, but what becomes of the headship of our Lord Jesus Christ?"

If the Victorian Age opened in a tempest of theology, it was only natural that it should cultivate a withering disdain for those who had attempted to reform society on a non-theological basis. In sharp contradistinction to the indulgence of the Georgian period for philosophic speculation, England's interest in which not even her long continental wars had been able to quench, we find with the accession of Victoria the credit of the French thinkers almost abruptly falling. Voltaire, never very popular in England, becomes "as mischievous a monkey as any of them"; the enthusiasm for Rousseau, which had reached extravagant proportions, completely disappears, and he is merely the slanderous sceptic, who, after soaking other people's waistcoats with his tears, sent his own babies to the Foundling Hospital. The influence of the French eighteenth-century literature on the mind of England was first combated and then baldly denied. The premier journalist of the age declared, with the satisfaction of a turkey-cock strutting round his yard, that no trace of the lowest level of what could be called popularity remained in England to the writers of France, and he felt himself "entitled to treat as an imbecile conceit the pretence" that a French school of thought survived in Great Britain. Such was the Podsnappery of the hour in its vigilance against moral and religious taint.

Notwithstanding, or perhaps we ought to say inevitably conducted by these elements of passion and disdain, the infant Victorian Age passed rapidly into the great political whirlpool of 1846, with its violent concentration of enthusiasm on the social questions which affected the welfare of the masses, with, in short, its tremendous upheaval of a practical radicalism. From that time forth its development baffles analysis. Whatever its present enemies may allege to its discredit, they cannot pretend that it was languid or monotonous. No Age hitherto lived out upon the world's surface has been so multiform or so busy; none defies the art of the historian to such a bewildering degree. Its latest critic does not exaggerate when he says that our fathers and our grandfathers have poured forth and accumulated so vast a quantity of information concerning it "that the industry of a Ranke would be submerged by it and the perspicacity of a Gibbon would quail before it." This is manifestly true, and it is evident that an encyclopædia would be required to discuss all the divisions of so tremendous a subject. If we look over too wide a horizon we lose our bearings altogether. We get a hopelessly confused notion of the course of progress; we see experiments, criticisms, failures, but who is to assure us what was the tendency of evolution?

Mr. Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians" has arrived at the very moment when all readers are prepared to discuss the age he deals with, and when public opinion is aware of the impatience which has been "rising in the bosom of a man like smoke" under the pressure of the insistent praise of famous men. The book has attracted a very remarkable degree of notice; it has been talked about wherever people have met together; and has received the compliment of being seriously displayed before the University of Oxford by one of the most eminent of the Victorian statesmen whom Oxford has produced. If we look into the causes of this success, enjoyed by the earliest extended book of a writer almost unknown, a book, too, which pretends to no novelty of matter or mystery of investigation, we find them partly in the preparedness of the public mind for something in the way of this exposure, but partly also in the skill of the writer. Whatever else may be said of Mr. Lytton Strachey, no one can deny that he is very adroit, or that he possesses the art of arresting attention.

It is part of this adroitness that he contrives to modify, and for a long time even to conceal the fact that his purpose is to damage and discredit the Victorian Age. He is so ceremonious in his approach, so careful to avoid all brusqueness and coarseness, that his real aim may be for awhile unobserved. He even professes to speak "dispassionately, impartially, and without ulterior intentions." We may admit the want of passion and perhaps the want of partiality, but we cannot avoid seeing the ulterior intention, which is to undermine and belittle the reputation of the great figures of the Victorian Age. When the prodigious Signor Marinetti proposes to hurl the "leprous palaces" of his native city into her "fetid canals," and to build in their place warehouses and railway stations, he does not differ in essential attitude from Mr. Lytton Strachey, delicately "laying bare the facts of some cases." The only real difference consists in the finer tact, the greater knowledge of history—in short, the superior equipment of the English iconoclast. Each of them—and all the troop of opponents who grumble and mutter between their extremes—each of them is roused by an intense desire to throw off the shackles of a dying age, in which they have taught themselves chiefly to see affectation, pomposity, a virtuosity more technical than emotional, and an exasperating monotony of effect.

Mr. Strachey has conducted his attack from the point of view of biography. He realises the hopelessness of writing a history of the Victorian Age; it can only be dealt with in detail; it must be nibbled into here and there; discredited piecemeal; subjected to the ravages of the white ant. He has seen that the lives of the great Victorians lend themselves to this insidious kind of examination, because what was worst in the pretentiousness of their age is to be found enshrined in the Standard Biographies (in two volumes, post octavo) under which most of them are buried. Mr. Strachey has some criticism of these monsters which could hardly be bettered:
"Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead—who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortège of the undertaker, and bear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism."
It is impossible not to agree with this pungent criticism. Every candid reader could point to a dozen Victorian biographies which deserve Mr. Strachey's condemnation. For instance, instead of taking up any of the specimens which he has chosen for illustration, we need only refer the reader's memory to the appendix of "Impressions," by a series of elderly friends, which closes the official Life of Tennyson, published in 1897. He will find there an expression of the purest Victorian optimism. The great object being to foist on the public a false and superhuman picture of the deceased, a set of illustrious contemporaries—who themselves expected to be, when they died, transfigured in like manner—form a bodyguard around the corpse of the poet and emit their "tedious panegyric." In this case, more even than in any of the instances which Mr. Strachey has taken, the contrast between the real man and the funereal image is positively grotesque. ...


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