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Moral Uncertainties : The abandonment of Victorian values : THE DE-MORALIZATION OF SOCIETY: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, By Gertrude Himmelfarb (Alfred A. Knopf: $24; 314 pp.)

March 19, 1995|Isabel Colegate | Isabel Colegate's most recent novel, "The Summer of the Royal Visit," is set in a Victorian Bath

An acknowledged expert on Victorian ideas and ideals, Gertrude Himmelfarb has followed her 1994 collection of essays, "On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society," with further speculations on the effects on present-day society of the abandonment of Victorian standards of moral behavior. She marshals her evidence with authority and has a fine line in indignant diatribe where it seems appropriate. If she sometimes sees to overstate her case, one has only to look along the shelves of any bookshop that caters to today's students working to a syllabus to understand to what an extent she is shouting into the wind.

Margaret Thatcher used the phrase "Victorian values" in an interview in 1982, apparently without forethought. In her memoirs she claims to have referred rather to "Victorian virtues," and to have been thinking of the Victorian notion of self-help as a corrective to the "dependency culture" she feared was developing as a result of the welfare state. In the same way, her much-mocked statement that "there is no such thing as society" was in fact immediately followed by its explication--that there were individuals and families and associations but no abstract "society" to be blamed for the nation's ills, just as there was no disembodied "state," but only taxpayers' money.

Himmelfarb would presumably align herself with Thatcher. She devotes a chapter to crime statistics in England and in America and to levels of illegitimacy and single parenthood. She deduces from these that moral standards have changed for the worse, and questions what new standards, if any, have replaced the old; but because she is a historian of ideas, rather than a social scientist, her concern is to examine the origins of the so-called moral certainties from which post-modern theory claims to have freed us.

The Victorian Age was very long. Early Victorian morals still held a place for the Regency rake. Mid-Victorian society, vigorous, secure and ever expanding, saw the heyday of industrial capitalism. Late Victorian times saw the burgeoning social conscience of the middle class. It may be that the debate is not helped by the use of the epithet Victorian. In many ways our own century began in the 1880s, when most of the problems with which we still wrestle came to the surface more or less in their modern form--poverty, inner cities, the position of women, the political future of Europe.

Himmelfarb is much concerned with early feminism, and at pains to point out that its appeal was far from universal among women of the time and that, anyway, its aim was equality rather than the supremacy that the latest theorists of "gender feminism" seem to be seeking. Beatrice Webb, among others, thought that women achieved more by "influence" than they were likely to achieve by the vote, and that that influence was the more powerful for being exercised from the sidelines rather than in the undignified hubbub and heat of competition in the public forum.

She, like Octavia Hill, the housing reformer, and the novelist Mrs. Humphrey Ward, was anxious lest women might cease to be womanly; and here we come across one of the important areas of difference between their age and ours. They knew what a "womanly" woman was, just as they were perfectly certain what made a "manly" man. We have lost that confidence; but even so, we are fairly sure that a manly man should be more (or less) than a warrior and a womanly woman should do more (or less) than nurture and inspire. Himmelfarb seems unwilling to recognize that changing ideals do not necessarily mean deteriorating morals.

In her exegesis of Victorian ideas about women, about the poor and about the family, and in her interesting chapter about the Victorian Jewish community, she shows the high seriousness of the best minds of the time, and does not conceal their bewilderment before many of the problems that still beset us.

Their philanthropic work was splendid--as evidenced by Toynbee Hall, the East End settlement house founded in 1884, or by Octavia Hill's housing trusts and Open Spaces Society--but it could not meet all the necessities of industrial society. Their family lives were as various and confused as ours--the marriages of the sages Carlyle and Ruskin were notoriously tormented.

What they did have, though, were standards. They could measure themselves and their society against ideals that came from Aristotle and Plato, through those other exemplars Renaissance Man and the 18th-Century English gentleman, and which were shot through by the moral teachings and spiritual apprehensions of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

These standards were shared by all levels of society; it was assumed that the aspirations of the lowest elements were no different from those of the most exalted; the idea of a counterculture was unknown. To that extent Victorian society, though less egalitarian than our own, was more cohesive.

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