- Victorian morality
Victorian morality is a distillation of the moral views of people living at the time of Queen Victoria (reigned 1837 - 1901) in particular, and to the moral climate of
Great Britainthroughout the 19th century in general. It is not tied to this historical period and can describe any set of values that espouses sexual repression, low tolerance of crime, and a strong social ethic. Due to the prominence of the British Empire, many of these values were spread across the world.
Historians now regard the
Victorian eraas a time of many contradictions. A plethora of social movements concerned with improving public morals co-existed with a class systemthat permitted harsh living conditions for many. The apparent contradiction between the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity and restraint and the prevalence of social phenomena that included prostitutionand child labourwere two sides of the same coin: various social reform movements and high principles arose from attempts to improve the harsh conditions.
The term "Victorian" has acquired a range of connotations, including that of a particularly strict set of moral standards, which are often applied
hypocritically. This stems from the image of Queen Victoria—and her husband, Prince Albert, perhaps even more so—as innocents, unaware of the private habits of many of her respectable subjects; this particularly relates to their sex lives. This image is mistaken: Victoria’s attitude toward sexual moralitywas a consequence of her knowledge of the corrosive effect of the loose morals of the aristocracyin earlier reigns upon the public’s respect for the nobility and the Crown. The Prince Consort as a young child had experienced the pain of his parents' divorce after they were involved in public sexual scandals. Young Prince Albert's mother had left his family home and she died shortly thereafter.
Two hundred years earlier the
Puritanrepublican movement, which led to the installment of Oliver Cromwell, had temporarily overthrown the British monarchy. During England’s years as a republic, the law imposed a strict moral code on the people (such as abolishing Christmasas too indulgent of the sensual pleasures).
When the monarchy was restored, a period of loose living and
debaucheryappeared to be a reaction to the earlier repression. (See: Charles II of England) The two social forces of Puritanism and libertinismcontinued to motivate the collective psyche of Great Britainfrom the restoration onward. This was particularly significant in the public perceptions of the later Hanoverian monarchs who immediately preceded Queen Victoria. For instance, her uncle George IV was commonly perceived as a pleasure-seeking playboy, whose conduct in office was the cause of much scandal.
By the time of Victoria, the interplay between high cultured morals and low vulgarity was thoroughly embedded in British culture.
pruderysometimes went so far as to deem it improper to say "leg" in mixed company; instead, the preferred euphemism“limb” was used. Those going for a swim in the seaat the beachwould use a bathing machine. However, historians Peter Gayand Michael Mason both point out that we often confuse Victorian etiquette for a lack of knowledge. For example, despite the use of the bathing machine, it was also possible to see people bathing nude. Another example of the gap between our preconceptions of Victorian sexuality and the facts is that contrary to what we might expect, Queen Victoria liked to draw and collect male nude figure drawings and even gave her husband one as a present [ Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud] .
Verbal or written communication of
emotionor sexual feelings was also often proscribed so people instead used the language of flowers. However they also wrote explicit erotica, perhaps the most famous being the racy tell-all My Secret Lifeby the pseudonym Walter(allegedly Henry Spencer Ashbee), and the magazine "The Pearl", which was published for several years and reprinted as a paperback book in the 1960s. Victorian erotica also survives in private letters archived in museums and even in a study of women's orgasms. Some current historians now believe that the myth of Victorian repression can be traced back to early twentieth-century views, such as those of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, who wrote " Eminent Victorians".
Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, only four years after the
Abolition of slaveryin the British Empire. The anti-slavery movement had campaigned for years to achieve the ban, succeeding with a partial abolition in 1807 and the full ban on slave trade, but not slave ownership, in 1833. It took so long because the anti-slavery morality was pitted against a powerful capitalist element in the empire, which claimed their businesses would be destroyed if they were not permitted to exploit slave labour. Eventually plantationowners in the Caribbeanreceived £20 million in compensation.
In Victoria's time the British
Royal Navypatrolled the Atlantic Ocean, stopping any ships that it suspected of trading African slaves to the Americasand freeing any slaves found. The British had set up a Crown Colonyin West Africa— Sierra Leone—and transported freed slaves there. Freed slaves from Nova Scotiafounded and named the capital of Sierra Leone " Freetown". Many people living at that time argued that the living conditions of workers in English factories seemed worse than those endured by some slaves.
Throughout the whole Victorian Era homosexuals were regarded as abominations and homosexuality was illegal. However, many famous men from the British Isles, such as Oscar Wilde, were notorious homosexuals. Toward the end of the century, many large trials were held on the subject.
In the same way, throughout the Victorian Era, movements for justice, freedom, and other strong moral values opposed greed, exploitation, and
cynicism. The writings of Charles Dickens, in particular, observed and recorded these conditions. Karl Marxand Friedrich Engelscarried out much of their analysis of capitalismin and as a reaction to Victorian Britain.
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