Written by Vladimir Moss



     Since the English were so devoted to material gain, so callous towards the poor (while priding themselves on their abolition of the slave trade), and so devoted to a purely pagan understanding of liberty, one might have expected that there would be no room for religion in their life. And it was certainly true that religion was not something that gentlemen practiced or talked about much. Thus, as David Starkey and Katie Greening write, “the Church of England had fallen to a new low earlier in the century. Its buildings were crumbling, and Anglican church services had become not only devoid of ceremony and ritual, but were often badly organized, understaffed and sparsely attended. On Easter Sunday, 1800, only six communicants attended the morning celebration in St. Paul’s Cathedral.”[1]

     Again, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, William Palmer, looking back in 1883 on England in 1833, when the Movement began, wrote: “Allusions to God’s being and providence became distasteful to the English parliament. They were voted ill-bred and superstitious; they were the subjects of ridicule as overmuch righteousness. Men were ashamed any longer to say family prayers, or to invoke the blessing of God upon their partaking of His gifts; the food which He alone had provided. The mention of His name was tabooed in polite circles.”[2]

     And yet only a few decades later, the English could be counted among the more religious nations of Europe. Continental atheism found little response in English hearts. True, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1816) expressed a fear not only that science might go off the right path and produce monsters, but that it might reveal that man, like Frankenstein, did not have a soul, but was purely material, so that God did not exist. The rapid growth of science, and the emergence of such atheist theories as Darwinism, accentuated these fears. But in the second half of the century, at any rate, the English remained stubbornly “pious”. And if some surprising blasphemies did escape the lips of senior public servants – such as the British consul in Canton’s remark: “Jesus Christ is Free Trade, and Free Trade is Jesus Christ”[3] – this was not common. True, Free Trade was probably the real faith of many in the English governing classes. But officially England was a “most Christian” nation.

     This was owing in no small part to the religio-moral movement that we know as Victorianism…[4]

      Francis Fukuyama writes: “The Victorian period in Britain and America may seem to many to be the embodiment of traditional values, but when this era began in the mid-nineteenth century, they were anything but traditional. Victorianism was in fact a radical movement that emerged in reaction to the kinds of social disorder that seemed to be spreading everywhere at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a movement that deliberately sought to create new social rules and instill virtues in populations that were seen as wallowing in degeneracy. The shift toward Victorian values began in Britain but was quickly imported into the United States beginning in the 1830s and 1840s. Many of the institutions that were responsible for its spread were overtly religious in nature, and the changes they brought about occurred with remarkable speed. In the words of Paul E. Johnson: “In 1825 a northern businessman dominated his wife and children, worked irregular hours, consumed enormous amounts of alcohol, and seldom voted or went to church. Ten years later the same man went to church twice a week, treated his family with gentleness and love, drank nothing but water, worked steady hours and forced his employees to do the same, campaigned for the Whig Party, and spent his spare time convincing others that if they organized their lives in similar ways, the world would be perfect.’ The nonconformist churches in England and the Protestant sects in the United States, particularly the Wesleyan movement, led the Second Great Awakening in the first decades of the century that followed hard on the rise in disorder and created new norms to keep that order under control. The Sunday school movement grew exponentially in both England and America between 1821 and 1851, as did the YMCA movement, which was transplanted from England to America in the 1850s. According to Richard Hofstadter, U.S. church membership doubled between 1800 and 1850, and there was a gradual increase in the respectability of church membership itself as ecstatic, evangelical denominations became more restrained in their religious observances. At the same time, the temperance movement succeeded in lowering per capita alcohol consumption on the part of Americans back down to a little over two gallons by the middle of the century…

     “These attempts to reform British and American society from the 1830s on in what we now label the Victorian era were a monumental success…”[5]

     We can measure the success of Victorianism by the sharp reversal in the trends for crime and illegitimacy, which increased through the first half of the nineteenth century (and especially during the Napoleonic wars), but from about 1845 declined steadily until the end of the century. We find a similar pattern in America, with the peak in crime coming about thirty years later.[6] However, in spite of its undoubted success in raising the external morality and efficiency of the Anglo-Saxon nations, Victorianism has had a bad press. It has been seen as the product of pride and engendering hypocrisy. As we shall see, there is some truth in this. The rise of Victorianism coincided, paradoxically, with a decline in faith in many spheres.

     Thus “doubts there were aplenty”, writes A.N. Wilson, about various questions. “But we who live in a fragmented society have become like an individual addicted to psychoanalysis, struggle with our uncertainties, pick at our virtues and vices as if they were scabs. The Victorian capacity not to do this, to live, very often, with double standards, is what makes so many of them – individually and collectively – seem to be humbugs and hypocrites.”[7]

     One of the questions that troubled the Victorians was the relationship between religion and science, doubts that would become more acute after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859. Another was the impact of industrialization on the spiritual life in a more general sense. Thus Thomas Carlyle wrote in Sartor Resartus: “Now the Genius of Mechanism smothers [man] worse than any Nightmare did. In Earth and Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism; he has fear for nothing else, hope in nothing else… To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.”

     But whatever their doubts, and however great the inconsistencies between their beliefs and actions, the Victorians were prepared to go to great pains to export their religion to other lands, as the efforts of Livingstone in Africa and Lord Redstock in Russia demonstrate. As late as 1904, writes Niall Ferguson, the German satirical magazine Simplicissimus pointed to this religiosity and missionary enthusiasm of the British Empire by comparison with the other empires “with a cartoon contrasting the different colonial powers. In the German colony even the giraffes and crocodiles are taught to goose-step. In the French, relations between the races are intimate to the point of indecency. In the Congo the natives are simply roasted over an open fire and eaten by King Leopold. But British colonies are conspicuously more complex than the rest. There, the native is force-fed whisky by a businessman, squeezed in a press for every last penny by a soldier and compelled to listen to a sermon by a missionary…”[8]

     The Russian theologian Alexis Khomiakov was amazed at how silent the streets of London were on a Sunday. And he wrote: “Germany has in reality no religion at all but the idolatry of science; France has no serious longings for truth, and little sincerity; England with its modest science and its serious love of religious truth might [seem] to give some hopes…”[9]

     The Oxford movement, which was designed to bring Anglicanism closer to its Catholic past, excited Khomiakov with hopes of a genuine rapprochement between Anglicans and Orthodox. This movement began with John Keble’s sermon to the Oxford Assize Judges in July, 1833, in which he warned against “the growing indifference, in which men indulge themselves, to other men’s religious sentiments”. Later, in his famous Tract 90, John Newman sought to interpret the Anglican 39 Articles in such a way as to make them consistent with Catholic teaching. This led to a backlash, which eventually forced Newman to leave the Church of England and become a Roman cardinal. The Oxford movement then devolved into the Cambridge Camden Society, which explored medieval liturgy, music and architecture. Its leader, E.B. Pusey, developed the branch theory of the Church, according to which Anglicanism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy were three branches of the One Church.[10]

     The main contribution of the Oxford Movement was to return attention to the dogma of the Church, which Anglican theology had seriously neglected. “The whole point of the Movement,” writes Geoffrey Faber, “lay in the assertion – no less passionately made than the Evangelical’s assertion of his private intimacy with God – that men deceive themselves if they seek God otherwise than through the Church. It should be needless to add that in the teachings of Keble, Pusey, Newman, and the Tractarians generally, the relationship of the individual soul to God was just as important as in the teaching of John Wesley. But the importance of that relationship was not to be thought of as transcending the importance of the Church. The Church was the divinely established means of grace. But she was something else and something greater. She was the continuing dwelling place of God’s spirit upon earth, and as such she had owed to her all the honour and glory within the power of men to pay.”[11]

     The semblance of Catholicity that the Oxford Movement gave to Anglicanism deceived Khomyakov – as it deceived many later Orthodox theologians. In the midst of her “Babylonian” materialism, as exemplified above all by the 1851 Great Exhibition, England seemed to him to have “higher thoughts”: “England, in my opinion, has never been more worthy of admiration than this year. The Babylonian enterprise of the Exhibition and its Crystal Palace, which shows London to be the true and recognised capital of Universal Industry, would have been sufficient to engross the attention and intellectual powers of any other country; but England stands evidently above its own commercial wonders. Deeper interests agitate her, higher thoughts direct her mental energy…”[12]

     In the end, as the Oxford movement petered out - Khomiakov’s friend, William Palmer, joined Catholicism, not Orthodoxy, as, more famously, did Newman, - and England joined with “insincere” France and infidel Turkey in the Crimean War against Holy Russia, Khomiakov’s admiration turned to disillusion and anger. In his last years he may well have felt closer in his estimate of England to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was appalled by his visit to London in 1862.

     “On the streets,” writes Geir Kjetsaa, he “saw people wearing beautiful clothes in expensive carriages, side by side with others in filth and rags. The Thames was poisoned, the air polluted; the city seemed marked by joyless drinking and wife abuse. The writer was particularly horrified by child prostitution:

     “’Here in the Haymarket, I saw mothers who brought along their young daughters and taught them their occupation. And these twelve-year-old girls took you by the hand and asked to be accompanied. One evening, in the swarm of people I saw a little girl dressed in rags, dirty, barefoot, emaciated and battered. Through her rags I could see that her body was covered with bloody stripes. She wandered senseless in the crowd… perhaps she was hungry. No one paid her any attention. But what struck me most was her sad expression and the hopelessness of her misery. It was rather unreal and terribly painful to look at the despair and cursed existence of this small creature.’

     “When he visited the London World’s Fair with ‘civilization’s shining triumphs’, Dostoyevsky again found himself possessed by feelings of fear and dejection. Appalled, he recoiled from the hubris that had created the Crystal Palace’s ‘colossal decorations’. Here was something taken to its absolute limit, he maintained, here man’s prideful spirit had erected a temple to an idol of technology: “’This is a Biblical illustration, this speaks of Babylon, in this a prophet of the Apocalypse is come to life. You feel that it would take unbelievable spiritual strength not to succumb to this impression, not to bow before this consummate fact, not to acknowledge this reality as our ideal and mistake Baal for God.’”[13]

     Lev Tolstoy, who visited the city in 1861, noted the sexual hypocrisy of the city with its thousands of prostitutes, but thought they had an important role to play in preserving the institution of the family. “Imagine London without its 80,000 magdalenes – what would happen to families?” he wrote.[14] And again he wrote: “I was struck when I saw in the streets of London a criminal escorted by the police, and the police had to protect him energetically from the crowd, which threatened to tear him in pieces. With us it is just the opposite, police have to drive away in force the people who try to give the criminal money and bread. With us, criminals and prisoners are ‘little unhappy ones’.”[15]

     Dostoyevsky agreed with Khomiakov that the English were religious. But he saw through their religiosity, and had no hesitation in calling it “atheism”, because ultimately it was the worship of man wrapped in the trappings of the worship of God. Dostoyevsky noted that English thinkers such as Mill were impressed by Auguste Comte’s idea of a “Religion of Humanity”, and much later, in 1876, he wrote: “In their overwhelming majority, the English are extremely religious people; they are thirsting for faith and are continually seeking it. However, instead of religion – notwithstanding the state ‘Anglican’ religion – they are divided into hundreds of sects…. Here, for instance, is what an observer who keeps a keen eye on these things in Europe, told me about the character of certain altogether atheistic doctrines and sects in England: ‘You enter into a church: the service is magnificent, the vestments are expensive; censers; solemnity; silence; reverence among those praying. The Bible is read; everybody comes forth and kisses the Holy Book with tears in his eyes, and with affection. And what do you think this is? This is the church of atheists. Why, then, do they kiss the Bible, reverently listening to the reading from it and shedding tears over it? – This is because, having rejected God, they began to worship ‘Humanity’. Now they believe in Humanity; they deify and adore it. And what, over long centuries, has been more sacred to mankind than this Holy Book? – Now they worship it because of its love of mankind and for the love of it on the part of mankind; it has benefited mankind during so many centuries – just like the sun, it has illuminated it; it has poured out on mankind its force, its life. And “even though its sense is now lost”, yet loving and adoring mankind, they deem it impossible to be ungrateful and to forget the favours bestowed by it upon humanity…’

     “In this there is much that is touching and also much enthusiasm. Here there is actual deification of humankind and a passionate urge to reveal their love. Still, what a thirst for prayer, for worship; what a craving for God and faith among these atheists, and how much despair and sorrow; what a funeral procession in lieu of a live, serene life, with its gushing spring of youth, force and hope! But whether it is a funeral or a new and coming force – to many people this is a question.”[16]

     Dostoyevsky then quotes from his novel, A Raw Youth, from the “dream of a Russian of our times – the Forties – a former landowner, a progressive, a passionate and noble dreamer, side by side with our Great Russian breadth of life in practice. This landowner also has no faith and he, too, adores humanity ‘as it befits a Russian progressive individual.’ He reveals his dream about future mankind when there will vanish from it every conception of God, which, in his judgement, will inevitably happen on earth.

     “’I picture to myself, my dear,’ he began, with a pensive smile, ‘that the battle is over and that the strife has calmed down. After maledictions, lumps of mud and whistles, lull has descended and men have found themselves alone, as they wished it; the former great idea has abandoned them; the great wellspring of energy, that has thus far nourished them, has begun to recede as a lofty, receding Sun, but this, as it were, was mankind’s last day. And suddenly men grasped that they had been left all alone, and forthwith they were seized with a feeling of great orphanhood. My dear boy, never was I able to picture people as having grown ungrateful and stupid. Orphaned men would at once begin to draw themselves together closer and with more affection; they would grasp each other’s hands, realizing that now they alone constituted everything to one another. The grand idea of immortality would also vanish, and it would become necessary to replace it, and all the immense over-abundance of love for Him who, indeed, had been Immortality, would in every man be focused on nature, on the universe, on men, on every particle of matter. They would start loving the earth and life irresistibly, in the measure of the gradual realization of their transiency and fluency, and theirs would now be a different love – not like the one in days gone by. They would discern and discover in nature such phenomena and mysteries as had never heretofore been suspected, since they would behold nature with new eyes, with the look of a lover gazing upon his inamorata. They would be waking up and hastening to embrace one another, hastening to love, comprehending that days are short and that this is all that is left to them…’

     “Isn’t there here, in this fantasy, something akin to that actually existent ‘Atheists’ Church’?”[17]

     The American writer Emerson came to the same conclusion in his English Traits (1856). As Lionel Trilling writes: “To the general sincerity of the English which Emerson finds so pleasing there is one exception that he remarks, and with considerable asperity – these people, he says, have no religious belief and therefore nothing is ‘so odious as the polite bows to God’ which they constantly make in their books and newspapers… [However, continues Trilling,] no student of Victorian life will now confirm Emerson in the simplicity with which he describes the state of religious belief in England. It is true that the present indifference of the English to religion – apart from the rites of birth, marriage, and death – was already in train. By the second half of the nineteenth century the working classes of England were almost wholly alienated from the established Church and increasingly disaffected from the Nonconformist sects. It was the rare intellectual who was in any simple sense a believer. The commitment of the upper classes was largely a social propriety, and Emerson was doubtless right when he described it as cant. It is possible to say that the great Dissenting sects of the middle classes were animated as much by social and political feelings as by personal faith and doctrinal predilections. Still, when all the adverse portents have been taken into account, the fact remains that religion as a force in the life of the nation was by no means yet extinct and not even torpid, what with Low Church and High Church, Oxford Movement and the unremitting dissidence of Dissent, public trials over doctrine and private suffering over crises of belief. Christian faith was taken for granted as an element of virtue; as late as 1888, Mrs. Humphry Ward, a niece of Matthew Arnold, could scandalize the nation with her novel, Robert Elsmere, the history of a gifted and saintly young clergyman who finds Christian doctrine unacceptable; Gladstone himself felt called upon to review the book at enormous length.

     “The history of England was bound up with religion, which still exercised a decisive influence upon the nation’s politics, its social and ethical style, and its intellectual culture. If there was indeed an attenuation of personal faith which gave rise to the insincerity that Emerson discerned, among the intellectual classes it had an opposite effect, making occasion for the exercise of a conscious and strenuous sincerity. The salient character-type of the Victorian educated classes was formed, we might say, in response to the loss of religious faith – the non-believer felt under the necessity of maintaining in his personal life the same degree of seriousness and earnestness that had been appropriate to the state of belief; he must guard against falling into the light-minded libertinism of the French – ‘You know the French…,’ Matthew Arnold said. Perhaps the greatest distress associated with the evanescence of faith, more painful and disintegrating than can now be fully imagined, was the loss of the assumption that the universe is purposive. This assumption, which, as Freud says, ‘stands and falls with the religious system’, was, for those who held it, not merely a comfortable idea but nothing less than a category of thought; its extirpation was a psychic catastrophe. The Victorian character was under the necessity of withstanding this extreme deprivation, which is to say, of not yielding to the nihilism it implied.

     “How this end might be achieved is suggested by the anecdote about George Eliot – it has become canonical – which F.W.H. Myers relates. On a rainy May evening Myers walked with his famous guest in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity College, Cambridge, and she spoke of God, Immortality, and Duty. God, she said, was inconceivable. Immortality was unbelievable. But it was beyond question that Duty was ‘peremptory and absolute’. ‘Never, perhaps,’ Myers says, ‘have sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law. I listened and night fell; her majestic countenance turned towards me like a sybil in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp the two scrolls of promise, and left me with the third scroll only, awful with inscrutable fate.’ Much as George Eliot had withdrawn from her host, she had not, we may perceive, left him with nothing. A categorical Duty – might it not seem, exactly in its peremptoriness and absoluteness, to have been laid down by the universe itself and thus to validate the personal life that obeyed it? Was a categorical Duty wholly without purpose, without some end in view, since it so nearly matched one’s own inner imperative, which, in the degree that one responded to it, assured one’s coherence and selfhood? And did it not license the thought that man and the universe are less alien to each other than they may seem when the belief in God and Immortality are first surrendered?”[18]

     This Victorian attachment to Duty in the place of God and Immortality explains the puzzling fact that while English liberalism made a fetish of liberty, both political and economic, and the Anglican Church tolerated a wide range of beliefs in the most liberal fashion, in the realm of morals, as George Mosse writes, “very little freedom was allowed. For Liberals accepted and furthered that change in morality which came about at the turn of the century. It is important, therefore, to discuss this morality in connection with liberalism, even though it became the dominant morality in England generally and in much of Europe as well. Liberal freedom… was severely circumscribed and restricted by this development.

     “It is difficult to analyze the moral pattern which accompanied liberal thought. There is no doubt that the turn of the century saw a change in the moral tone of society, which is easily illustrated. Sir Walter Scott’s aged aunt asked him to procure for her some of the books she had enjoyed in her youth during the previous century. Sir Walter did as he was bid and later when he ventured to hope that she had enjoyed this recapturing of her youth her answer greatly surprised him. His aunt blushed at the mention of the books and allowed that she had destroyed them because they were not fit reading. Similarly, in Germany, a lady sitting next to the writer Brentano told him how much she had enjoyed a play he had written in his youth. How startled she must have been when the author, instead of being pleased, replied that as a woman and mother she should have been ashamed to read such a work. This change is what Sir Harold Nicolson has characterised as the ‘onslaught of respectability’. It was, as these examples show, quite rapid, almost within one generation.

     “What lay behind this tightening up of morality? Only tentative answers can be given, for as yet little is known about this phenomenon. It seems certain that the evangelical movement in England, the strongest element in nonconformity, and the pietistic movements in Europe had a direct influence on the morality of the age. Both these movements had remained outside the mainstream of the Enlightenment; both were opposed to its main tenets. It is often forgotten that the eighteenth century witnessed a religious revival even while the philosophes were writing their enlightened tracts. This revival stressed piety, not the piety of Church attendance but the piety of the heart. Dogma had no great interest for either the Wesley brothers in England or Count Zinzendorf in Germany; true conversion of the spirit was the center of their religious thought. Such piety required a casting off of the worldly frivolities. Especially in England it revived the Puritan idea of life as a struggle between the world and the spirit, between the lusts of the flesh and dedication to one’s calling.

     “Two other factors strengthened this reawakened moral passion. There was a moral reaction against the French Revolution and its antireligious bent. Madame de Staël had seen in the Reign of Terror a moral failing on the part of the people; many Englishmen linked the events of the French Revolution to the prevalence of immorality in that nation. Men and women of the nobility and middle classes called for moral reform at home in order that Revolutionary immorality might be better withstood in the struggle between the two nations. Pamphlets and diaries give ample evidence of an attempted reform of manners. Frivolity, worldly and sexual excesses were regarded as unworthy of a nation engaged in a life and death struggle with forces which symbolized all that was immoral. The Evangelicals in England benefited from this feeling of distaste. Sunday observances were revived; frivolity was taken as a sign of levity in a time of serious crisis. William Wilberforce persuaded King George III to issue a royal proclamation in 1787 which condemned vice. Considering the immoral tone of his sons, this could not have lacked irony.

     “The second factor, associated with the expanding economy, was the rapid rise within the social hierarchy of the newly rich. This self-assertive and ambitious bourgeoisie brought with them a dedication to hard work and a sense of the superiority of the values of the self-made man to those of the old aristocracy. These values blended in with the revived Puritan impetus exemplified by the evangelical movement. Never a part of the idle and sophisticated aristocracy, these men, through the increasing fluidity of English class lines, now infiltrated that class. No wonder that Edmund Burke lamented the vanished ‘unbought grace of life’ of a previous age. Now the grace of membership in the upper classes was bought and that, in itself, created a different attitude toward life. Piety, moral revulsion against the French Revolution, and the attitudes of the bourgeoisie all contributed to the new moral tone. This was not confined to England; such conditions were present in all of western Europe, but it was England which best exemplified these moral attitudes, for they fitted in with liberal thought which now took up and furthered this morality as suited to its ideology in the age of the Industrial Revolution. Individualism stood in the forefront combined with the kind of toughness which made for victory in the struggle for existence. What was needed was sobriety, hard work, and an emphasis on action. Such a life exemplified the true Christian spirit and on the basis of the individuality of one’s own character led to self-fulfilment.

     “Two passages from Charles Kingsley’s famous novel Westward Ho! (1855) demonstrate the conception of this new attitude by a leading Evangelical. The duty of man was to be bold against himself, as one of the book’s heroes explained to his young companion: ‘To conquer our fancies and our own lusts and our ambitions in the sacred name of duty; this is to be truly brave, and truly strong; for he who cannot rule himself, how can he rule his crew or his fortunes?’ What the Puritans had designated their ‘calling’ was here named duty. The individualism involved was brought out further in another passage from Kingsley’s book. There were two sorts of people: one trying to do good according to certain approved rules he had learned by ear, and the other not knowing whether he was good or not, just doing the right thing because the Spirit of God was within him. It was this sort of piety which became fashionable at the turn of the century. The contemplative side of pietism gave way to a piety of action. This transformation was in tune with the experiences of the commercial and industrial classes, though seventeenth-century Puritans had already stated repeatedly that ‘action is all’.

     “This action was exemplified by what the Victorians called the ‘gospel of work’. As Carlyle put it: ‘…. Not what I have but what I do is my kingdom.’ It was in work that duty was exemplified. John Henry Newman shared this emphasis on work: ‘We are not here that we might go to bed at night, and get up in the morning, toil for our bread, eat and drink, laugh and joke, sin when we have a mind and reform when we are tired of sinning, rear a family and die.’ Work had to be done in the right spirit: the service of God in one’s secular calling.

     “Samuel Smiles’s Self Help (1859), which propagandised this morality and its application to work, was the most successful book of the century – over a quarter of a million copies were sold by 1905. Its popularity was as great outside England as within the country. Garibaldi was a great admirer of the book, as was the Queen of Italy. In Japan it was the rage under the title European Decision and Character Book. The mayor of Buenos Aires compared Smiles, surprisingly, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Quite rightly these underdeveloped countries saw in Smiles’s book a reflection of attitudes which were making an important contribution to the successful industrialization of England.

     “The aim of Self Help was to aid the working classes in improving themselves so as to reach the top. This path was marked by the improvement of the individual character of those who desired to be a success in life. ‘The crown and glory of life is character.’ What this character should be Smiles illustrated through examples of men who raised themselves to fame and fortune. Character had to be formed by morals, for to Smiles, social and economic problems were really problems for morality. When he talked about thrift and saving it was the moral aspect of self-reliance and restraint which appealed to him and not the economic consequences of such practices. Character was also shaped by the competitive struggle – stop competition and you stop the struggle for individualism. This struggle had to be conducted in a ‘manly way’ if success was to follow. He exhorted the workers to become gentlemen, for this meant the acquisition of a keen sense of honor, scrupulously avoiding mean actions. ‘His law is rectitude – action in right lines.’ Here was a rooted belief in a moral code as the sole road to worldly success…”[19]

      However, whatever their good intentions, the Victorians’ moral code of manly self-help fitted badly with the Gospel of love and mercy. Its cruelty was particularly clearly expressed in the Poor Law Act of 1834, which prescribed the building of workhouses designed to be as unattractive as possible. Thus the Reverend H.H. Milman wrote to Edwin Chadwick: “The workhouses should be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility; it should be administered with strictness – with severity; it should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity.”[20]

     The Poor Law, as John Gray writes, “set the level of subsistence lower than the lowest wage set by the market. It stigmatised the recipient by attaching the harshest and most demeaning conditions to relief. It weakened the institution of the family. It established a laissez-faire regime in which individuals were solely responsible for their own welfare, rather than sharing that responsibility with their communities.

      “Eric Hobsbawm captures the background, character and effects of the welfare reforms of the 1830s when he writes: ‘The traditional view, which still survived in a distorted way in all classes of rural society and in the internal relations of working-class groups, was that a man had a right to earn a living, and, if unable to do so, a right to be kept alive by the community. The view of middle-class liberal economists was that men should take such jobs as the market offered, wherever and at whatever rate it offered, and the rational man would, by individual or voluntary collective saving and insurance make provision for accident, illness and old age. The residuum of paupers could not, admittedly, be left actually to starve, but they ought not to be given more than the absolute minimum – provided it was less than the lowest wages offered in the market, and in the most discouraging conditions. The Poor Law was not so much intended to help the unfortunate as to stigmatize the self-confessed failures of society… There have been few more inhuman statutes than the Poor Law Act of 1834, which made all relief ‘less eligible’ than the lowest wage outside, confined it to the jail-like work-house, forcibly separating husbands, wives and children in order to punish the poor for their destitution.’

     “This system applied to at least 10 per cent of the English population in the mid-Victorian period. It remained in force until the outbreak of the First World War.

     “The central thrust of the Poor Law reforms was to transfer responsibility for protection against insecurity and misfortune from communities to individuals and to compel people to accept work at whatever rate the market set. The same principle has informed many of the welfare reforms that have underpinned the re-engineering of the free market in the late twentieth century…

     “No less important than Poor Law reform in the mid-nineteenth century was legislation designed to remove obstacles to the determination of wages by the market. David Ricardo stated the orthodox view of the classical economists when he wrote, ‘Wages should be left to fair and free competition of the market, and should never be controlled by the interference of the legislature.’

     “It was by appeal to such canonical statements of laissez-faire that the Statute of Apprentices (enacted after the Black Death in the fourteenth century) was repealed and all other controls on wages ended in the period leading up to the 1830s. Even the Factory Acts of 1833, 1844 and 1847 avoided any head-on collision with laissez-faire orthodoxies. ‘The principle that there should be no interference in the freedom of contract between master and man was honoured to the extent that no direct legislative interference was made in the relationship between employers and adult males… it was still possible to argue for a further half-century, though with diminishing plausibility, that the principle of non-interference remained inviolate.’

     “The removal of agricultural protection and the establishment of free trade, the reform of the poor laws with the aim of constraining the poor to take work, and the removal of any remaining controls on wages were the three decisive steps in the construction of the free market in mid-nineteenth century Britain. These key measures created out of the market economy of the 1830s the unregulated free market of mid-Victorian times that is the model for all subsequent neo-liberal policies.”[21]

     The most famous champion of the poor in this period was the novelist Charles Dickens. As John Broich writes, “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol [1843] was an instant bestseller, followed by countless print, stage and screen productions. Victorians called it ‘a new gospel,’ and reading or watching it became a sacred ritual for many, without which the Christmas season cannot materialize.

     “But A Christmas Carol’s seemingly timeless transcendence hides the fact that it was very much the product of a particular moment in history, its author meaning to weigh in on specific issues of the day. Dickens first conceived of his project as a pamphlet, which he planned on calling, ‘An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.’ But in less than a week of thinking about it, he decided instead to embody his arguments in a story, with a main character of pitiable depth. So what might have been a polemic to harangue, instead became a story for which audiences hungered.”[22]

     Victorian morality turned out to be a good road to worldly success and helped create the largest empire the world has ever seen. But as such it was supremely worldly and hypocritical. For these successful self-made men who abhorred the slightest manifestation of sexuality in their women poured into London’s brothels in large numbers.[23] And while calling on the working class to help themselves, they made sure that they did not themselves help them. Not that there were not many charities in England at the time – indeed, this was the age of charities par excellence. But for many this was but another chance to flaunt their wealth and the “character” that had gained them their wealth. As the Lord said of them: “Verily I say unto you: they have had their reward [already, in this life]” (Matthew 6.5)…


March 14/27, 2018.


[1] Starkey and Greening, Monarchy & Music, London: BBC Books, 2013, p. 301.

[2]Palmer, in Geoffrey Faber, The Oxford Apostles, London: Penguin, 1954, pp. 319-320.

[3] J.M. Roberts, The Penguin History of Europe, London: Penguin Books, 1997, p. 382.

[4] As in the patriotic and religious revival of the mid-eighteenth century, music played an important part in this movement. The German Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn, with the help of Victoria and Albert, raised the level of church music, and recalled Handel in his composing the oratorios St. Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846) (Starkey and Greening, op. cit., p. 302).

[5]Fukuyama, The Great Disruption, London: Profile Books, 1999, pp. 266-267, 268.

[6]Fukuyama, op. cit., pp. 268-269.

[7] A.N. Wilson, The Victorians, London: Arrow Books, 2003, Wilson, p. 53.

[8] Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World, London: Penguin, 2004, p. 296.

[9] Khomiakov, First Letter to William Palmer, in W.J. Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church, London: Rivington, Percival & Co., 1895, p. 6. Cf. the Fourth Letter: “An almost boundless Individualism is the characteristic feature of Germany, and particularly of Prussia. Here in Berlin it would be difficult to find one single point of faith, or even one feeling, which could be considered as a link of true spiritual communion in the Christian meaning of the word. Even the desire for harmony seems to be extinguished, and that predominance of individualism, that spiritual solitude among the ever-busy crowd, sends to the heart a feeling of dreariness and desolation…. Still the earnestness of the German mind in all intellectual researches is not quite so disheartening as the frivolous and self-conceited gaiety of homeless and thoughtless France.” (Birkbeck, op. cit., pp. 77-78).

[10]Dr. Joseph Overbeck, one of the first Western converts to Orthodoxy, wrote about Pusey: "Dr. Pusey is the father of the so-called Anglo-Catholics, sometimes styled Puseyites, though by this by-name are generally understood those High-Churchmen who revel in decorative tom-fooleries and stylish ceremonies. He was, though not the originator, still a mighty support of the Tractarian movement. He quieted the passions of the young hot-brained Tractarians, smoothed down the Romanizing tendencies, and was always an upright friend of the Eastern Church, which he considered to be in unison with his own. Still he remained a Western Churchman, guided by the true idea that both Churches are fully entitled to have their own way and subsistence, only linked by the bond of common Catholic truth and Catholic Constitution. He would be quite right, provided his Church were a true branch of the Western Catholic Church.” 

[11]Faber, The Oxford Apostles, London: Penguin, 1954, p. 325.

[12] Khomiakov, Sixth Letter to William Palmer, in Birkbeck, op. cit., p. 99.

[13] Kjetsaa, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Writer’s Life, London: Macmillan, 1987, p. 145.

[14] Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy: A Russian Life, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2011, p. 187.

[15] Tolstoy, in A.N. Wilson, Tolstoy, London: Atlantic Books, 2012, p. 159.

[16] Dostoyevsky, The Diary of a Writer, London: Cassell, trans. Boris Brasol, vol. I, pp. 265-266.

[17] Dostoyevsky, The Diary of a Writer, op. cit., p. 266.

[18] Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 115-118.

[19] Mosse, The Culture of Western Europe, Boulder & London: Westview Press, 1988, pp. 111-114. The Victorians’ keen sense of honour appears to go back to an attitude of the Italian Renaissance. Thus in about 1860 Jacob Burckhardt wrote about “that moral force which was then the strongest bulwark against evil. The highly gifted man of that day thought to find it in the sentiment of honour. This is that enigmatic mixture of conscience and egotism which often survives in the modern man after he has lost, whether by his own fault or not, faith, love and hope. This sense of honour is compatible with much selfishness and great vices, and may be the victim of astonishing illusions; yet, nevertheless, all the noble elements that are left in the wreck of a character may gather around it, and from this foundation may draw new strength. It has become, in a far wider sense than is commonly believed, a decisive test of conduct in the minds of the cultivated Europeans of our own day, and many of those who yet hold faithfully by religion and morality are unconsciously guided by this feeling in the gravest decisions of their lives” (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, London: Penguin, 1990, p. 273).

[20] Millman, in Wilson, The Victorians, p. 12.

[21] Gray, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, London: Granta Books, 1998, pp. 9-11.

[22] Broich, “The Real Reason Charles Dickens Wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’”, Time, December 13, 2016.

[23]See Kate Summerscale, "Divorce, Victorian Style", Seven, April 29, 2012, pp. 12-13.

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company