In the Days of the Bric-a-Brac Queen

by Louis Kronenberger

JAMES LAVER, long known for his knowledge of period manners, fashions, decor, has written the opening volume in a projected series of “Manners and Morals" — his covering the Age of Optimism, or 1848 to 1914. The book treats, to begin with, an enjoyably shifting historical climate; and, brightened with numerous illustrations, it abounds in lively and often instructive detail. It not inappropriately opens by scattering things Right and Left, with a lavish display of revolutions, toppling thrones, scurrying monarchs, resonant slogans and manifestos. The book halts at World War I, which, one might add, would also make for a lavish display of revolutions, toppling thrones, scurrying monarchs, manifestos and slogans. If this evokes that least optimistic of slogans called plus ça change, the interval between the topplings and scurryings was yet a momentous one. Though the Year of Revolution guttered out rather than started a blaze, and though a Kossuth as well as a Metternich fled to England, and a Louis Blanc as well as a Louis Philippe, 1848 left cracks not easily puttied over; sounded a tocsin that both reverberated and would keep sounding again; and hence, for humanity in the mass, did set going an era of optimism. But the optimism that chiefly animates Mr. Laver’s book is of an almost opposite, a quite undemonstrative and very English kind, one that affords revolutionaries asylum but deprecates revolutions; that talks not of pie in the sky but of more and more pounds in the bank — one that has bourgeois objectives and goals. This is not just because Mr. Laver is himself British, but because to an immense degree the subject matter of his book is. When he takes us to France, it is to look at what the English prefer should flourish outside England — the sans-culotte type, or demi-mondaine, or avant-garde; and his one visit to America, here, is no more than a short guided, and at moments misguided, tour.

Hence his book, in essence and substance alike, is a survey of Victorian England, with an Edwardian epilogue. But if, as such, it rather fails to bear out its international title, it all the better concentrates on one specific culture, and on one that the title beautifully fits. For Victorian England bulged with manners and morals in every good and bad sense of the words. It also abounded in striking opposites, was both on the march and stuck in the mud, gaudy and drab, bizarre and banal, Godfearing and Mammon-worshiping, humanitarian and heartless, wildly eccentric and servilely conformist. Never perhaps did a culture become so plump and smug, and hence so insistent a target for eventual satire. Mr. Laver, with a proper showman’s eye, does not slight the outré or illicit, or scorn the anecdotal bric-a-brac of an age unequaled for bric-a-brac. And his detail does fairly often suggest his period’s design.

No juxtaposition could be more telling than that of Victorian poverty and wealth. Not even a Dickens, or a Hogarth earlier, can quite prepare us for how dehumanized the poor could be. Yet it was not the Scrooges who chiefly brought about such conditions as having seven-year-old mill children work fifteen hours a day for two shillings and sixpence a week; it was much more the Manchester school of economics, condemning the masses to such laisscz-fare as bitterly fought-over garbage. London, in terms of slum apparel, displayed “what a frock coat could carry in layers of filth"; or, of slum furniture, family “beds” that were piles of soot. A more solid survey, G. M. Young’s much esteemed Victorian England, gives us even more sordid detail— “drinking water brown with faecal particles,” or unburied corpses rotting in midsummer London. Hence theft became the chief trade for boys; and for girls, a prostitution unequaled in all England’s history. At 12:30 at night, five hundred streetwalkers circulated in an area below Piccadilly Circus, not least directly outside “the chaste portals of the Athenaeum.”

Yet the horrors of Victorian poverty somehow reflect less on Victorian wealth than on that tremendously dominant Victorian force, religion (and on its bodyguard, respectability). It was not only that, rather exceptionally, the bishopric of Durham was worth £19,000 (some $300,000 today) a year, but that, not at all exceptionally, “a great Church family could amass an annual £12,000 and have most of the work done by curates for £80.”And beyond the fashionable worldliness of the Church of England were the Victorians who turned with the Oxford Movement toward Rome; or, far more numerously, with the Evangelical Movement toward very rigorous faiths. How notably religion triumphed we can gauge from the fact that where in Staffordshire in 1810 only two country gentlemen had family prayers, in 1850 only two did not. The stricter sects endowed the English Sunday with a kind of official gloom that suggested a coffin in every front parlor. High-Church zealots, on the other hand, went incense-wild and stained-glass drunk and vestment-mad with ritual: indeed, said Dickens, the High Churchman of 1850 was the dandy of 1820 in another form.

Religion played a great weekday as well as Sunday role, and gave Lombard Street and Oxford Street a working philosophy. Godly behavior not only constituted a card of admission to heaven, it augured property and bank accounts on earth. Between the Ten Commandments and the fivepercents there was no slightest clash; in fact, it was five percent of another kind—its being the maximum profit the Quakers permitted themselves — that made everybody want to do business with them and made them in turn extremely rich. And the Wesleyans, a century after Wesley, had grown so solidly middle-class as to be “as much opposed to Democracy as to Sin.” What counted more with the Victorians than any biblical respect for the Sabbath was that workingmen, by resting on Sunday, got much more done on the other six days of the week. And rest on Sunday they did: the proletariat, we are told, never budged from bed “until the public houses opened.”

Meanwhile, respectability reached epidemic proportions. The zoo and the panorama, the excursion ticket and the public library vied with one another for thrilling and delighting child and grown-up, matron and maid. Perhaps nothing expresses the period better than its female costume, with its curious notification of bosom and nullification of legs, its orgy of jewels and endlessness of underclothing. Respectability, though it made so many other things, for women, forbidden fruit, was wonderfully permissive about food itself. It is hardly going too far to call Victorian respectability the mother of gluttony, and to equate the menu of a very middle class English dinner party with that of an old-style American-plan hotel. Still, matrons might have managed moderation in the presence, to quote from one menu, of such party food as “mash turnips” (sic), “stewed spinach,” “sea cale,” “ox rumps,” and “macaroni pudding”; all this washed down with champagne during dinner, and claret at the end of it.

Securely immuring middle-class society, respectability no less securely cemented family life. Certainly there was inspiration and to spare for this at Windsor and Balmoral (perhaps, too, what was bourgeois in Victoria and Albert seemed patrician to the bourgeoisie). The usual paterfamilias, though no ogre or Mr. Barrett of Wimpole Street, was sufficiently authoritarian. Indeed, during much of the Victorian era, a wife could own nothing; not only did her dowry and inheritances pass to her husband, but so, even if she was legally separated from him, did her earnings. Respectability in turn condemned her to a conspicuous do-nothingism. If motherhood was for her the nearest thing to a vocation, constant “expecting” made of her a homebody as well. At the same time, the new gentility left her all but useless in the home; it insisted on her having—all of them probably underpaid—servants in the kitchen, nannies in the nursery, seamstresses in the sewing room, gardeners in the flower beds. Only a few causes were ladylike enough for her to endorse, only a few diversions unsullied enough for her to indulge in. Sex, as distinct from childbearing, was all too often made odious to her by the proceedings of the wedding night, when the inexperience of the bridegroom had quite matched the ignorance of the bride.

MR. LAVER’S Age of Optimism was, in England of course, an Age of Euphemism and Taboo, hence often of Ostracism and Hypocrisy. This could obtain even among the learned and the lineaged. Milman, biblical historian as well as dean of St. Paul’s, was virtually ostracized for calling Abraham a sheik; and a member of Parliament, having to refer to a contracted pelvis, had to do so “in a classical language.”Where enlightenment reigned, Charles Kingsley characterized Shelley as a “lewd vegetarian"; where morality governed, a council member of the College of Surgeons hoped that syphilis could not be stamped out, for if it was, fornication must become rampant. As for Victorian hypocrisy, a man who published a blackmailing scandal sheet also published a pious religious magazine denouncing the scandal sheet. As for Victorian “audacity,” the redoubtable Mrs. Grote, wife of the famous historian of Greece, caused a furore by using the word “disemboweled” at a dinner party.

Mr. Laver, whose researches into American gentility seem rather skimpy, contends that our prudishness was far greater than England’s. At its Anthony-Comstock worst, it probably was, but it seems far less pervasive. Mr. Laver concedes that our putting panties on piano legs has been taken too seriously, and cites an English visitor who was told by a wag that the piano’s legs were concealed lest “they should give gentlemen ideas.” And our Puritanism itself could be waggishly combated, as with having poolrooms pose as houses of worship, with the roulette wheel, when the police knocked, hustled out of sight and the “congregation” bursting fervently into “Shall We Gather at the River?" With our immense nineteenthcentury regional differences, we clearly ran to extremes — stringent blue laws and roaring redlight districts; even to extremes meeting, with antimacassars in the parlor along with cuspidors.

In England, not surprisingly, an era so prudish and conformist had more than its share of the scandalous and clandestine. Mr. Laver devotes considerable space, textual and pictorial, to both the English and the French demi-monde. But despite the allure of the fast-stepping ladies on one side of the Channel, and the grandes horizontales on the other, and despite their impressive honorariums, it all, after a while, comes to seem more flyblown and repetitious than glamorous and lustful. Even America’s actress-mistress-adventuress-salonnière, Adah Isaacs Menken, though more interesting than most and with a more interesting clientele — a huge corpulent Dumas père, a frail tiny Swinburne — has been chronicled too often. One cannot, however, pass over a highborn girl indisputably named Miss Horsey de Horsey, who came a social cropper simply for riding without a groom in the park, and was thrown for good and all by consorting with married Lord Cardigan. And though she at length became his Lady, and was greeted by his six hundred tenants (on horseback), not one soul appeared at the magnificent countryhouse ball the Cardigans sent out invitations for; indeed, she was cut dead till the day she died.

Sexually, the Victorian male is more shadowy and enigmatic, and hence more interesting. On the one hand, by creating an era of neurasthenic, frigid, and puritanical wives, he made an institution of bawds and kept women; on the other hand, thanks to paternal despotism, public school mishandling, and religious threats of hellfire, he was often, himself, the prey of guilt-ridden lust, a sexual misfit, a frightened male virgin, a repressed homosexual, a fetishist, a fantasist, a flagellant. In the world of books alone, Swinburne, Ruskin, Carlyle, Pater, Edward Fitzgerald, Lewis Carroll, John Addington Symonds smack of the casebooks as well. Intellectually, the Victorian male also had the shakes, for behind the sanctities of family and society were disconcerting theories and ideas. From Mill, Arnold, George Eliot down, there was decided loss of faith; Bishop Colenso rejected biblical truth through finding it out of the question to feed so many in the Ark for so long. From the Victorian effort to feed so many in the home, by the 1870s contraception had left its mark on the census.

Emotion underwent change no less than thought. Dr. Arnold’s public school reforms reshaped the public schoolboy, implanting in him the seeds of muscular Christianity and new conceptions of manliness. At schools where “hands, face and perhaps neck” were washed daily, and feet “once a fortnight,” what by all odds commanded the greatest attention was the stiffening of the upper lip. G. M. Young tells — of a not much earlier generation — how once, at a great country house, “when Tom Moore was singing, one by one the audience slipped away in sobs; finally, the poet himself broke down and the old Marquis was left alone.” A very few decades later, Tennyson might as easily have written of “tears, shameful tears.” The English, one of the most emotional of races — “the Elizabethans,” Mr. Laver reminds us, “behaved like a lot of excitable Italians”—were being turned into one of the most stoical. Moreover, a school regimen which featured, for the body’s welfare, cold baths and corporal punishment, judged display of intellect almost as unseemly as show of emotion.

The advance of science, the spread of literacy, the growth of a flourishing middle class made increasingly for higher education outside Oxford and Cambridge, and toward more specific and career-minded ends. London University and its successors trained men in medicine, law, engineering, education itself, creating a pattern for the future. (It was said that the classical curriculum long reigned at the Two Universities because they possessed hundreds of people who could teach Latin, Greek, and mathematics, and almost no one who could teach anything else.) Attitudes were changing, time was passing, although Victoria, to be sure, lingered on and was twice jubileed (at the Golden Jubilee, an undertaker was put in charge of decorating the Abbey, and decided to paint and varnish the 800-year-old Coronation Chair). But much that surrounded Victoria had vanished, and very un-Victorian things like Feminism had arrived; as had the bicycle; as had the American heiress; as had Aestheticism, Beardsley, Wilde, and the Yellow Book; and Imperialism, Kipling, Henley, and the Yellow Press; and at length, the Boer War, the birth of a new century, the death of the Queen. The Edwardian era which followed has an aura of chic elegance: on the great Continental trains, for example, everyone dressed for dinner. But there is evidence of inelegance, too; of a King with nouveaux-riches friends, a love of display, of publicity, of high living, of gormandizing, who breakfasted off poached eggs, bacon, haddock, chicken, and woodcock, ate a five-course lunch and a seven-course dinner, with midmorning snacks like lobster salad, and quail or a cutlet at midnight. It was an age of optimism indeed as to how long one’s digestion, even with Marienbad, would hold out.

Yet with the feeling of progress so widespread, and the evidence of progress so great, a sanguine spirit was inevitable. Between 1815 and 1914 England fought no major war, and none closer to home than the Crimea or the Sudan. The long Victorian age might be unified in name only, and 1840 seem like 1900’s antediluvian grandfather; but there was such confidence in the future that progress had been “reduced from an aspiration to a schedule.” And how not, with all the tremendous activity and increment born of the Industrial Revolution, and all that had made ruling a farflung Empire into the white man’s guerdon? Greater Britain had reached its greatest height. Of the large political and economic forces of the era this book, by definition, does not treat. But though Mr. Laver fails to deal with it, surely on his own terms of manners, in his own world of human society, what must have counted most as “progress” proved most personal and near at hand — the sense of ever greater comfort and convenience. A fair while back Macaulay had exulted in the unsurpassable up-to-dateness of England; and unsurpassable up-to-dateness continued, movement accelerated, macadam spread, steel spanned wider, steam hissed louder. The age, while complicating man’s thoughts on life, greatly eased his way of living; advanced from the train to the motorcar, the telegraph to the telephone, the electric light to the electric so-much-else; introduced modern plumbing, anesthesia, antitoxins, the penny post, the typewriter, the lift. Much of England remained parched, begrimed, unspeakable, but in bulk things did show progress, a little more milk or soap or sunlight; and there was an honest belief that next year must always be better than this one. There is a good deal more milk and soap and sunlight today, there is an inconceivable up-to-dateness — the pressure cooker symbolizes, indeed, how most men live; nuclear science constantly finds improved methods for how they can die. There is no great feeling, however, that next year must be better than this one; people are even called optimists for thinking it will be no worse.