Michael Chase-Levenson: Why are we still so obsessed with the Victorians?





[Michael Chase-Levenson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.]

We keep calling them back, the Victorians, but why do we? It's not only the academics, the eccentrics, the architects, and the Brits—most everyone walks around with some Victorian picture in the head. Why are they our favorite ghosts? What do we want from them any longer?

Last summer, David Cameron, the smart, slick, young leader of the resurgent British Tory Party, made headlines when he recommended more sensitive attitudes toward the ominous-looking urban teens who give bad dreams to the middle class. "Hoodies," he observed, "are more defensive than offensive," not the problem "but a response to the problem." In the next spin cycle, the phrase "Hug a hoodie" is what Cameron was said to have said (he didn't), and the phrase became (and has stayed) the tag. Then, as summer turned to fall, the crime debate took another surprising turn when the shadow attorney general, the aptly named Dominic Grieve, took the old sharp line. "You can argue," Grieve thumped, "that our Victorian forebears succeeded in achieving something very unusual in changing public attitudes by instilling moral codes. ... There was a much greater sense of shame in respect of transgression."

It was a made-for-the-tabloids British political comedy. What were the Tories doing? Were they trying to go soft, more touchy-feely than New Labor, or, as they scrambled to retune their message, were they still Scrooge? Behind the farce, still twitching as I write, is the vivid memory of Margaret Thatcher's famous declarations of 1983. "I was grateful," said Thatcher, "to have been brought up by a Victorian grandmother. … We were taught to work jolly hard; we were taught to taught to prove ourselves; we were taught self-reliance; we were taught to live within our income." Victorian values "were the values when our country became great."

Ben Wilson's new book [The Making of Victorian Values] inscribes itself within the distant dates 1789-1837 (the French Revolution to the accession of Queen Victoria), but from its opening pages, it recalls the flapping controversies of our times. Wilson knows, but not does not overstress, that we only always pretend to have left the Victorians behind, and that they irritate us partly because they prefigured and created us: For the last 200 years, we have lived within a reaction formation that they started and we can't stop....

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