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Paradoxe(s) victorien(s) – Victorian Paradox(es)

William Findlay


William Findlay

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1There is an old adage which advises us that “Character comes with age” and the Victorian “age” is no exception, for if there is one idea on which all observers seem to agree, it is that this period had a distinctness, a uniqueness, which sets it out from what came before and what followed it. Yet, curiously, this seems to be where much of the consensus surrounding the age ends. As historians and social commentators have found as they attempt to probe the traits of this “character”, the very “uniqueness” and “distinctiveness” of the Victorian “age” seems to unravel and become illusive. Paradox indeed!

2The age is in many ways timeless and time-defying. It is indelibly linked to the great Queen who gave it its name yet it stretches out beyond the strict confines of her reign: for some synonymous with the long nineteenth century, for others only coming to a “strange death” with the guns of August 1914. Indeed, at the start of the twenty-first century British society still seems fascinated by its myths and stereotypes. Time-defying too in that, its unity notwithstanding, some historians have argued that to make sense of its complexity one needs to dissect it into its component parts, into Victorian “ages”.

3It is an age of character, a point which somehow stands out from the disagreements over which traits which make up that character in the first place. Love it or hate it, and many observers would confess to having done both, it is not easily ignored, dismissed or overlooked and appears as a great marker on the roadmap of the life-history of the nation.

4Unquestionably and perhaps above all, the Victorian age remains emblematic for British people even today. For many, it is an age of triumph and glory when the name of Britain meant something in the world, a moment of supreme greatness, a moment of destiny, when the British Empire dominated the world. For these observers, the age is a lesson in living history that the nation has forgotten at its peril. In the light of its achievements, modern society pales into insignificance and the value system on which Britain’s subsequent decline has been founded stands condemned. Hence, a return to “Victorian values”, it has been argued, is the surest way to lead British society to a better understanding of its own failings and the best guide towards a better future.

5But the Victorian age is emblematic in another way to other observers as the source of modern Britain’s misfortunes. From this perspective, the hey-day of Victorian achievement was nothing more than the point of culmination of a process of self-destruction. Behind the pomp and ceremony of Empire lay greed, exploitation and racial differentiation which inevitably conditioned a world picture where love of country became synonymous with love of “more” country and where the ultimate test of national superiority was war. From this perspective, the “value system” Victorian society was founded on involved a delicate balance between an outward veneration of social convention and public adherence to codes of conduct while, at the same time, indulging a ruthless pursuit of individual objectives by any and all means. Far from being a model it is a system which the nation has taken the greater part of a century to recover from.

  • 1 Alan BULLOCK and M. SHOCK (eds), The Liberal Tradition. London, 1956, p. 23.

6All things to all men in a sense, the pluralities of the Victorian nation and the complex range of antagonistic aspirations which structured the society of the time can be said also to have fascinated and disgusted contemporaries in a similar way to ourselves. Victorian society, even during the “age of equipoise”, remained an enigma for many foreign and British observers alike, an object both of admiration and scorn. As a nation, the kingdom seemed to hover uneasily between a seemingly imperious leadership of the world and a constant awareness of the fragility of its social composition. In an age of reason where the systematic application of scientific principles seemed destined to make sense of the chaotic rule of nature, the British people’s unerring conviction of the power of progress sat, apparently comfortably, with an unparalleled ability to “fly into a great calm” rather than to take action, when faced with the most pressing of its own problems: in Churchill’s memorable phrase, able to run an Empire which ruled half the world yet incapable of flushing its own sewers. Britain could indeed lay claim to being “a” if not “the” temple of paradoxes. But above all, for a nation which clung to its image of respectability, the charge that it was “the world’s great hypocrite”, cut deepest. This charge, frequently levelled against it by foreign observers, was vehemently rejected by the British themselves but only by invoking the complexities of modern life which, they believed, defied codification, theorisation and the systematic application of principles to the real world, which Lord Macauley once called “the ignominious pride of a fatal consistency”1, Victorian paradoxes, therefore, certainly had the foundations to flourish.

7This conference, not surprisingly, stems from these questions and the fascination that they hold for its organisers in the University of Tours. Yet the actual genesis of the conference lies elsewhere, in a research project created for the Maîtrise (4th year) and DEA (pre-doctoral level) students inside our “British civilisation” programme here in Tours. Over the last few years our team of research-teachers gradually defined a programme of study covering a wide variety of aspects of Victorian society. As we applied this programme to the acid test of teaching however, we discovered that the paradoxes of Victorian society imposed repeatedly forced themselves on our attention and became the centre of discussions with our students. As a result our research programme was modified along these lines, each member of the team exploring the paradoxes of the period from his or her own angle of expertise. Our conference is the outcome then of this slow but steady build-up.

8The papers and discussions which made up these two days of dialogue and research have no pretensions to be a definitive response to the question of Victorian paradoxes. How could they be? The organisers of the conference would be well satisfied if they could make even a modest contribution to the great debate perhaps by shedding light from an unusual “French civilisationist” angle on these fascinating questions. Nor do they pretend to be an exhaustive study in their scope. Hence, for the sake of clarity and in the interests of a coherent conference the various papers presented were regrouped around three wide-ranging themes, in order to provide some broad perspectives of the period.

9Firstly, there is the central issue of the paradoxes of the Victorians’ own sense of identity and how coherent at the same time so incomplete it appeared to contemporaries and observers alike. These “characterological paradoxes” certainly fascinated foreign observers, and, in Richard Tholoniat’s paper, the attempts made, particularly by French minds to “resolve” them, to reconcile the “irreconcilable” are brought to light and assessed. And, since nothing is quite what it appears in this field, a paper read by Sylvie Aprile during the conference (not reproduced here) invited us to reflect on the invisible side to French anglophobia as expressed, not by armchair experts from afar, but by travellers and exiles with decades of experience to their credit.

10Undoubtedly, for many of these foreign observers, the most fascinating of all these British paradoxes was that of race and the arrogant sense of superiority which seemed to exude from its people. The complexity of the web of theories and ideas which were invoked in support of this world picture is the focus of the article by Trevor Harris. In particular, attention is given to the ways in which these “self-evident truths” were reconciled with the stark contractions of everyday reality and how a bowdlerized science was harnessed into “explaining” the “progress” of Victorian Britain towards world domination and a manifest destiny.

11One to the world, Victorian Britain was nonetheless a complex amalgamation of kingdoms each with its own sense of identity and national characteristics. It is these “internal tensions” which William Findlay has sought to highlight through a study of the Victorian transformation of Scotland. Victorian Scotland never aspired to become a carbon-copy of its neighbour (far from it) yet it certainly shared a sense of common destiny and undoubtedly sought a place on the world stage. Rather than simply aspiring to be “like” the English, the Scottish motto would appear to have been “like” but “better” than the English, with the concomitant dilemma that the model for progress was that imported from south of the border. Should we then ask if this “modernisation”, this triumphal progression towards great nation status did not ultimately come at the cost of Scotland’s own sense of national identity? A question of great pertinence today both for Scotland and, even more so, for England.

12The second issue which the conference sought to explore was the paradoxes surrounding the Victorians’ sense of place and time for an uneasy mixture of pride and confidence in the changing environment went hand in hand with fear and suspicion of this same change and nostalgia for things past. Karen Sayer’s article explores the fundamental binary opposition between Culture and Nature which permeated Victorian society, through a study of the dominant images of the urban and the rural of this time. The frontier between these two opposites is remarkable for its clarity despite the incessant pressure of change yet, at the same time, we see its porous nature and the intense “traffic” which flowed back and forth over it. What, at first sight, appear as “innocent” images of place therefore have to be re-contextualised inside the ideological framework of the period and carefully “decoded” for their social message.

13In a timely follow-on from this exploration of the relationship between the rural and the urban, Isabelle Cases invites us to examine the paradoxes which lie behind the construction of the industrial landscape of the period. Here too first impressions, particularly those linked to function and architectural styles, do not tell the whole story. The Victorian industrial construction, particularly during the second half of the century, was also an ongoing dialogue with society involving such complex notions as the relationship between the useful and the aesthetic, the expression of civic identity and pride and even a (belated) affirmation of the grandeur of the capitalist ideal in spite of the ugliness of the environment it had played such a large part in producing.

14The paradoxes of Victorian transportation were also given a large place in the conference’s structure. Johanne-France Just-R-Galloway’s paper takes the reader behind the popular clichés of the steam-powered Royal Navy in the first half of the nineteenth century. Despite the massive scale of experimentation and innovation in maritime matters, the Royal Navy maintained a deep-seated suspicion of innovation in general and steam-powered ships in particular, a suspicion only slowly dissipated thanks to the determination of the Merchant Service. As another paper written for the conference by Goulven Guilcher on the paradoxes of the railway revolution also confirmed, even in those fields most closely identified with modernity and innovation the period was full of unexpected surprises.

15The third perspective on Victorian paradoxes which the conference focussed on was the social. Tri Tran opened this session with a presentation of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 from parish materials found in the Public Record Office. This major reform has often been seen in negative terms and historians have concentrated on its harsh treatment of the poor as one of the triggers of Chartism. What is less well acknowledged is the positive contribution this law also made by allowing and encouraging the workers to “better themselves” through its apprenticeship schemes and emigration clauses. Social oppression and social promotion were, in fact, two sides of the same reality. This “Janus” effect was further explored during the Conference by another paper presented by Michel Krzak on the social fracture in the East End of London where social reformers, caught up in the dilemma between rejection and intervention, attempted to walk the fine line of “hating the sin, loving the sinner”.

16If the question of the poor played a central role in the makeup of Victorian social attitudes, Rosie Findlay’s paper invited the conference to examine the more subtle but equally important social attitudes towards the young. The paradox which lies at the heart of “The Alice syndrome” is that a society which, with some justification, could boast to have invented the golden age of childhood and placed the child in a privileged role as the nation’s most prized possession, could also have been so openly dismissive of the interests of the same child in the context of daily life. In particular, the largely forgotten Victorian practice of “baby farming” is presented and society’s embarrassed silence towards the representatives of this “occupation that shuns the light”. Interestingly for the conference members, a paper by Philippe Chassaigne also explored another aspect of the period which likewise “shunned the light”, the (in) delicate question of “The Love that dares not speak its Name”. Using a wide range of literary and archival sources, the curious mixture of tolerance and rejection of homosexuality was examined as well as the variety of survival strategies invented on their behalf.

17If we imagine that the sensitivity of these social issues might perhaps go some way to explaining the paradoxical attitudes displayed towards them, Win Hayes’s papers on the Victorians and leisure provides a note of caution. The moral and physical benefits associated with sporting activities were seen, during this period, as social values to be shared by the nation as a whole. Yet how were they to be organised and by whom? Behind the seemingly innocuous activities of the quest for healthy leisure, as this paper shows, the intricacies of social convention were never far from the surface, never lost sight of by those whose role it was to organise leisure. The notion of “fair play” had an intricate sub-text attached to it.

18The final paper presented in this collection from those read to the conference is that of Joëlle Cros’ on the place and role occupied by music in the society of the time. Perhaps the ephemeral nature of sound and the impact which music has on the ear and the senses perhaps explains why such a theme has been relatively poorly explored but research points to the extraordinary fascination which music held for the Victorians. Playing a musical instrument was not only a form of pleasure, but also a badge of sociability and cultural affinity. Yet this enormous wealth of activity sustained over half a century produced surprisingly no recognised composers of international repute as the British public seemed set, it would appear, on cultivating what John Osborne once called its unerring taste for ungifted amateurs! Again, as with the development of sport, the sources of this paradox are to be sought deep inside the social psyche of the period.

19In such a short space of time, the conference had no greater objective than to bring these examples of the Victorian paradoxes to public debate and it was with great satisfaction to its organisers that a round table session, chaired by François Poirier, resulted in a lively and dynamic discussion. Our deep-felt thanks goes out to him as well as to the members of the audience who contributed to such a successful conference. And last but by no means least it would be ungrateful of the members of our organising committee if we omitted to thank Claudine Raynaud, Director of the GRAAT, for her unfailing support for this project and her kindness in opening the conference. The organisers also wish to express their thanks to the Conseil Scientifique and the UFR Lettres et Langues for backing the project as well as the publication of these Acts.


1 Alan BULLOCK and M. SHOCK (eds), The Liberal Tradition. London, 1956, p. 23.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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