Victorian Morality, or, “WTF, England?”

With the rise of steampunk, the Victorian era is becoming popular again. It is, of course, an “alternate” Victorian era, very different from the one we had in reality. And with good reason; while the epic battles, old-school aesthetics, and groundbreaking exploration and innovation may sound badass, there are pesky little things like the racism, sexism, classism, and wanton destruction of cultures and ecosystems to keep in mind.

As a loyal steampunk, I’ve been planning for some time to undertake an a fiction venture set in an alternate universe Victorian era. In pursuit of this I’ve been reading a most excellent and useful book, “Inside the Victorian Home,” by Judith Flanders. She covers everything from what the logic behind the design of Victorian houses (why were they so tall?) to food preparation, education, and attitudes toward marriage and family.

If anyone is interested in this wonderful book, it is available here:

One of the things that has most struck me about what I’ve learned of Victorian England thus far is how absolutely everything had a moral aspect to it. And it wasn’t even in a way that makes sense, like sustainable or medically sound living. No; instead, everything the Victorians wore, ate, purchased, or suffered seems to have revolved around “morality” which consisted more than anything else of dutifully fulfilling one’s “place in society.”

Children were at the bottom of the household social heirarchy, and discipline for them started in the cradle. One popular advice-giver counseled parents not to give a child anything it cried for; this, she said, would only encourage crying as a means to get what it wanted all through life. Likewise, virtually every aspect of childrearing seemed aimed at instilling obedience and discipline.

In keeping with “accepting one’s place” as the era’s highest virtue, childhood discipline was goverened by the philosophy that children (and the adults they would grow up to become) didn’t need to understand why rules or orders were given; it was far more important that they learn it was morally bad to ever disobey any edict given by their superiors.

Women were a step above children on the social ladder; wives were believed to derive their authority over the household from their husband, whose authority came directly from God, making him indisputably the top dog (even though advice booklets indicate that working husbands were rarely home, and even include explanations to reassure wives as to why his consent to any house hold matter was still vital).

All moral vices and virtues for a woman revolved around her ability to serve men; her ability to run an orderly house, to raise disciplined children, to entertain guests (with the quality of these things also acting as an indicator of the social class and moral fiber of the family as a whole). A drunken woman, for example, was considered particularly abhorrent, not because drunkenness was forbidden in the Bible, but because a drunken woman could not properly perform her motherly or wifely duties.

But how pervasive could these moral attitudes really be? Was it really possible for a person’s every move throughout the day to hold some moral weight? Apparently, yes.

Take that old cliche about British cooking being bland. Turns out it’s true. But not (at least, not wholly) out of necessity; the Brits had the world’s largest and most powerful trading network, presumably capable of bringing in a repletion of spices. But as it turns out, “flavorful” food was considered a moral danger; it represented “indulgence,” which could lead to the breakdown of a lifetime of discipline, and could “inflame passions,” particularly in women and children.

And we’re not talking about curry here. Advice booklets from the time cautioned against serving fresh bread to children; day-old bread was infinitely preferable, because it ran less risk of upsetting their delicate moral and spiritual constitutions. One booklet warned especially against giving anything which could “inflame passions” to pubescent girls; apparently this could lead to a physical illness which could “be fatal, or at the very least do lasting injury.”

This idea that women and children were vulnerable to physical harm from pretty much anything went hand-in-hand with their supposed moral vulnerability. Education, for example, was thought to be dangerous to women, because as with foods, men could simply handle certain knowledge thay might “inflame” or “corrupt” the more delicate female mind. This may be because they, the-lower ranked on the social totem pole, may have been more prone to that deadly sin of discontentment with one’s place in society.

It’s rather maddening to read some of these passages. A woman like myself, for example, should attain only enough education in science so that she could “look intelligent while listening to men talk.” Any more than that could only result in ill, since it would leave her ill-fit for (read: dissatisfied with) her duties as a wife and mother, make socializing with other (also forcibly uneducated) women difficult, and ultimately lead to her being alone, miserable, and a moral misfit.

There were entire novels written in this era on the subject of why education was dangerous to women. “The Daisy Chain, or, Aspirations,” by Charlotte Mary Yonge, followed the heroine Ethel as she was persuaded to surrender her passion for studies and her career ambitions in order to better fulfill the woman’s role of serving the men in her life. This sacrifice of ambition is painted as a triumph in the book, with Ethel eventually joyfully accepting her rightful place as female, that of servant to the male sex.

While the sexism can at least be traced to Bible passages, certain other attitudes are less explicable. Why, for example, would a supposedly Biblically-based Victorian society seem to hate pregnancy, babies, and child-bearing? The Bible, after all, says “be fruitful and multiply,” and encouraging large families is thought to be one reason for enforced gender roles in cultures across the globe. So the Victorians should hold similar attitudes on the subject, right?

Apparently not. In 19th century England, pregnancy was looked upon both an illness and a humiliation. Pregnancy was never supposed to be visible or discussed in polite society; those women who could afford to were completely secluded during the last months when their pregnancy was impossible to hide, including Queen Victoria. Advice and medical booklets couldn’t even bring themselves to refer to pregnancy outright; a woman’s “condition” during was referred to in the most oblique terms.

Likewise, the mechanics of birth and childcare were proudly eschewed by “respectable” adults. Complete silence and ignorance on these subjects was so important to social standing that people bragged about them; Victorians actually composed poems about their ignorance of the process of childbirth, and regularly made outrageous–and probably false–boasts about how little they knew about their own children’s care.

Perhaps this was part of emulating the upper classes, who invariably employed doctors and nursemaids to handle all the “messy details.” It may have been simply a matter of pretending to have more money than you actually had, and dissociating oneself with labor “more befitting the lower classes.”

But the stigmatization of children didn’t stop at birth or even the necessities of childcare. Advice pamphlets of the time list the various physical and moral evils a baby can bring about if left to its own devices; nursing babies were referred to in almost vampiric terms, and for the first half of the 19th century, children of all ages seem to have been viewed as parasites, a necessary (or at least unavoidable) evil in an adult-centered world.

This changed a little by the end of the century, by which time the Romantic “cult of innocence” had brought about the child-centered home. By the 1890s, having a child was neither a burden nor an embarrasment, but one of the joys and purposes of marriage; baby-centered products like baby food and strollers had been invented and were now mainstream. Although all of that didn’t do terribly much for discussion of pregnancy and childbirth, which was still barely addressed directly in public literature.

You may have noticed by now that “physical” and “moral” evils go together in the Victorian era. Indeed, they were never seen apart. Most illnesses were seen to have a moral or at the very least emotional dimension, possibly resulting from “shock” or “inflammation of the brain” due to education or “overexcitement” (which was in and of itself a moral ill, assumed to result from lack of discipline and often invoked when women made a fuss about anything).

One gets the impression, both from reading Victorian literature and from studying the era, that all of life was a game of moral one-upsmanship. Material possessions were considered a sign of good morality, since they indicated upper class status and the upper classes were of course the morally best classes–all the way up to the Queen herself, who was the paradigm of moral virtue. How clean your house was; how skilled you were at piano; anything and everything was subject to a moral “points system.”

What does playing piano have to do with one’s moral fibre? Well, one’s level of any sort of skill could be traced back to morality through the virtues of diligence and discipline. These yielded everything from a woman’s good stitching to a mans’ business success. The Victorian approach to childrearing, from the injunction against flavorful food to the enforcement of social heirarchy within the family, were aimed almost entirely at developing those two virtues.

This may be partially responsible for the assumed “evil of babies,” as babies were natural and not yet “trained.” A human not properly “brought up” was seen as a great evil. This also played a large role in their disdain for other cultures, which clearly lacked “proper morals,” as manifested in Victorian attitudes toward dress, food, discipline, and virtually every other aspect of life that varies between cultures. Since all failure to attain success was attributed to a lack of discipline, this approach was also great for scapegoating the underclasses.

In light of all the racism, sexism, classism, etc. perhaps the Victorians’ paranoia about “inflaming passions” and “instilling discipline” was justified. In a world where feudalism was dead but its social heirarchy was still hanging on, I imagine the existing power structures were keenly aware of being threatened. Teaching that passion was physically dangerous and that it was good Christian virtue to accept one’s “place in society” must have gone a long way toward preventing egalitarian thinking from taking root.

All that being said; steampunk is still badass.

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4 Responses to Victorian Morality, or, “WTF, England?”

  1. K. Howard says:

    Don’t forget the things that often undermined the Victorian status quo, such as literature (which I’m more educated in). Books such as “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte empowered woman, and the character Jane herself refused to marry Rochester until he was half blind and she was financially stable.And Elizabeth Barrett Browning, famous for her call to action against the factories in the poem “The Cry of the Children”, was educated like a man. We spent an entire class period talking about that poem.

    And despite the views on promiscuity, there was at least one prostitute for every twelve British men during the Victorian era. And these women were often better off than the women in factories! So while the Victorian morals were very strict, you can easily argue they were undermined time and time again.

    • kagmi says:

      Ahh. Well such protest against the status quo must be exactly the reason women weren’t supposed to be educated, you see. 😉

      That prostitution statistic is very interesting. “Inside the Victorian Home” specifically states that it’s not going to try to address Victorian attitudes toward sex, because apparently these were just too complicated to include. One of the odd things I’m finding is that apparently if a home was not “well kept,”, it’s openly stated by several advice-givers that a man was fully justified and indeed expected to “find solace elsewhere.” I’m not sure to what extent this was or wasn’t secretly understood to mean prostitution, but it seems to me that the two attitudes couldn’t help but be related.

      I find the topic of how things were “supposed to be” rather than how they were immensely important because it dictates how people would have been treated and viewed during the era. Although there appear to be abundant exceptions to Victorian ideals (a good percentage of middle-class women had no choice but to take up some kind of paid work to support the family, for example), I find the whole idea of everybody running around trying to hide the ones that couldn’t be avoided and condemn the ones that could rather fascinating.

    • Sigrid says:

      The thing is – you can’t really bring ‘what people actually did behind the scenes’ as a rebuttal to ‘what was considered socially acceptable’, because they are two completely different things.

      There were a lot of time periods in which it was one’s public face that mattered most, and you could get up to whatever the heck you wanted to so long as your public persona was respectable. (In the 18th century, this even included women, but I suspect it was more restricted to men by the 19th century.)

      Yes, there were a lot of babies born too-few months after marriage. Was premarital sex socially acceptable? Of course not. Everyone just glossed over it and said ‘gosh, the kid sure is healthy for a preemie!’

      Yes, there were some educated women. Was it the status quo? Nope. Also, many of those educated-like-a-man women (say, Ada, Countess of Lovelace) were upper class, and it bears mentioning that this book deals strictly with the middle classes, who had to stick to the rules much more closely in order to make sure they separated themselves sufficiently from the lower classes – the upper classes didn’t have to do that – they were more free to do what they liked. Our popular images of the Victorians are almost entirely relevant to the upper classes.

      (Of course, middle class women did things like write, but they weren’t considered entirely respectable in their own times. Anne Bronte’s books are by far the most radically feminist, but we don’t remember them at all. She was the ‘hey, maybe marrying an abusive alcoholic WON’T lead to everlasting happiness…’ sister.)

      George Elliot, of course, published under a male pen name, which I think is rather indicative of the mindset of her time.

      • kagmi says:

        Well, you learn something new every day…I had no idea that George Elliot was a woman.

        You also raise a good point, not just about what was accepted or allowed for the upper vs. middle classes, but about what was possible. The book has addressed the cost of higher education for girls–middle-class families, even those who might have otherwise considered it, often either couldn’t spare the expense of sending a girl away to school, or they considered it an unnecessary expenditure, which was unvirtuous in and of itself. The first female member of a London society of engineers had her college tuition paid for entirely by a wealthy male benefactor.

        Another interesting point you raise is that of premarital sex–the book addresses this too. I forget what the exact figure was, but I think it was something like 1 in 50 couples had their first child within seven months of marriage. Perhaps not a staggering number, but as I don’t know what the conception rates were, I’m not sure what that says about how many couples were indeed engaging in “impropriety” before they had vowed before society to form a stable and enduring family unit.

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