Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Misunderstanding the Victorians
posted by Jonathan Calder |
The Victorians are the people against whom we have defined ourselves. We are who we are because we are not the Victorians. And if we concede that they moulded our culture, defined our sensibilities, built a world for us to live in - rather than being the figures against whom we rebelled in order to create those things for ourselves - then we undermine one of the founding myths of our modernity.
This is why we so rarely see the several extant photographs of Victoria laughing like a skunk, why she is most famous for a quote she never said, why the bogus story of her ignorance of lesbianism has to be repeated over and over again, why chintz-swathed piano legs and Ruskin yelping at the sight of his young bride's pubic hair are commonly invoked to characterise the period.
If the Victorians are caricatured as cruel, hypocritical, repressive, intolerant, prudish and cheerless, then it makes all post-Victorian wife-beating, child abuse, social injustice and personal dullness more easy to cope with. If you think hard enough about the deprivations suffered by the crossing sweepers who slept in doorways on nineteenth-century city streets, that allows you to recognise Big Issue sellers as something else entirely.
Matthew Sweet Inventing the Victorians (2001)