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REVIEWS T.C. Smout, ed., Victorian Values: A Joint Symposium of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 232. $53.95 CDN (cloth). Margaret Thatcher put Victorian studies in her debt when in a 1983 television interview she proclaimed herself a believer in Victorian values. Showing the entrepreneurial spirit which she so often called for, British Victorianists were quick to cash in on this valuable endorsement of their product. They quickly put together a series of symposia and books on the question of what exactly Victorian values were, of which this is the latest and perhaps the most distinguished example. The papers collected here were delivered in December, 1990, only a few weeks from Mrs. Thatcher's sudden fall from office. In recruiting Victorian England to her cause, Thatcher was being somewhat daring. As Victorianists, especially in North America, we may need to be reminded periodically that the word Victorian is more than just academic. It carries a high and largely negative charge in popular British usage, connoting exploitation, greed and hypocrisy. Neil Kinnock, the (then) rising hope of the Labour party, expressed this view when he responded to Mrs. Thatcher's declaration of allegiance with the statement that "Victorian England was a place where a few got rich and most got hell." Among the sources of this vision are Marx, Engels, Lytton Strachey and, above all, Charles Dickens. As Raphael Samuels reminds us in his excellent opening discussion of what Victorian values meant to Mrs. Thatcher, Dickensian is an even darker word than Victorian in common British parlance, redolent of dirt, destitution and disease, conjuring up the figures of Bob Cratchit, Oliver Twist and Tiny Tim. A generally left-tilting demotic social history of Britain has tended to underwrite this vision, providing a complacently whiggish backdrop to the modern welfare state, which stands forth as a reproach to Victorian Britain's failure to meet the needs of an urban industrial society, and Reviews75 particularly of its working class. Needless to say, die Labour party has a considerable emotional and ideological investment in this scenario. Much academic social history, though hardly a right wing enterprise, has been trying for decades to erode it. A pioneer in die reassessment of Victorian Britain was Asa Briggs (a historian of die moderate left) whose The Age ofImprovement (1959) differed as significantly in tone as in title from die once highly influential The Bleak Age (1934) of J.L. and Barbara Hammond. Mrs. Thatcher's Victorian England is thus more in accord with current Victorian historiography than Mr. Kinnock's. Hers was not die bleak "otiier" of the Welfare State: it was the Britannia diat ruled die waves, die "Workshop of die World," in its time the most modern productive, prosperous, peaceful nation die world has ever seen, thanks in large part to "Victorian values." Mrs. Thatcher defined diese as selfrespect , self-reliance, hard work, cleanliness, neighborliness, and national pride. As she noted, tiiey were not exclusively Victorian. She called diem "perennial," as befitted someone who came from diat intensely respectable middle class — shop-keeping, chapel-going — who clung to diem most fiercely, and whose contribution to Victorian England is still neglected in Victorian social historiography. After Samuel's astute analysis of die contemporary political bearings of Victorian values, come ten essays of high overall quality on their historical context. Appropriately, in view of the symposium's Edinburgh venue, RJ. Morris and Stewart J. Brown emphasize die importance of Scotland — birthplace of die mechanics' institute, die savings bank, teetotalism, Samuel Smiles and Thomas Chalmers — as an ideological hothouse for die articulation of Victorian values. In his essay Mark Girouard examines die titinnish soil of die upper classes for signs of Victorian values, while in his, Clyde Binfield turns over die rich loam of Victorian non-conformity. Well worth contemplating, in view of die importance of Victorian literature in shaping our notion of die era (a much greater importance than most historians realize, let alone admit), is Valentine Cunningham's exploration of die "guilty impasse" between die anti-mammonism of so many Victorian novels, and die "bargain mindedness" required by die literary marketplace of those who wrote diem...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 74-77
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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