- Vice and the Victoriansby Mike Huggins
A book about Victorian vice may seem likely to contain few surprises. We know the Victorians invented the concept, trying both to suppress its every manifestation and to hypocritically indulge themselves in it. Vice is an older, moral category that precedes the pathologies and perversities Michel Foucault describes, and yet, it persisted beyond the century in Britain and the United States denoting police sub-departments dedicated to rooting out illegal sales of narcotics and alcohol, prostitution, and gambling. Those are the big three, and Mike Huggins's new book Vice and the Victoriansdevotes a chapter to each in its nineteenth-century form. Although they supply familiar referents for the term, "vice" also has an aura of mystery. Its opacity is not merely an effect of Victorian reticence, the cliché of so-called unspeakable vices. Rather, its strangeness inheres in the adjectival form "vicious," which conveys both deliberate cruelty to others and the generalized immorality of victimless crimes. In this double sense, vice suggests an appetite for violent or excessively physical, animalistic behavior that disregards moral norms. Moments in Vice and the Victoriansreveal this odd affective phenomenon, and reinvigorate the topic of Victorian vice.
The most arresting of these moments comes at the start of the chapter "Vice and Profligacy: Betting and Gaming": in March 1870 at Aintree racecourse, the jockey George Holman, riding The Doctor, narrowly lost, even though The Doctor's sides "were fairly ripped up by the spurs" (87). This report, appearing in The Telegraph, alarmed the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which brought the first suit for excessive cruelty to a horse during a race. Vice emerges into view in several moments of the kerfuffle: the journalist who wrote the description disavowed it, claiming that it was only "a touch of spice" to stimulate newspaper readers (87). Holman's and others' emphasis on the £30,000 prize as a reasonable motive for hurting the horse smacked of avarice, and the plaintiff constructed betting on horse races as a thrilling pastime that led to greed and callousness. Here the two senses of vice, as cruelty and immorality, coincide in a vivid, hitherto unseen snapshot of social, cultural, and intellectual history. [End Page 358]
The notable strength of Huggins's book is in its detailed knowledge of British social history, which drives his analysis of vice. For example, he excerpts George Sims's account of "Biddy," the most notorious—and celebrated—London drunkard of the 1880s, who was arrested seventy-five times, yet also notes that police constables were themselves often charged with and fined for drunkenness. Readers also learn that pubs usually featured several different doors—one had as many as fifteen—leading to "vaults, snugs, private bars, big public bars with deal-lined walls and sawdust-covered floors, or more select saloon bars" (82). Multiple entrances encouraged a steady flow of a range of clientele through spaces suited to them—and prices keyed to their varied means. By contrast, gambling houses in Covent Garden and the East End in the 1830s featured metal-plated doors that police, in sporadic raids, would have to break down, giving middle-class gamblers time to flee across roofs and through tunnels. (The architecture of vice appears as a motif throughout the book, though Huggins also devotes a particular chapter to its spatial dimension.) Motivating such ingenious adaptations was the persistence of vice in varying forms: public toilets solved the problem of open urination in the street, but also began to shelter gay sex. Huggins's depiction of multifarious, urban Victorian life is as rich and real as a crowd scene painted by William Frith.
While such examples afford glimpses into nineteenth-century British life, they also expose the difficulty of analyzing a concept as generalized as vice. Huggins notes the term's malleability, vagueness, and imperviousness to consensus up front: "vice was like quicksilver" (6). Reformers used it to attack various practices, but the voices of those...