Eminent Victorians give Freud the slip

The Naked Heart
February 20, 1998

For his multi-volume work on 19th-century culture, Peter Gay chose a somewhat odd title, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, thus selecting a French social category, bounded by a British monarch and the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis who were contemporaries for some 46 years. In practice, Victorian is used to describe the period and bourgeois to define the culture, while Freud is the key to the inquiry.

The term bourgeois is used, not in any Marxisant or sociological sense, nor as a pejorative term, but as a loose synonym for the middle classes and as a description of the dominant frame of mind of the 19th century. Gay's definition is broad enough to encompass business people, professionals and clerks as well as nearly all intellectuals and writers, though no doubt many of them would have been horrified to be designated bourgeois. In practice, however, the book is largely concerned with literary figures and sources and we hear little of the inner life of merchants. If this narrows the focus, the range of literary sources is wide enough, for it includes French and German literature.

Having discussed the bourgeoisie's sensual life, its attitude to romantic love, and its capacity for hatred in previous volumes, Gay now turns to its preoccupation with the self. Most bourgeois, Gay argues, had an ideology that "consisted not merely of thrift, punctuality, and self-restraint but also a commitment to an inner honesty that should clarify, if possible enrich, their inner life". It is with this inner life and with the confrontation and preoccupation with the self that this fourth volume, The Naked Heart, is concerned.

Was the 19th century more preoccupied by the self than previous ages? An absorption with oneself is a common enough human characteristic and Gay is well aware that the historian can find evidence enough of introspection in almost any period. Nor did all Victorians consider their age marked by a concern for the inner life; on the contrary, many cultural critics, such as Marx, Matthew Arnold, Ruskin and Carlyle, lambasted the bourgeois century for its neglect of it, and its enthusiasm for the material outer world.

Gay's argument is that "what makes the Victorians' self-scrutiny important ... is not that they invented introspection or were the first to brood about it but that they made it available, almost inescapable, to a wide public".

Victorian writers, especially in diaries and autobiographies, felt drawn to reveal the secrets of their childhoods, their relations with their parents, and their longings, desires and frustrations, while, at the same time, most were constrained to veil, censor or sanitise these experiences and feelings. The "struggle for inwardness" was accompanied by the contrary urges of wishing to share personal experience and to care for its privacy. Gay's Freudian approach leads him to consider that even the most sanitised accounts can reveal the naked heart.

The flexible Freudian underpinning of the book leads to a series of tensions being seen as the determining characteristics of the 19th-century mind: struggles between instinct and civilisation, desire and discipline, and freedom and control. "As a wishing animal that wants only gratification, if possible instantly, the human animal needs to defend itself against its most longed-for pleasures, both sexual and aggressive, pleasures unacceptable without at least some controls."

A vignette on "the art of listening" does more to substantiate Gay's thesis than many of his more bulky chapters. The 18th-century attitude to music was far from philistine but a concert or opera was seen as a social occasion as well as an opportunity to listen to the music. One chatted to friends, and tapped one's feet to the music.

The romantic bourgeois, however, saw music as thaumaturgic or transcendental and approached it with piety. Gay charts both the changes in the reputation of music, as it became seen as a quasi-religious experience, and the increased formality of its audiences or congregations. One sat unnaturally still, "exercising self-control for the sake of exquisite, if postponed, psychological rewards". One was moved to look inwards. As George Sand told Liszt: "Beethoven makes you enter once again into the most intimate depths of the self." Gay sees romanticism as more than a preface to his Victorian bourgeois frame of mind, considering that it re-enchanted the world in reaction to the cool reason and impersonality of the Enlightenment and provided the basis for the 19th century's abiding concentration on the self. The romantic conception of religion marked no going back to a pre-Enlightenment view of religion as providing an ordered framework for humanity, but the reinvention of religion as a communion of the self with nature, as with Hazlitt's description of Wordsworth as "living in the busy solitude of his own heart; in the deep silence of thought".

Via biographies, novels, paintings and even historical writing, the century's obsession with the self and individuality is revealed and analysed along with the contrapuntal theme of discretion. One's own self, the true self of others, the motivations and inner lives of the famous, and the search for "usable pasts" to locate the self in the present are seen as the abiding preoccupations. They are always accompanied by reservations: how much should one tell; should the exemplary lives of the great be sullied by details of inconvenient failings or lusts; or should a patriotic history be marred by the alternative evidence of the archives? How much attention should the historian give to Nelson's affair with Lady Hamilton or was Froude right to hint that all was not roseate in Carlyle's marriage?

This is a brilliant and exciting book in which a historian of great learning pursues a major theme of Victorian sensibility, corralling examples from different nations, disciplines and genres. In the end, however, it is, for all its insight, just one possible theme, one strand in the complex weave of the thoughts and preoccupations of an age.

One feels, too, that, as ever, the theme predicated much of the evidence. There were just too many Victorians, even bourgeois Victorians, and they were too varied and contradictory, especially when the cast encompasses German, French, American and British Victorians, for Gay's psychoanalyst's couch.

A. W. Purdue is senior lecturer in history, Open University.

The Naked Heart: The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud

Author - Peter Gay
ISBN - 0 00 255708 8
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £30.00
Pages - 463

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