Less of the 'stiff upper lip'

October 13, 2006

The Victorians were, in some respects, far more open-minded than we are, so we should stop patronising them, argue Clare Pettitt and Peter Mandler.

As the interest surrounding the BBC's adaptation of Charlotte Bront 's Jane Eyre shows, the Victorians still hold much fascination for us. But unlike in the past, we may, with a bit more distance, finally be getting their measure, or at least treating them as adults. For much of the past century, we have had a bad habit of patronising the Victorians, thinking them simple-minded. In fact, we have been thinking simple-mindedly about them, calling them "the Victorians", for a start, as if everyone living in the same country under the same queen thinks and feels the same.

We have been too prone to seeing them as wallowing in the past - a simplistically stereotyped view of the past, too: all Arthurian knights and Merrie England, muscular Christians balancing the white man's burden on their stiff upper lips, forging an empire by playing cricket; never laughing (even their Queen is famous for not being amused) and not having much sex either.

There is evidence that we may finally be moving away from this tired catalogue of cliches however, perhaps partly because the Victorian period is moving away too - receding into deeper history as we move into another millennium and find ourselves more than 100 years away from the end of Victoria's reign in 1901. The direct links - our grandparents and their parents - are dead. It is time to reassess.

There is already a shift in the representation of this period. Last year's BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens's Bleak House, for example, was innovative even in its format - it was shown in 16 half-hour episodes, giving a more authentic sense of the original part-issue of Dickens's novel in 1852-53. It was also innovative in its design. It avoided what have become the cliches of period drama - the frocks and fancy carriages that so often make the actors look uncomfortable. These were people at home, or homeless, in a world not so different from our own. Rather than frilly crinolines and Victoriana, our attention was drawn to the material stuff of 19th-century life - its speed, heat, cold, wet, steam and so on - and the fine cinematography allowed a proper interiority to its characters.

The just-broadcast BBC serialisation of Jane Eyre, also directed by Susanna White, was less successful, however. While its attention to Jane's precarious "advertising" existence was welcome, it fell back on many of the cliches from which Bleak House seemed to have broken free. The awkward grace of Bront 's language was entirely effaced, dumbed down by a curious adaptation that seemed to feel the need to "intellectualise" her novel. The result was a lot of rewriting of dialogue, a much less talkative Jane than in the novel and a rather heavy-handed reinsertion of scientific themes that the Victorians were supposed to be interested in - genetics and entomology, for example - when in fact Bront 's own "plain tale with few pretensions", as she described it, is richly embedded in the debates of its own time.

But what Jane Eyre and Bleak House show is how the Victorians, whom we have thought of as petrified in the past, were in constant motion, juggling the demands of the present with their own idea of their past. Strong feelings about religion and politics fissured society deeply along lines we have long since blurred - the gap between Catholic, Anglican and Nonconformist world-views, or between Liberal and Conservative, was much wider than between new Labour and new Conservative, or between gentle agnostic and gentle Christian. Likewise, the Victorians' relationship with the past was highly variegated and deeply vexed. In some ways, they had a harder time of this than we do. The two generations that reached maturity between 1830 and 1890 had to cope with the shock of the sudden and unprecedented appearance of a plethora of possible pasts, something we have now got used to.

All around them, the Victorians could see different versions of the past appearing in ever more material forms. One concrete example (literally) was to be glimpsed on the train journey from central London to the Crystal Palace Pleasure Gardens at Sydenham, opened in 1854. From the windows of the carriages, it was possible for the first time to see colossal concrete models of dinosaurs designed by Richard Owen and built by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. These huge dinosaurs grazed and swam in the park and caused intense and nervous excitement among a public that was catapulted by this visual representation into a previously unimagined time before the beginning of human history. Evolution opened up a much longer timescale into which to fit themselves or, indeed, humanity. Most people had believed until then that the world was probably about 6,000 years old.

In 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, Dickens had famously described London in the opening paragraph of Bleak House as exhibiting "as much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, 40 feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill". His odd muddling of the biblical division of the waters in the opening verses of Genesis, and the emerging discipline of palaeontology, captures perfectly the confusion of possible pasts - religious, mythical, historic and prehistoric - that presented themselves to the Victorians as they tried to locate themselves in the present. Just at the moment they were celebrating their own triumphant industrial modernity in the Great Exhibition, they were also scrabbling to connect the present with its multiple pasts in ways that could uphold their commitment to progress.

British Victorians saw themselves as Europeans in ways that we have now abandoned. German scholarship, for example, particularly German textual and biblical scholarship, raised the possibility that the Bible was a collection of many different texts rather than one unitary and authoritative source. This profoundly influenced British debates about the past, as did Continental European archaeological work, aided by entrepreneurship and Empire. Of course, Greece and Rome were already established as "ancient" cultures, but there were new Greeces and Romes emerging in the 19th century. In addition, whole new pasts kept appearing: Assyria, Egypt, India. In 1850, for example, Dante Gabriel Rossetti tells us that he happened to be strolling round the British Museum admiring the Elgin Marbles when he heard a commotion outside. A giant sculpted bull from the ancient city of Nineveh was being pulleyed up the steps of the museum.

Rossetti was moved to speculate in verse about the ways in which the Nineveh Bull, uprooted from its sacred space and hoisted into the weak London light, would now have to be incorporated into a new British history.

He wrote: "The kind of light shall on thee fall/ Which London takes the day to be:/ While school-foundations in the act/ Of holiday, three files compact/ Shall learn to view thee as a fact/ Rome, Babylon and Nineveh."

The bull was indeed put on open public display at the British Museum to be gazed at by schoolchildren, as Rossetti had predicted. The Victorian period was the first to see quite so many different groups exploring these different pasts. So inevitably some of the standard elite views came under scrutiny.

This could mean a bold rejection of the established historical reverence for the classics in the 1860s, or it could mean counterposing one past against another - did one admire the Middle Ages of Catholicism and deference and chivalry (as Benjamin Disraeli's heroes in the "Young England" movement did) or the "Olden Time of Good Queen Bess", of Protestantism and Shakespeare and global enterprise? Sometimes alternative views of a single past emerged - was Ancient Egypt the site of the Old Testament, or of ancient pagan mysteries, or of humanity's evolution from barbarism, or of lost scientific knowledge waiting to be rediscovered? Or were these multiple pasts so confusing and constraining that the Victorians were tempted to "abandon the past" altogether? "Young England has too much of Old England for me," one Victorian said. But this wasn't a forward-thinking radical: this was a liberal aristocrat, Lord Morpeth.

Some of the Victorians already knew, in fact, about the dangers of too much history, or too simple-minded a view of history. If the past held lessons, they were multiple and hard to read. Was the Roman Empire, for example, to be taken as a model or as a warning? A study of the Victorians' multiple, conflicting readings of the many diverse lessons of history might induce some humility about our use of the past and our superiority to our forebears. It might, of course, also encourage us not to abandon our own disciplinary pasts while reassessing the ways in which we teach the Victorian period to our students.

Clare Pettitt is an English lecturer at King's College London and Peter Mandler is a history lecturer at Cambridge University. They are among five academics running the "Abandoning the Past: Past versus Present in the 19th Century" project. The five-year interdisciplinary project has a £1.1 million grant from the Leverhulme Trust.

For more information, e-mail: enquiries@victorians. group.cam.ac.uk

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