In my recent post on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book about Victorian virtues I was a bit surprised by the lack of response because Himmelfarb’s take on the Victorian era is so out of step with the take of many other historians who have studied that same era. Most have concluded it was a sexist age reeking with poverty and squalor on the part of the majority of unhappy and exploited people in Victorian England; this view is echoed in most of Charles Dickens’ novels and the writings of Karl Marx who saw capitalism in England as the devil’s work.
Himmelfarb bases her conclusions on thorough research including, but not restricted to, the reading of countless diaries written at the time and the summaries later written down of oral histories spoken by members of the poor and middle classes. She concluded that if you take a closer look the people themselves regarded their lot as a happy one. And who are we to say they are not? Indeed, she insists that they were happier than we are. This is an astonishing claim and it raises an interesting philosophical question (if you will bear with me). Can we judge of another era that they were happier or less happy than we are? If they insist they are happy can we reasonably argue with them? We look back from the perspective of our era where happiness is identified with pleasure and possessions. Feminists look at the “plight” of the women who were little better off than slaves in their view. We read Sigmund Freud and are allowed to peek into the private lives of a handful of Victorian women and men with neuroses that make us shudder, hang-ups about sex that we laugh at with our more sophisticated outlook on sexual activity.
The question I raise is very hard to answer, perhaps impossible to answer. We cannot judge another era looking at it through 21st-century lenses. But we can look at Third World countries today and we can see the same sort of poverty and squalor, the huge divide between the very rich and the very poor, the tin houses and the lack of drinking water or mosquitoes nets. And we shudder at how unhappy those folks must be. But those who take a closer look, those who actually move among those people are struck by the fact that they have nothing but they seem happy, for the most part. They are generous to a fault and accept their lot and delight in what little they do have that in a manner that strikes many of us as simply unfathomable.
For example, our blogging buddy Lisa lives and writes about Ecuador where she has chosen to live and create her beautiful works of art. Her posts are filled with news about and pictures of the happy people she lives among. They seem to delight in what they have rather than to worry about what they do not have. They live in the moment and find joy in the fullness of their existence, their friends, and their families. Are we to say that they are not as happy as we are? Is it possible that they are happier than we are?
The point is that we might be better off looking at our own era and our own view of sexual permissiveness and happiness as pleasure from the perspective of Victorian England or even the Third World countries. It is quite possible that those folks would scratch their heads and wonder what the hell we are talking about. Our notion of happiness is so shallow, so many of us identify it with material possessions that no one seems ever to have enough of; and our sexual “revolution” doesn’t seem to have made families any stronger or time in bed spent by countless couples as a sure sign of close, loving relationships. Our happiness resembles in important respects that of the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World.
In a word, if folks insist they are happy can anyone else reasonably insist they are not? Himmelfarb insists that the family was central to the people of the Victorian era and that it provided a firm basis for solid relationships — among the poor perhaps even more than among the rich. It made it possible for them to appreciate the small things that comprise true happiness while we are lost in dreams about second homes, large cars, vacations at the seashore, and more money than we can possibly spend in our lifetime. And rabid feminists today find demons in every action taken by the male of the species and insist that Victorian women were miserable even though they themselves swear they were not.
It is worth a second or two of thought. It is wise to step back and take a look at ourselves form time to time and ask where we are going and if we really want to get there — and whether it makes sense to turn a blind eye to another era that just might have been better off, in important respects, than is our own. A culture that may well be able to teach us something important about ourselves.