Since my senior year in college when I wrote a senior thesis about the inherent conflict between capitalism and Christianity, I have been fascinated by the effects of money on ordinary people. A few years ago I wrote this post about the demise of the notion of the “gentleman” and the Victorian values that have always fascinated me — given their absence in our commodified culture. In any event, as I try to stay away from the ugly world of today’s politics, I find myself reflecting once again on the writings of such extraordinary people as Anthony Trollope, he of the 41 novels, 12 short stories, 18 works of non-fiction, and 2 plays — all while working full-time for the Post Office, who saw what was coming and also worried about the effects of rapid change and sudden money on ordinary (and extraordinary) people. Accordingly, I decided to repost an old post, with modifications, that was largely ignored but wasn’t too bad.
The two major forces that brought the Victorian age to an end were industrial capitalism and the demise of the Christian religion after the First World War, the “war to end all wars.” The death blow may have been landed by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group of writers and critics who saw only the evil that lurked behind what they regarded as the Victorian facade.
What lies at the heart of this struggle for survival of the paramount Victorian values, as we see it working its way out in the conflict between the social classes in England at the time, and in the expansion of suffrage, is the struggle between Self and Other: which is to be paramount? Victorian intellectuals, such as Anthony Trollope, were greatly alarmed by the coming of the steam engine and the rapid changes it entailed. Among other things, it meant the displacement of birth and privilege by wealth. This was disturbing because for the Victorians birth and privilege implied duties on the part of the landed gentry to those of lower social standing, those upon whom life itself depended and who were assumed to be in need of guidance. And while there were abuses of this responsibility (as George Eliot showed in Adam Bede) in large measure the landed gentry cared about their dependents and saw their own good tied up with those who depended upon them — enlightened self-interest, perhaps. We get a glimpse of this in the recent popular TV show on PBS, Downton Abbey. It was by no means clear that the new, wealthy landowners in the provinces, many of whom had moved from the large cities as they acquired wealth, would feel the same obligations to those who worked for them.
As capitalism grew by leaps and bounds and wealth changed hands from the “well-born” to the nouveau riche, power also changed hands. It was a painful process, as those who saw their power and prestige slipping away regretted the sudden appearance of those “middle-class upstarts who want to rank with gentlemen, and think they’ll do it with kid gloves and new furniture,” as Rev. John Lingon remarked in Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical. Anthony Trollope, like his contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, saw the issue clearly, as he struggled for years trying to determine what exactly makes a “gentleman”; whether the term could even be said to apply in an age of increasing wealth and prestige among the lower and middle classes, given the corrupting effects of money, especially upon men and women who had never had much. In a remarkable passage in Trollope’s The Three Clerks, the narrator tells us that one of the three clerks, hovering between virtue and vice, is learning what there is to know about
“the great utility, one may almost say the necessity, of having command of money; he was beginning also to perceive that money was not a thing to be judged by the ordinary rules which govern a man’s conduct. In other matters it behooves a gentleman to be open, aboveboard, liberal, and true; good-natured, generous, confiding, self-denying, doing unto others as he would wish that others would do unto him; but in the acquirement and use of money – that is, its use with the object of acquiring more, its use in the usurer’s sense – his practice should be exactly the reverse: he should be close, secret, exacting, given to concealment, not over troubled by scruples; suspicious, without sympathies, self-devoted, and always doing to others exactly that which he is on guard to prevent them doing unto him – viz., making money by them.”
To simplify somewhat, then, we can say that the growth of industrialism and capitalism and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few helped promote the sense of self-importance we see so prevalent today — along with the desire on the part of the poor and middle classes to imitate the wealthy and identify success and happiness with wealth and position rather than the obligations we have toward others and the desire to make the world a better place. We see this especially today as the very wealthy in this country flounder about in the polluted waters of politics seeking as much power and influence as possible, blind to any notion of the “common good.” The Victorian era had its many problems, to be sure, but when we rejected its values we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water.