Victorian Values

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.” 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. 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 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 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 majority 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. 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.

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Silver Spoons and Such

Edith Wharton’s name has come up in previous blogs. She is one of my favorite writers, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence, and certainly one of the best writers this country has produced, male or female. She was born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth and spent most of her adult life telling folks how bad it tasted. In a word, many of her novels are satirical studies directed against the puffery of the very rich. As such, they have something important to tell us about those “successful” people who now run the country — you know, the infamous 1%. If Wharton is right, they took a wrong turn somewhere along the line and, despite what they may think, they live empty lives and are not really happy. I must say I tend to believe her: she does make a strong case.

In one of her lesser novels, Glimpses of the Moon, she tells about a young couple, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch, who decide to get married and then live off the wedding checks and invitations from their wealthy friends for as long as possible. They are attracted to one another by their shared honesty and the fact that they are both relatively poor and rely on wealthy friends to get by. The whole game starts out like a lark as the two think they are having a grand joke at their wealthy friends’ expense. The matter becomes complicated, however, when they find they really do love one another and during a prolonged separation following a major argument, they drift apart only to discover the falsehood of their own game, — and also the complete falsehood of the way of life they ridicule– to wit, lives immersed in great wealth.

Toward the end of the novel, as the scales are falling from Susy’s eyes, she agrees to sit for several months with the five children of one of her few remaining friends, a musician who is married to an artist and whose children turn out to be exceptional. As she gets to know the kids, she comes to know herself better. Like Wharton herself who organized relief for Belgian refugees during the First World War in France, her heroine finds herself by immersing herself in the lives of others. Susy comes to see more and more clearly how false is the make-believe world of the very rich. The kids are remarkable: they are bright and “their intelligence had been fed only on things worth caring for. . . good music, good books, and good talk had been their daily food, and if at times they stamped and roared and crashed about like children unblessed by such privileges, at others they shone with the light of poetry and spoke with the voice of wisdom.” As Susy comes to realize, the thing that makes these kids so unusual is the fact that all their lives they have been surrounded by beauty — and the honesty of their parents. As it happens, she finds herself not mothering the children but “being herself mothered, of taking her first steps in the life of immaterial values which had begun to seem so much more substantial than any she had known.”

As Wharton weaves the tale, it becomes clear that the heroine grows as Wharton herself did, from a spoiled child surrounded by the comfort and security of great wealth — with all its sham and pretense — to a life of clarity and truth where she comes to realize what really matters. She finds happiness not by looking for it, but by immersing herself in the lives of others, lives that demand that she come out of herself. Like Wharton, when she divorced her husband and turned her back on all the glitz, she was financially less well off. But in the only sense that matters she was truly richer.

When summarized, the tale sounds a bit corny, but when told by a writer of Wharton’s caliber who knows first-hand whereof she speaks, it has the ring of truth and conviction. It is a truth that must fall on deaf ears in this age of “me-first” where those among us crave material well-being and identify their happiness with the very things Wharton pilloried. But if we would only take the time to reflect we might discover a great truth in novels such as this. In addition to being a superb writer, Edith Wharton was an immensely wise woman.

Conservative Numbers

A recent story from ABC news about the growing number of “conservative” voters around the country raises interesting questions. The story reads, in part, as follows:

“Even the general public has increasingly leaned to the right. In a Gallup poll last month, 40 percent of Americans identified themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 21 percent as liberal. The numbers marked the third straight year that conservatives outnumbered moderates, which have declined steadily since the early 1990s. . . .

“‘In recent years, conservatives have become the single largest group, consistently outnumbering moderates since 2009 and outnumbering liberals by 2 to 1. Overall, the nation has grown more ideologically polarized over the past decade,’ the analysis stated. ‘The increase in the proportion of conservatives is entirely the result of increased conservatism among Republicans and independents, and is also seen in Americans 30 and older — particularly seniors.'”

I especially like the last sentence where we are told that the proportion of conservatives has increased because of “increased conservatism.” Is it just me, or is that circular? It tells us nothing. In fact, the entire article tells us very little because (as I have said before) we really don’t know what these terms mean.

But there are several reasons why the country as a whole seems to be drifting to the political right. To begin with, the population is aging and as we grow older we tend to become more conservative — meaning we don’t like change. And, given that we are talking about “dollar conservatism,” in a weak economy people naturally want to hold on to their money. Nothing startling here.

But the really interesting question is why people tend to become conservative in the first place. As suggested, we tend to be more liberal when we are young and more conservative as we grow older. The key factor, it seems to me, is fear of uncertainty. As young people we fear change less because we are more hopeful (naive?) that change will bring us success (in the terms we tend to measure success in this country). The young tend not to fear much of anything: they think they are invincible. As we grow older we realize that we are not invincible and that change doesn’t always translate into success. In a word, we become more fearful. And this seems to be the root of the issue.

Again, using the terms in the rather loose way we use them, the people who identify themselves as “conservative,” include those in the camp of the spiritually certain who fear that the country is going to the devil. In the middle of that group are those who want to do away with sex education, the teaching of evolution, reintroduce prayer in the schools, and/or do away with government entirely. But the “conservative” group also includes many who do not identify themselves as Christian enthusiasts but who are nevertheless fearful of change in any form. There is some reason for this as the face of the world seems to exhibit so many frowns at present. There are a great many things to fear in a world in which not only the economy is tottering, but violence is forever in the news, terrorism is an ever-present possibility anywhere and at any time, and hatred seems to be the rule of the day. It takes a person who is either in denial or who has a great deal of hope to be sanguine these days. And there seems to be a smaller number of these people as each day passes.

Hope is regarded in the New Testament as one of the three cardinal virtues, along with faith and love. And the hope mandated in the New Testament is based on the conviction that a better day is coming, and that particular conviction grows weaker every day — even among the religious right that should be the one group in this country that has hope in abundance. The expectation that there is a better world, the hope that we will be happier after we leave this world, has grown weaker since the First World War, as cultural historians have noted many times. As long as one focuses attention on this world — and especially on the kind of “lifestyle” one wants to achieve in this world — there can be hope only as long as there is considerable optimism, as there was in this country just prior to the Great War. And as things in this world seem more and more uncertain and even frightening, it follows that we will become more and more conservative, clinging to the things we know and are closest to us and fearing anything that threatens to take those things away.

In a word, it stands to reason that as a culture the more we focus on this world the more fearful we become. The more fearful we become the more conservative. The thing we fear most is change, because there is too much of it, and it always seems to make things worse. Conservatism grows along with uncertainty and fear.