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.


The Right to Whinge

I am using one of my new, favorite words that I picked up from watching British mysteries on PBS. The word “whinge” means to whine, or complain bitterly and relentlessly (OK I added the latter based on my own experience. The dictionary simply says “to whine.”). In a recent blog I mentioned how relieved we are here in Minnesota that Spring has finally arrived. But this won’t keep us from whinging about the weather. In fact, I do believe Minnesotans take pride in the fact that the weather in this part of the world goes from one extreme to the other in the blink of an eye. It gives us bragging rights. Just last week it was in the 80’s and a couple of nights ago it was below freezing with snow in the forecast and frost on the roofs in the morning. While not that unusual this is remarkable, but it gives us grounds for some good old whinging. We can complain with the best of them. And since when people meet at the post office or the grocery store they don’t seem to have much to talk about except the weather, Minnesota’s weather gives us something to keep us going for several minutes:

Hey, how you doin’?

Great, you?

Great, but how about this weather? Do you believe it?

I know! Yesterday we were playing golf and today we had to dig out the parkas again.

Yeah, don’t ever put them away until late June. I’ve seen it snow as late as Memorial Day.

I don’t think we’re going to have Spring this year: we’ll just go right from Winter to Summer!

You got that right!

And so on. This could easily go on for several minutes, at least. Contrast that with a meeting between two people in, say, Santa Barbara:

Hey, how you doin’?

Great, and you?

And that’s pretty much it. There really isn’t much to talk about as far as the weather goes because it always seems to be the same. At least it was when I spent a month there many years ago. Every day sunny and warm with temperatures in the middle 70’s. Glorious. But boring as hell. And it leaves two strangers with nothing whatever to talk about! Or, more importantly, to whinge about. If these two people don’t drive the same kind of car, didn’t attend the same schools, or the local teams didn’t play last night, they have nothing more to say to one another. I don’t know how they do it! While we in Minnesota can complain about the cold in the Winters and turn about and complain just as loudly and long about the damnable heat in the Summers, where it can reach 100 degrees. There’s simply no predicting what tomorrow will bring. Except that it will bring loud complaints and a quiet sense of pride from those of us in Minnesota who know it makes us tough and we will always have a topic to talk about when we meet people on the streets.

[You probably heard that Willie Manning (yesterday’s blog) got a stay of execution. It does give one hope. Have a great day.  I’m on a break. ‘See you in about a week.]

Give ‘Em What They Want!

My latest love affair is with the delightful British comedy “Rev” on PBS. A recent episode was especially interesting. As the Rev’s wife tried to think of ways to spice up their sex life, the Rev found himself with a mess of problems. He is the newest vicar at a large inner-city Church in London that is struggling to remain open. It has a regular congregation of around 20 parishioners and an Archdeacon who is always in the Rev’s face about “numbers.”

In this episode the Rev is distraught just after delivering his sermon to about seven people when there suddenly appears a tall, good-looking man who professes to be a vicar himself whose church is under repair; he asks if he can bring his congregation to the Rev’s church on Sunday. If it works out they would continue to come until his own church is repaired. This delights the Rev who has been told that the Archdeacon will attend next Sunday’s service to count noses. It’s an answer to the Rev’s prayers. Be careful what you wish for.

The new vicar moves comfortable furniture into the back of the church, sets up a smoothie bar and installs a sound system to carry his voice to the far reaches of a crowded church — which is exactly what he has to do on Sunday as, helped by the rap star “Icon,” he takes the floor away from the Rev and proceeds to put on a performance for several hundred screaming young “believers.” The session is so successful the new man is able to hand the Rev a check for £10,000 at the end of the day — to the delight of the Archdeacon and the chagrin of the Rev. It’s not what he thinks religion should be: religion is not about spectacle and giving the folks what they want; it’s not about large checks at the end of the day. It’s about teaching the gospel and helping folks turn their attention to more important things than smoothies and rap music.

The point of the episode was made clear in amusing fashion, especially interspersed as it was with the Rev’s wife’s various role-playing attempts to seduce him in dark corners. But the point rings true as traditional churches are closing their doors — in England many of them have been turned into flats or even into public houses — while the non-traditional churches give the folks what they want and realize growing numbers of “believers” who are all told they are terrific, that Jesus loves them no matter what, and they don’t really have to change a thing no matter how much they hate people who aren’t like them.

The movement to give the folks what they want has indeed taken off. And why wouldn’t it? It is certainly a major movement in the schools as teachers entertain students to keep them awake and the students are constantly told they are wonderful and can do no wrong — the leading edge of the self-esteem movement that has gained ascendency in educational “theory” these days, giving rise to a deep sense of entitlement on the part of so many people. In fact, the culture as a whole has come to think that struggling is wrong and to expect everything handed to them with little or no effort whatever. I hate to say it, but this is the kernel of truth at the heart of the Republican rhetoric that insists we are losing our freedom to government handouts. There is indeed some truth in this, but it is a message that is lost in the forest of political exaggeration and hysteria and is generally falling on ears deafened by rap music, stomachs filled with fatbergers, and attention turned to the next large purchase.

The Rev ends up sending the tall young man on his way . But it takes a confrontation between the Rev and his nemesis who demands the eviction of one of the old parishioners who has, in the ecstasy of the moment as emotions ran high during the service, pinched one of the young women in the ass. The Rev, backed by the Archdeacon, stands his ground: we cannot deny church attendance to anyone. The young man leaves in a huff and the Rev goes back to preaching to his empty church. Unfortunately we cannot dismiss entitlement and unwarranted self-esteem that easily. They seem to be here to stay.