Victorian literature

The coarse word condemns the sin; the refined word excuses it. This is the secret relationship between Victorian Bowdlerism, & the postmodern politically correct. My thanks as so often recently to Mr G.K. Chesterton for pointing this out, while I was waking this morning. Our conversation, which has grown much rounder since I joined Holy Church, derives in this instance from a book he wrote in 1913, one nice & precise century ago. He was still an Anglican then, nearly a decade before he would himself be Received (at something like the age at which I was). The book was The Victorian Age in Literature, a little volume in the Home University Library lent me by one of those priests who haunt Parkdale, & which turns out the most astute assessment of its topic I have seen. This is not light praise: for I have several times been mistaken for an English Perfesser, & own the regulation tweed jacket.

Chesterton’s epigrammatic remark, on the coarse & the refined, is characteristic of him: plain, simple, & powerful enough to bring down the curtain wall of the castle. Moreover, it was one in a series of densely-packed epigrams, their fuses connected in unimpeachably logical order. Having made his hole, he then charges through, & up the towers with grappling hooks, taking in due course the crenellated turrets of George Eliot & John Stuart Mill. From there he surveys the keep. But he does not deny they are towers, did not belittle them while climbing, has not hesitated to show what is best & most impressive in their works. Nor, what is completely missing. For example: the curiously telling observation that George Eliot has humour, & everything else required of great literature, except “glamour.” Or, that Jane Austen could do something none of the Victorian woman novelists who came after her could do, which was, look at a man coolly. And a hundred more remarks as startling & revealing. Chesterton makes me appreciate the best in authors I am inclined to abhor (Carlyle, for instance), & assures me that he appreciates the merits in those I love but find nearly indefensible (Ruskin).

Almost invariably, there is real depth beneath the surface glitter. Chesterton attributes the polite (but anxious) discretion of the Victorian Age to the emergence of women as writers “equal” with, even greater than the men, in the remarkably original genre of the Victorian novel; then clinches this by observing that whereas no woman could have written Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748), a woman could perhaps have written Thackeray’s Henry Esmond (1852). And this thrown off, in the course of developing a larger argument about the “Victorian compromise” — the bastion of a semi-official Utilitarianism, absorbing shocks on every side, from literary, artistic, & religious rebels, & being in some sense reshaped by them. Too, mutual absorption with an accommodating background religious tradition, long since undermined; ending finally in deadlock when this Christian faith refuses to disappear.

The 20th century began on the 28th of June, 1914, & was as Solzhenitsyn declared, godless, in the main. Yet the peculiar nature of the godlessness of that short century (which ended in 1989) was not its own creation. True, it is prefigured in the French Revolution; in the French, German, & Scottish “Enlightenments.” But it is moderated & systematized in the Victorian literature that Chesterton has analyzed in this little book, & presented so clearly that we, who were creatures of the 20th century, can see ourselves in the mirror. Our essentially Victorian scheme of Progress, on the Utilitarian model, marched triumphantly forward through Auschwitz & the Gulag, into a world quite unlike that which the Victorians inhabited; a world they could not have imagined. But they provided the moral callousing with which we endured it.

“Progress” in itself means nothing — for what are we progressing towards? — unless given the direction which Utilitarianism gave it, at first explicitly, later implicitly. Chesterton demonstrates what Utilitarianism is: the old Puritan impulse, stripped of its Christian dogmatic content. Through the Victorian age, & great Victorian minds, it was able to assimilate what it initially lacked as an alternative religion. The genius of the age was to make armed & dangerous a worldview which, left only to its own resources, was merely boring & asinine: to provide it with the cosmology of Darwin, & the psychopathology of Karl Marx. But it was more than the triumph of scientism. Through brilliantly agnostic novels, for instance, it reduced the poetic to the mundane.

I see that Dale Ahlquist already flagged a note the publishers affixed to the front of this little, century-old volume. It explains that the book is not an “authoritative history of Victorian literature,” but only a “free & personal statement” of the “views & impressions” of its author. In other words, no author with “views” can be an authority. This is something I have been forced to accept about the world in which we have been living, ever since: that authority can come only from a committee; that “the personal” is inherently invalid; that unless vacuity can be guaranteed, no moral or intellectual argument has standing. In a further prefatory note, Chesterton himself is made to apologize for the way his religious beliefs may have contaminated his judgement. But with that out of the way, he proceeds to tell something that must have made his publishers feel awkward & uncomfortable: the truth.