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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Great Victorian Moralists

The funny thing is, when I try to think of Victorian Moralists, I have a hard time doing so.  There's Dickens, yes, well, definitely, and then there's... well, Dickens.  There's George Eliot, very moral.  But then, do moral ladies really go around taking men's names?  And the Brontes - forget about it!  Have you read Wuthering Heights?
Who else?  There must have been scads of them, right?
There's Darwin.  He was a Victorian, and he was definitely a model of probity.  But do we really consider him a moralist if what he says so scandalizes the public?  Freud's another one - he's Viennese, I know, but still the same era.  Aren't moralists of the Victorian stripe forbidden from talking about certain topics?
When I think of my favorite Victorian writers - I'm including both sides of the pond here - they don't seem the least bit Victorian.  Oscar Wilde who said, "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."  Mark Twain (crossing the pond here) who said, "Honesty is the best policy - when there is money in it."  Abrose Bierce (still across the pond) who said, "Calamities are of two kinds: misfortunes to ourselves, and good fortune to others."  Saki (back in England) "You can't expect a boy to be vicious till he's been to a good school."  Lewis Carroll, "Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."  W S Gilbert, "No one can have a higher opinion of him than I have - and I think he is a dirty little beast."
Well, you get the idea.  Obviously I have a sweet tooth for humorists, but I think the list above is maybe more typical of Victorianism than Dickens.  And all of these folks are true moralists: they expose fraudulent public morals in the name of a greater standard.  Ditto for Darwin and Freud.
As G B Shaw, that other great Victorian moralist puts it, "My method is to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity."  Or - W S Gilbert again, "He who'd make his fellow creature wise must always gild the philosophic pill."

1 comment:

  1. Haven't read it in years, but I remember the description of Victorian values in The French Lieutenant's Woman: only the upper class had a right to church and morality and the instinct to truly recognize the pathway to heaven. Where I grew up it was only the Baptists.