Monday, 15 January 2018

Exploration and evolution: Darwin and Wallace

Here is the most fabulous site, with all Charles Darwin's works available online.

Darwin in 1854
Public domain

The context

Science is not value-free, and the language and concepts of Darwinism are those of the economic and social doctrines of the time. Darwin's Origin of Species was published at a particularly sensitive time, when scientists were making a bid for cultural supremacy.

The keystone of traditional naturalism was Archdeacon William Paley’s Natural Theology, which Darwin studied at Cambridge. The argument was simple and apparently convincing:
  • Life was good because through the kindness of God, all human beings were adapted to their surroundings;
  • Animals, including humans, are complex beings from the divine workshop, exquisitely fitted to their place in the world.
  • This proves there must be a designer.
Paley was writing during the wars with France, at a time of great social and political upheaval, his science legitimized the existing social order, and his conservative politics were unacceptable to radicals and to rationalist Unitarians such as Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather. But Paley’s followers included not merely naturalists at the university, but also scores of vicar-naturalists working in their parishes.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

An age of faith? An age of doubt?

'The Doubt: Can These Dry Bones Live"'
Henry Alexander Bowler (1855)
Tate Britain. Image released under Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

‘Contemporaries agonized over those who did not float upon the flood of faith. We marvel at the number who did.’ Theodore Hoppen, The Mid Victorian Generation (Oxford, 1998), p. 425.
See here for a very comprehensive site.

A crisis of faith?

The Victorian period saw some well-publicised crises of faith, often caused by the new scientific discoveries. Two of the most prominent intellectuals to lose their Christian faith were Charles Darwin and George Eliot. In 1869 Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term 'agnostic'. 

Alfred Lord Tennyson
Carbon print by Julia Margaret Cameron
The Art Institute of Chicago
Public domain

Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam arose out of his grief at the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam, but also engaged with the problem of the cruelty of nature. It was inspired by Robert Chambers' Vestiges of Creation (1844) and is the first poem in English to mention the dinosaurs. Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach lamented the decline of Christianity.

Modern scholarship, however, is more inclined to stress the strength and resilience of Victorian religion. The nineteenth century was an age of doubt but it was also an age of faith, with a high level of biblical literacy. Preachers like the Baptist, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and the American evangelists, Moody and Sankey, drew large crowds. It was the age of hymn-writing, church-building and overseas missions, and the well-publicised doubts of the intellectuals were not typical of the mass of the population. 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Victorian prostitution and the fight against the Contagious Diseases Acts

'Found', by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Delaware Art Museum
Public domain

The Acts

Victorian prostitutes mainly served working-class men in squalid conditions, and their typical clients were soldiers and sailors, who tended to be single because of their conditions of service. Their middle-class clients were mainly young single men (rather than married men). At Oxford in the 1840s the proctors’ records suggest a figure of between 300 and 400 prostitutes in a city of 25,000 people of whom 1,500 were students.  

Prostitution was a widely-recognised social problem that occupied many philanthropists, such as the wealthy heiress, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who founded a home for young women, Urania Cottage. See here for Dickens's involvement with the scheme. There are interesting discussions here and here.

The three euphemistically titled Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, 1869) were an attempt by the British government to regulate prostitution in the manner of other European countries such as France in order to reduce the sexually transmitted diseases that plagued the British army and navy. The acts applied to specifically named ports and garrison towns, although the ultimate intention was to include all of Britain.   

The first Act stipulated that within a radius of eleven army camps and naval ports, a woman suspected of prostitution had to register with the police and receive a compulsory medical examination. If the examination revealed disease, she would be confined to a ‘lock’ hospital for a period of up to three months.

The Act of 1864 was replaced by a new Act in 1866, which added Chatham and Windsor to the number of subjected towns and introduced the enforcement of fortnightly examinations of prostitutes. The third Act of 1869 extended the provisions of the second Act to cover a total of eighteen towns in the British Isles. The maximum period of detention for a diseased prostitute was extended to nine months. 

The CD Acts were administered by units of plainclothes policemen seconded from the Metropolitan Police. They were given sweeping powers to determine who was a prostitute. No warrant or probable cause was needed. The victims were not merely prostitutes but working-class women in general, many of them illiterate, who were locked up without any regard for their legal rights. If a girl signed papers agreeing to an examination, her agreement was a de facto acknowledgement of prostitution. She was then required to be re-examined regularly. If she refused to sign the papers, she could be held in prison for months. 

The examinations were often brutal. Typically, the woman's legs were clamped open and her ankles tied down. Surgical instruments - sometimes not cleaned from prior inspections - were inserted so inexpertly that some women miscarried. Others passed out from the pain or from embarrassment. Some women with harmless conditions were misdiagnosed and locked in hospitals without recourse. 

Because men were not included within the provisions, the Acts embodied the double standards of sexual morality in which prostitution was seen as an unavoidable, and perhaps necessary, evil.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Victorian values: the Angel in the House and the Fallen Woman

The ideology of domesticity

As a reaction to the rackety private lives of some of their predecessors, the queen and Prince Albert set out to create a monarchy rooted in the idea of a happy marriage and domestic values that would give an example to the rest of the country. Walter Bagehot wrote ‘A family on the throne is an interesting idea. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life’.

Victoria and Albert's
Christmas tree
Wikimedia Commons

The ideology of domesticity was set out in the novels and paintings of the period. Home was regarded as a place of calm happiness away from the turmoil of the world of work, and the wife was the guardian of the home. Although women were denied a say in politics, they were nevertheless thought to play a vital part in the ordering of society. It is often said that the Victorian period saw a rigid ideology of separate spheres: the man’s role was public and outward-looking, the woman’s was private and domestic. Women were denied a direct political role, but because the home was a site of national importance, their domestic role was seen as politically important. If a woman went wrong, therefore, this prefigured national disaster.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Samuel Smiles and Self-Help

This post owes a great deal to the many writings of Asa Briggs on Victorian society and ideology.

Samuel Smiles
from the frontispiece of Self-Help
Public domain

1859 was a great year for important books. It saw the publication of George Eliot's Adam Bede, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and Samuel SmilesSelf-Help. Mill set out the attractions of individuality - the need to create a tolerant society (although raising the possibility of the tyranny of the majority); Darwin explained evolution in terms of struggle. These were both controversial books. The third - Self-Help- was not.

Self-Help has now been digitised and can be downloaded from a number of sites. Here is one. It's probably no coincidence that it's American.

The gospel of work

Smiles did not believe he was expounding something controversial but something old and profoundly true - a gospel not a thesis.

Many people have claimed that the Victorians invented the gospel of work - but it can be found in Hogarth’s 'Industry and Idleness' and the whole eighteenth-century ethos of inculcating ‘habits of industry’ in the poor. But the work ethic was given a new vitality by a lapsed Presbyterian, Smiles’s fellow Scotsman, Thomas Carlyle, who had praised the nobility and dignity of work - and he was one of Smiles’s heroes. 

Thomas Carlyle
Public domain

The life of Smiles

Smiles was born in Haddington near Edinburgh in 1812.  Although brought up in an extreme Calvinist sect, he described his youth as ‘frolicsome’ and ‘prodigal’. He admitted in Self-Help that it was more ‘natural’ to be prodigal than thrifty, more easy to be dependent than independent.

John Stuart Mill and On Liberty

John Stuart Mill, c. 1870
London Stereoscopic Company
Public domain

This is only a brief account of Mill's life up to the publication of On Liberty. As a philosopher, colonial administrator, and politician, he was one of the dominating figures of the Victorian age and other aspects of his life and thought are discussed in further blogs. The best modern biography is Richard Reeves, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand (Atlantic Books, 2007)

John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806, the son of James Mill, a Scottish philosopher and economist. He was named after his father’s friend, Sir John Stuart. His mother, Harriet Burrow, seems to have had remarkably little influence on him – she does not merit a single mention in his autobiography. His father a follower of Utilitarianism and the prevailing economic doctrine of political economy.

The young John Stuart Mill had a precocious education, beginning with Greek at the age of three. At about the age of twenty he suffered a sort of mental breakdown and was only rescued by his discovery of poetry. This opened up a wider world of the emotions and moved him on from his father’s severe rationalism.

Because he would not subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles, he was unable to matriculate at Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, he became an administrator in the East India Company.

In 1830 he met at a dinner party Harriet Taylor, the wife of a pharmacist, John Taylor. She became the great love of his life and a profound intellectual influence, and he controversially dedicated his Principles of Political Economy (1848) to her. (It was considered very improper to dedicate a book to another man's wife!) He lived in an uneasy threesome with her and her husband. Two years after  Taylor’s death in 1849 she married Mill.  After seven years of marriage, she died in Avignon in 1858. In the following year, Mill published On Liberty, still regarded as the key text on liberalism.

Here are some quotations to convey some idea of his argument:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will is to prevent harm to others. [Chapter 1]

 If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. … Truth gains even more by the errors of one, who with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. [Ch.2]

The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty or that of progress or improvement. [Ch 3] 


  1. Mill was the supreme exemplar of mid-Victorian liberalism and he is still frequently quoted during debates on freedom.
  2. He believed humans should be left free to make their own mistakes as long as these did not harm others.
  3. He believed in an open market of ideas. Humans would never progress towards the truth if they were denied the freedom to express their opinions or allowed to hear only one side of an argument.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Great Exhibition

Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition
at Hyde Park
Public domain

There is a great deal of interesting material online about the Great Exhibition. See here, and here for good discussions. You can also listen to Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' discussion here.

There are also two good videos on YouTube.

Among the books I've consulted are Asa Briggs, Victorian Things (Batsford, 1998) and Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (HarperPerennial, 2007), especially chapter 1.

Is the opening of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ on 1 May 1851 the great symbolic Victorian event? Certainly this is how the queen seemed to see it in her letter to King Leopold. Palmerston:
‘a glorious day for England’.
The prayers uttered by the archbishop of Canterbury at the opening were the prayers of a successful people, whose God had multiplied blessings on them. His prayer was appropriately followed by the Hallelujah Chorus.

The Exhibition came at a useful time for the government of Lord John Russell, as it was in crisis over ecclesiastical policy and would have fallen if the Conservative Protectionists had been able to present a convincing alternative government. Disraeli saw the Exhibition as
‘a godsend to the Government ... diverting public attention from their blunders’.
But the very idea of the Exhibition was controversial. There was no national funding and Prince Albert had to seek private sponsorship. The Hyde Park site was fiercely attacked and there were complaints that Paxton’s structure was not only not high enough to enclose vast elm trees in full summer leaf but that it obstructed the riders in Rotten Row. Protectionists attacked its free trade ideology. The Ultra Tory MP Colonel Charles Sibthorp described it as
‘an industrial exhibition in the heart of fashionable Belgravia to enable foreigners to rob us of our honour’.
Many prophesied public indifference and financial failure.