Private Lives, Public Spirit; Women’s Voices 1880-1918; & London in the 1890s
Geoffrey Crossick reviews three new books on society in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.
Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain 1870-1914 by Jose Harris (Clarendon Press x +238 pp.)
Women’s Voices 1880-1918: The New Woman, edited by Juliet Gardiner (Collins & Brown x + 810 pp.)
London in the 1890s: A Cultural History by Karl Beckson (W.VV. Norton xviii + 445 pp.)
As the western world becomes increasingly conscious that a century is drawing to its close, one can hardly be critical of our predecessors at the end of the nineteenth century who saw their own fin de siècle as a period of challenge and uncertainty. Indeed, we should perhaps be even less critical, for our rush to meet that challenge will lead us to celebrate the new century – the new millennium in our case – a year early. Victorians at least knew to wait for January 1st, 1901. Historians may feel superior to the notion of fin de siècle, but it remains frustratingly hard to resist. Artists and intellectuals, even politicians, thought that it was real as the nineteenth century drew to its close, and thus made it so. There were the literary and artistic iconoclasts who inhabit the pages of Karl Beckson's fascinating if mis-titled study. There was the debate about the New Woman, from which Juliet Gardiner has drawn her collection of extracts from contemporary sources. Most broadly, there were the uncertainties of a society in transition, whose ambiguities are well captured in Jose Harris' scholarly survey.
Historians have found it hard to come to grips with these years between mid-Victorian liberal optimism and the shattering experiences of the First World War. A good deal seems clear – the economic problems of depression and the difficulties faced by British industry in adapting to a more competitive world; the need to reshape social policy in a world where recipients were often voters and increasingly thought of as citizens; the forging of national cultural identity around 'Englishness' and the impact of Empire on British culture; and the intellectual and then political challenge to Victorian gender relations.
The end of a century always invites historians to see it as a period of change, but the years around 1900 do indeed seem to mark major transitions in British society. Yet, in contrast to other periods of British social history, we have had to wait for an overview that can be safely recommended to general readers and to students. Jose Harris, in the most significant of the three books under review and the one which will rightly be the most widely read (especially when it takes its place in the Penguin Social History of Britain series), makes a brave and impressive effort to grasp a period which has so far proved so elusive.
Harris argues that too much has been made of the First World War as a turning point in British society, for many of the trends stressed by historians of inter-war Britain were becoming visible by the later nineteenth century. Indeed, she argues that the key turning points in British social development were not the world wars of conventional analysis, but the 1870s-1880s and 1960s-1970s. The true watershed in her period – whether we look at demography; family life, the control of urban conditions, mass education and mass culture, or the identity of the ruling class – came not at its close but at its beginning. After a rapid opening overview, the book is structured around a set of thematic chapters: demography, family and household, property, work, religion, society and state, and society and social theory. If certain central themes of the period fail to get the focused attention that they require – the emergence of the labour movement, the transformation of popular leisure, and the supposed link between entrepreneurial culture and industrial decline all come to mind – this is a challenging structure and an illuminating one.
There is much food for thought in these tightly-argued chapters. Harris shows that at a time when the middle-class family was becoming less cohesive, the nature and quality of working-class family life moved in the opposite direction, with the role of the mother enhanced not only in pragmatic ways but also in a new emphasis on the importance of motherhood in state policy and social welfare. Indeed, the state and its role is a major theme of the book, as one would expect of a historian whose earlier work concentrated impressively on the development of social policy. By the turn of the century, she argues, government, citizenship and social welfare were increasingly linked in debate and policy. Yet this was a deeply unequal society – more unequal she argues than other European countries – but one which was astonishingly law-abiding, developing a surprising degree of social and institutional cohesion. The promotion of public virtue to enhance that cohesion became a central concern of social theory – moral character and active citizenship, it was agreed, were essential to a well-ordered society and a virtuous state.
Private Lives, Public Spirit is an impressive and at times innovative discussion of these years, but it is a lean analysis, bare of the detailed examples, the colour and the narrative which help the student to see the flesh on the bones of the historical process. Furthermore, Harris' own repeated stress on continuities and counter-currents, on building a generalisation only to qualify it with contrary examples, can not only be frustrating, it might also obscure the fact that the author does indeed feel that major changes were underway.
Juliet Gardiner's selection of contemporary writings on the social and private role of women between 1880 and the end of the Great War will prove invaluable for teaching. In these years the women's question, never absent from nineteenth-century debate, broadened beyond precise matters of legal and political rights for the first time since the Owenite feminists of the 1840s. Debate now spilled over into many spheres – including marriage, sexuality, the nature of some- one's work and concepts of independence. The New Woman, as she was identified by critics and fearful men more than by those whom the term claimed to describe, wanted education, economic independence, sexual equality, and the vote. Gardiner's texts organised into chapters on the New Woman, education, work, marriage, the vote and the war – remind us of how limited is a study of women and the women's movement in these years which looks narrowly at the suffrage question.
If there is a weakness of balance, it is that the extracts tell us too little about the women who were reconstructing their own world in less conflictual ways. The chapter on education thus tells us much about girls and women students, but nothing of the way women as schoolteachers were often reshaping education and their own social relations at work. The chapter on the public political sphere likewise embeds itself in the suffrage question while barely recognising the creative activity of women on School Boards, in Poor Law administration, in charitable organisations. More generally, while the book is invaluable in showing the real sense among contemporary opinion that there was some thing called the New Woman we are given little guidance in assessing the extent to which she was a reality. Editorial introductions of a more substantial kind would have helped – no more than two or three pages introduce the reader to the theme of each chapter, while the extracts themselves are supported by only brief biographical details.
Karl Beckson's study of London's writers, artists and intellectuals in the 1890s has a chapter on the New Woman, one whose focus on her as a short-lived literary image is absent from Gardiner's volume but the chapter provides a rare point of contact between London in the 1890s and the other books under review. This is not 'a cultural history' as a social historian would see it, nor is it a study of London in the 1890s. It is about a small world in which the older Victorian certainties were losing confidence, and finding themselves challenged by forces such as the New Woman, the New Dramatists, the New Hedonists, the New Naturalists, Aesthetes, and Decadents. A limited world this may be, and a limited conception of cultural history, but Beckson has written an engaging and enjoyable study of that world. Detailed chapters tell us about the Decadents, about literary socialists, under Uranians, the Wilde trials, Whistler, the Wagnerites, the new drama, the struggle to find an acceptable Poet Laureate, and much more.
Beckson tells his tales well, yet the wider analysis, the question of what these different tendencies amounted to, gets far less attention. He too sees the ambivalence of this fin de siècle, too rapidly caricatured as 'declining victorianism' and 'rising Modernism'. His general analysis goes little beyond statements such as that 'an entire age was simultaneously coming to an end as another was in the process of formation'. As a result, the book must be read as a fascinating collection of individual chapters whose wider meaning remains unexplored. That is how Beckson's writers would have wanted it, for they were generally more interested in breaking, than affirming, large systems, but more was needed if we were to make sense of his absorbing material.
Geoffrey Crossick is the co-author of the forthcoming The Petite Bourgeoisie in Europe 1780-1939 for Routledge
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