Lost Victorians

John Gardiner searches for the historical moment when our Victorian forebears went missing from the popular consciousness.

In hot pursuit of political success during the early 1980s Margaret Thatcher famously invoked a set of 'Victorian values': belief in duty, patriotism, self-help, and so on. That these values were highly selective almost nobody seemed to mind. This is symptomatic of what we might call the 'loss' of the Victorians - the way in which an intimate appreciation of the people and values of the nineteenth century has slipped from the popular consciousness.

Of course this 'loss' might hardly be cause for surprise. As people recede into what the novelist L.P. Hartley called the 'foreign country' of the past, their values become alien and the intricate details of their lives susceptible to easy generalisation. This is a process which happens to every historical period or generation - no doubt the Victorians had a similar experience with their own memories of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries. But the 'loss' of the Victorians in the twentieth-century has certain features unique to our own time.

There is a commonly voiced Whiggish version of this 'loss' which has it that the Victorians were rejected after the First World War. That war, many historical commentators argue, crystallised the growing anti-Victorian mood to be found before 1914 in the plays of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and the novels of H.G.Wells and Samuel Butler. But the text which more than anything else signalled a break with the past was Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918), a study of the lives of Cardinal Manning, Thomas Arnold, Florence Nightingale and General Gordon. Strachey's book gave rise to a fashion for 'debunking' literature (traceable in the writings of Harold Nicolson, Osbert Sitwell and others) which left the Victorian achievement in tatters by the close of the inter-war period.

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