cover image The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain, 1789–1837

The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain, 1789–1837

Ben Wilson, . . Penguin Press, $27.95 (445pp) ISBN 978-1-59420-116-5

In this stimulating cultural history, Britain starts out vulgar, drunken, plain-spoken, unruly and sexually relaxed, but ends up prim, abstemious, euphemistic, conformist and sexually repressed—a reversal that was bitterly contested at every step. British historian Wilson links the sea change to fears of French invasion, domestic revolution and the demands of a burgeoning but unstable industrial capitalism. In response to these upheavals, he contends, a Scroogeian alliance of evangelical philanthropists, secular utilitarians and free-market ideologues blamed individual moral turpitude for crime, poverty and social turmoil, insisting that only imposed values of sexual propriety, hard work, self-denial and refined manners could save society. But creeping Victorianism, Wilson notes, was resisted by populists, Romantics and those "nostalgic for the free and easy, tolerant and gregarious culture of previous generations." These resisters denounced moral reformers as snobs, joyless Puritans, bullies and champions of a hypocritical "age of cant." Wilson's heart is with these dissidents, though his head doesn't entirely reject high-minded proto-Victorian impulses. He traces the conflict through a discursive, elegantly written survey of a wide range of subjects, from quack patent medicines to aristocratic sex scandals to London theater riots. The result is an insightful portrait of a culture war that's strongly reminiscent of modern-day America's. Photos. (Mar. 19)