Back to the Index Page


The Poor Victorians by Arthur Machen


We all know what the poor Victorians were like. We have heard all about them over and over again. To begin with, they were prim. They were proper. They always went to bed early. Their only form of revelry consisted in tea-parties. The laws of their lives were dictated to them by maiden ladies and the vicar's wife. When the maiden ladies and the vicar's wife said that so-and-so was 'not quite nice,' or 'not at all the kind of thing that we expect to meet with in Dulchester,' there was an end of it, whatever 'it' was. Profligacy—displayed, let us say, by smoking a cigar in the High Street—was reproved, and genius, if it had said anything contrary to the maiden standard of Dulchester, thenceforth held its peace. So much for life; as for the arts in the Victorian era; they could not properly be said to exist. Here, too, the ladies of Dulchester were all mighty. Nobody spoke out; nobody dared to be 'daring.' No picture was painted that went beyond the vision of the Young Person. No poem that the Curate might possibly dislike was ever written. If you were at heart a gay dog you must keep your gaiety dark; else the County would reject you. If you were a moral sort of fellow and had an inclination to rebuke vice, you had to hold your tongue equally; since vice and immorality and all that sort of thing were not so much as to be mentioned. You were not to know that such things existed; since the existence of such things was not recognized at Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, and what those young ladies did not know, nobody was supposed to know. As to love; the word was, beware! Above all there must be no faintest hint of the vital things, of any sort of realities. You might be weakly sentimental, but you must never be fervid. You must not have 'ideas.' You must never stray for one moment from the pink-and-white drawing-room carpet. The convention was laid strictly down for you and no Victorian ever thought of departing from it. And then, all questions of morality and passion apart, the Victorian author was strictly required to keep his pages free of everything 'disagreeable' or 'unpleasant.' After all, the great rule applied here as everywhere else; he was not to write anything that he would hesitate to utter in the Vicarage drawing-room full of maiden ladies and curates and Young Persons. One did not in this sacred place talk about disagreeable things; equally one must not write about them. And so on, and so on; the general conclusion being that the Victorians couldn't write, couldn't paint, couldn't think, and couldn't properly be said to be alive at all. They lived and moved in a world of prim, feeble, old-maidish, curatical, school-girlish pretences, their chief object being to avoid telling or hearing the truth about any subject whatever.

There you are, with your accepted and recognized picture of the Victorian Age. And is it not enough to make one despair of all history? If this nonsense can be written and believed of a period close to our own of a time which many of us remember perfectly well, of an age which has left a great body of documents behind it; if this mendacious rubbish, I say, can pass current as fact; what is the good of trying to find out what life was like in the seventeenth century, or in the seventh century? If the near is so hopelessly misrepresented, how will it fare with the remote? For, to come to the documents; this is the manner in which one of the mild Victorian poets wrote of the passion of love.

O Love, Love, Love! O withering might!
O sun that from thy noonday height
Shudderest when I strain my sight,
Throbbing thro' all thy heat and light.
Lo, falling from my constant mind,
Lo, parch'd and wither'd, deaf and blind,
I whirl like leaves in roaring wind.
Last night, when some one spoke his name,
From my swift blood that went and came
A thousand little shafts of flame
Were shiver'd in my narrow frame.
O Love, O fire! once he drew
With one long kiss my whole soul thro'
My lips, as sunlight drinketh dew.

Thus wrote Victorian Tennyson. It does not remind me of Miss Pinkerton's Academy or the Vicarage drawing-room.

A little solemn, do you think? Well, let us try

Lazy, laughing, languid Jenny
Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea.
... Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace
Thus with your head upon my knee:
Whose person or whose purse may be
The lodestar of your reverie?

Pretty well, in the way of frankness, it seems to me. The lines are the work of an eminent mid-Victorian, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. And anybody who is not satisfied may be referred to the first series of Poems and Ballads by another eminent mid-Victorian, Algernon Charles Swinburne. And then, as to that other well-known Victorian rule, that you must never mention anything that is not quite nice: listen to this. A well-known character in a novel of this prim age was sent to request the loan of a knife and fork.

'Captain Hopkins lent me the knife and fork, with his compliments to Mr. Micawber. There was a very dirty lady in his little room, and two wan girls, his daughters, with shock heads of hair. I thought it was better to borrow Captain Hopkins' knife and fork, than Captain Hopkins' comb.'

That is not nice, but it was written by Charles Dickens. And do you know the same author's description of the birth of Little Dorrit? The midwife is speaking.

'The flies trouble you, don't they, my dear?' said Mrs. Bangham. 'But p'raps they'll take your mind off it, and do you good. What between the buryin' ground, the grocers, the wagon-stables, and the paunch trade, the Marshalsea flies gets very large. P'raps they're sent as a consolation, if we only know'd it. How are you now, my dear? No better? No, my dear, it ain't to be expected; you'll be worse before you're better, and you know it, don't you? Yes.'

Really, you know, this account of a confinement in a gaol, with all its nauseous circumstances, is by no means prim, curatical, or old-maidish. It does not at all fit in with the picture of the pink-and-white drawing-room in which the souls and bodies of the Victorians are supposed, in popular belief, to have dwelt.

And the Victorians all went to bed early after a cup of weak tea? Did they! I have just turned up a mid-Victorian magazine, The Welcome Guest, published in 1858. I open it at a picture: 'Midnight: Supper Rooms in the Haymarket.' It illustrates George Augustus Sala's 'Twice Round the Clock,' and the text tells how the playgoers pour out of the theatres and pour into the Haymarket to eat expensive French dishes, to drink Clos Vougeot, Lafitte and 'Chambertin with yellow seal'; to eat chops, steaks, kidneys, sausages or Welsh rabbit 'washed down by the homely British brown stout, and followed, perchance, by the soothing cigar and the jorum of hot anything and water'; but above all to eat oysters. Why, in our mad daring days the mere cigar purchased at midnight is a criminal offence; and as to Burgundy, stout and 'something hot,' all that is a Star Chamber matter.

And be it remembered, these Haymarket supper-rooms were the early places for people who wanted to get home in good time. For the real amateurs of supper there was Evans', and one o'clock was the time to go to Evans', if you would sup like a man. You took a few oysters at the Haymarket, but that as a mere whet to the appetite. Great people have always had strong stomachs, says Sala—in italics—and forthwith he tells us how men supped in the mid-Victorian age; he described the mountains of kidneys, chops, sausages, the pints of stout, the creaming Scotch ale, the mighty measures of punch and grog; and all this beginning at one o'clock in the morning.

So it was in prim 1858; and we, we mad Georgian revellers, we may not buy so much as a cigarette after eight o'clock at night.

The truth is, of course, that the Victorian age, more especially the early and mid-Victorian ages, were times of jollity, and times of liberty, both in life and in letters. Those people who took a dozen oysters in the Haymarket at midnight and strolled off to Covent Garden to eat great suppers at Evans' would not have believed that their grandsons would submit to be smacked and sent to bed early like naughty children. And as in life, so in letters. What the mid-Victorians wrote, whether it were well or ill, was written with a relish. We have lost all that. For Evans' and his 'jolly suppers, his brown stout and his hot grog to follow' at one, two, three in the morning; what have we? The subterranean night-club, mean, debauched, futile, bloodless, the places where adulterated whisky is called 'ginger ale,' and drunk in coffee cups with an air of tremendous devilry, where the guests are spectres of the gutter, dissolute reptiles destitute utterly of all mirth, all gaiety and all jollity, where silly flappers get their 'snow,' and set the first scene of their squalid little tragedies. Jolly? Why, a mortuary is a gay scene by comparison.

And so with art and letters. Cubism, Vorticism, Post-Impressionism; verse that doesn't scan and doesn't rhyme; novels that make one think of a stupid post-mortem or a dull dissection; this is what we have in place of Tennyson, Swinburne, Rossetti, Dickens, Thackeray, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the great illustrators of the despised age, the wood-engravers whose work has become to us miraculous.

Those poor Victorians!


Back to the Index Page