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
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
Lo, parch'd and wither'd, deaf and
I whirl like leaves in roaring
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
With one long kiss my whole soul
My lips, as sunlight drinketh
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
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
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
Those poor Victorians!