From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
From Booklist, February 1, 1995
When in 1983 Margaret Thatcher enthusiastically replied, "Oh exactly," to an interviewer's snippy remark that she seemed to approve of "Victorian values," she touched off the heated contemporary discussion of values that luckily has eventuated in this superb reconsideration of Victorian moral attitudes. What we call - thanks to the secularizing influences of Nietzsche and Weber - values, Victorians called virtues. In their minds, those included dedication to family, hard work, thrift, cleanliness, self-reliance, self-respect (which is not similar to modern self-esteem), neighborliness, and patriotism. Drawing on a panoply of the foremost Victorian social critics and commentators as well as historical statistics, Himmelfarb demonstrates that especially English but also U.S. nineteenth-century society was exceptionally socially minded. The working class and the poor strove to live by the same moral standards the middle and even the upper classes observed, and the result was a social order in which schooling spread, incomes rose, outsiders, especially Jews, were assimilated and often admired, women's rights expanded, and crime rates fell - all while urbanization and industrialization boomed and, indeed, demonstrably made England "a more civil, more pacific, more humane society." Neither puritanical nor hypocritical, the moral Victorian era stands in sharp contrast to "de-moralized" post-World War II England and America, as Himmelfarb shows in a long epilogue that ends in hopes for a new reformation that "will restore not so much Victorian values as a more abiding sense of moral and civic virtues." This is intellectual history and historically based argument as good as they get. Ray Olson - Copyright© 1995, American Library Association. All rights reserved.