Victorian morality

From Academic Kids

The term Victorian morality applies not only to the moral views of people living at the time of Queen Victoria (reigned 1837 - 1901), but also to the general moral climate of Britain throughout the 19th century and to anybody who adopts similar moral opinions.

Historians now regard the Victorian era as one of many contradictions. A plethora of social movements concerned with improving public morals co-existed with a class system which allowed the persistence of harsh living conditions for many. Possibly many people might perceive a contradiction between the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity and restraint and the widespread presence of social phenomena which include prostitution, child labour, and an imperialistic colonising economy. However, one can also view these apparent contradictions as two sides of the same coin, since the various social reform movements and high principles had origins in attempts to improve the harsh conditions. -- The term Victorian has acquired a range of connotations, including that of a particularly strict set of moral standards, often applied hypocritically. This stems from the image of Queen Victoria herself -- and her husband, Prince Albert, perhaps even more so -- as innocents, unaware of the private habits of many of her respectable subjects - this particularly relates to their sex lives. This image has little accuracy. Victoria's attitude to sexual morality actually sprang from her knowledge of the corrosive effect which the loose morals of the aristocracy in earlier reigns had had on the public's respect for the nobility and the Crown.

Two hundred years earlier the puritan republican movement and Oliver Cromwell had temporarily overthrown the British monarchy. During England's years as a republic, the law imposed a strict moral code of fundamentalist Christianity on the people (even abolishing Christmas as too indulgent of the sensual pleasures).

By reaction, when the monarchy was restored a period of loose living and debauchery had resulted. See: King Charles II of England. The two social forces of puritanism and libertinism continued to motivate the collective psyche of the United Kingdom from the restoration onward. It is interesting to examine these social forces in relation to Hegel's theory of historical dialectic.

By the time of Victoria the interplay between high cultured morals and low vulgarity was thoroughly embedded in the culture.

Victorian prudery sometimes went so far as to deem it improper to say "leg" in mixed company (the preferred euphemism if such must be mentioned was "limb"), and people would even put skirts on piano legs in the name of modesty. Those going for a dip in the sea at the beach would use a bathing machine. Verbal or written communication of emotion or sexual feelings was also often verboten so people instead used the language of flowers.

Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, only four years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. The anti-slavery movement had campaigned for years to achieve the ban, succeeding with a partial abolition in 1807 and the full ban in 1833. It had taken so long because the anti-slavery morality was pitted against a powerful capitalist element in the empire which claimed that their businesses would be destroyed if they were not permitted to exploit slave labour. Eventually plantation owners in the Caribbean received 20 million in compensation.

In Victoria's time the British Royal Navy patrolled the Atlantic, stopping any ships which it suspected of trading African slaves to the Americas and freeing any slaves found. The British had set up a Crown Colony in West Africa --Sierra Leone -- and transported freed slaves there. Freed slaves from Nova Scotia founded and named the capital of Sierra Leone: Freetown. Thus, when Victoria became Queen the British could bask on the high moral ground as the nation which stood for freedom and decency. Many people living at that time argued that the conditions under which workers in English factories lived seemed worse than those which some of the slaves had endured.

In the same way, throughout the Victoran Era, movements for justice, freedom and other strong moral values opposed greed, exploitation and cynicism. The writings of Charles Dickens in particular observed and recorded these conditions. Marx and Engels carried out much of their analysis of capitalism in and as a reaction to Victorian Britain.

See also: sexual repression, sexual norm

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