Monday, May 5, 2014

Book Review: Life in Victorian Britain

I've been on a real library kick lately. As usual, my selections are a bit eclectic, from biographies to travelogues to salacious romance novels. My latest haul had a strong focus on Victoriana, and so my next few book reviews will have a theme. I've always found Queen Victoria fascinating, from her personal life and relationships, to her interactions with politicians and the way she shaped the current sense of monarchy. Victorian culture, as well, has always been interesting, from its fashions to its literature. (Except Dickens. Never, never Dickens.)

This all lead me to Life in Victorian Britain: A Social History of Queen Victoria's Reign by Michael Patterson. It was a nicely abridged version of Victorian history and social mores. Surprisingly, I found many things from that time which I can still relate to today, or perhaps aspire to. I selected a few quotes from Patterson's work that I found thought-provoking to share with you. While the book covered far, far more than philanthropy, I found the Victorian emphasis on good works to be personally inspiring. Sometimes I forget how fortunate I am.

One of the many attractive qualities of comfortably-off Victorians was their sincere concern for the unfortunate. There was a genuine desire, in an age that saw itself as enlightened and progressive, to better the lot of the destitute.

It is interesting to contrast this idea with the American ethos of being a self-made man and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. That's not to say that philanthropy does not exist in America, but it does seem like, perhaps from our Puritanical, Calvinist type roots, our country emphasizes doing it for yourself. It's striking that, during a time where we have so much, we see less in giving, in true concern for the poor, and in good works. Now, people are often "too busy" to devote time to these things. I'm guilty of this myself. 

It says much about the climate of the times that philanthropists should have become national celebrities....Philanthropy was one of the major preoccupations of the Victorian era, and one of its greatest achievements.

We do see this somewhat today, with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, but the focus seems more to be on how they made their money in the first place, rather than what they are doing with it now. More often than not, I see people mock philanthropists or denigrate their ideas. I am by no means advocating a return to Victorian society, but for a culture that is often mocked by us for its prudishness and social mores, it does have valuable lessons to teach us. What great things could we accomplish, if we had such pressure to do good?

 The Church - not only in its Anglican form but on behalf of Nonconformist and Catholic interests - undertook a huge amount of philanthropic activity that was without precedent in its scope and zeal of its - largely voluntary - workforce, for the Victorians believed that individuals, rather than the state, should look after society's needs.
Another convert to Catholicism was Henry Manning...he became actively inolved in work among the poor, and was an ally of - or at least a joint participant in various endeavors with - the Salvation Army and the temperance movement. He subscribed fully, in other words, to the Victorian notions of improving the lot of the poor...His concern for the poor was so marked that critics thought him tainted with socialism, but his response was 'People call it socialist, I call it Christianity.'

I wanted to put these two quotes together, because the last thing I want is for this blog to turn into some political debate regarding the role of the State versus private organizations in providing philanthropy. Instead, I'd rather focus on the sheer amount of philanthropic activities in which the country was engaged, and the sincere interest by society in improving the conditions of the poor. Perhaps we all should hope to be called socialists.

Lastly, for a bit of amusement to cleanse your palate from that lecture:
The fact that some people today smile at this Victorian earnestness - and at the outlandish names of charitable societies ('The Society for Returning Young Women to Their Friends in the Country', the 'Ladies' Association for the Benefit of Gentlewomen of Good Family, Reduced in Fortune Below the State of Comfort to Which They Have Been Accustomed', and the painful-sounding 'National Truss Society for the Relief of the Ruptured Poor') - does not detract from the importance of the work that was done by organizations of this sort.

Admit it, your first thought upon reading those names was S.P.E.W.


I would definitely recommend this book if you're looking for an easy to read, quick overview of Victorian culture. It covers a little bit of everything, from travel to fashion to religious movements. If you're looking for a more detailed analysis of Victorian culture, you'll want to look elsewhere, but for a good primer to help you better understand that blasted Dickens, it's a good read.

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