How Victorian prudes ruined everything
The Age of Scandal and the rise of the 'strange and gloomy gods of guilt and shame'
The author T.H. White was a reactionary after my own heart. A strange and deeply pessimistic man, White would become famous for The Once and Future King, a retelling of the King Arthur story that introduced many children to history. It was a story centred on the idea of a lost glorious past – and a sense of decline and impending disaster had clouded his mind ever since his parents’ divorce when he was 17.
White harked back to a past that was more noble than his own age, but while your typical conservative might lament the passing of the Victorians, he believed that’s when it all went wrong. This was the message behind his account of the Georgian ruling class, The Age of Scandal, a requiem for that ‘aristocratic civilisation which we shall never see again’, destroyed by Victorian sentimentality.
‘Well, we have lived to see the end of civilisation in England,’ White laments in the introduction: ‘I was once a gentleman myself. When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, the Master of a college was a fabulous being, who lived in a Lodge of breath-taking beauty and incalculable antiquity, tended by housemaids, footmen and a butler. There he consumed vintage port, wrote abstruse treatises if the spirit moved him, and lived the life of an impressive, cultivate gentleman. Such posts were among the few and noble rewards rightly offered to scholarship by the civilisation when then existed. When I last stayed in Cambridge, I lunched with two Masters of colleges. Both of them had to help with the washing-up after luncheon.’
Academics doing their own washing up: it’s so over.
This, he lamented, ‘is the logical result of our half-baked Victorian humanitarianism. All men are not equal. That ridiculous idea of English democracy was invented in the reign of Queen Victoria, and it has now become bureaucracy’.
Every reactionary has their preferred point at which civilisation declined, and for White ‘I believe that the peak of British culture was reached in the latter years of George III: that the rot began to set in with the “Romantics”: that the apparent prosperity of Victoria’s reign was autumnal, not vernal: and that now we are done for.’
What an age it was for Britain’s restless and eccentric aristocracy, a breed who built an empire based on commercial greed and adventure, yet who were marked by extreme eccentricity and scandal. They built follies, they attended executions for fun, they engaged in sexual shenanigans that would shock even today.
While not always likeable, they were interesting, and that counts for a lot in White’s view. ‘These people had characters, were among the first people in England who were sufficiently peculiar, in a modern way, to be apprehended by us as personalities.’
Unlike the reticent Englishmen of the long Victorian era, men behaved in ways that would later be characterised as feminine, in particular their tendency to cry at every opportunity. Men cried in parliament; they cried over military victories; they cried over criticism of their clothes; executioners cried as they put to death the many people who fell victim to the era’s absurdly long list of capital offences. Even outlaws did it. ‘They had lachrymose highwaymen, who,’ according to Horace Walpole, ‘cried so much that one could easily have stolen their blunderbusses.’
They cared for fashion, and the more fabulous, the better. ‘One of the commonest words about male clothes, in the letters of the reprobate Duke of Queensberry, was “pretty”. One of his presents to the Prince Regent was a muff. Among the commonest reactions from readers and playgoers was that of tears. They adored their dogs and sent them tender messages in their letters.’
The Augustan age was heavily influenced by the classics, which ‘had been flogged into everybody’. Greek-style columns sprouted upon across London’s newly built West End, Roman-style statues were erected to mark the new race of heroic conquerors and statesmen, and overt comparisons to Rome were made by French and British (and even more so American) politicians. Greek was spouted in the Commons; George I spoke to his ministers in dog Latin, knowing no English. Even the radical John Wilkes, ‘who had belonged to the Hell-fire Club and who had set all Britain by the ears in Parliament, retired gracefully to edit Theophrastus.’
Rome was the inspiration, but France was the cultural trendsetter, even if Dr Samuel Johnson thought the French ‘a gross, ill-bred, untaught people’ where ‘a lady … will spit on the floor, and rub it with her foot.
The feeling was certainly mutual. The son of the Duc de Liancourt visited England in 1784 and reported that: ‘Dinner is one of the most wearisome of English experiences, lasting, as it does, for four or five hours. The first two are spent in eating and you are compelled to exercise your stomach to the full in order to please your host. He asks you the whole time whether you like the food and presses you to eat more, with the result that, out of pure politeness, I do nothing but eat from the time that I sit down until the time when I get up from the table.’
He wrote in horror that ‘Very often I have heard things mentioned in good society which would be in the grossest taste in France. The sideboard too is furnished with a number of chamber pots and it is a common practice to relieve oneself whilst the rest are drinking; one has no kind of concealment and the practice strikes me as most indecent.’
Certainly British life could be crude, and politics was no different, oligarchical and fantastically corrupt, characterised by rotten boroughs and bribery, although public opinion had to be taken into account - if by public opinion one means ‘the mob’, an ever present threat. One historian described the political system of the time as ‘aristocracy tempered by rioting’.
Aristocrats were barely less violent than the mob, and during one riot ‘the pugilistic Lord Talbot managed to bag a rioter’, even if he saw the mob violence as all a bit of a laugh and its intentions essentially good. ‘It was this indignation – this comic fuming at the “disgraceful” behaviour of thousands who could easily have torn them limb from limb – this refusal to believe in the destructive capacity or in the seriously ill intentions of such amiable helots as surrounded them, which saved the English aristocracy from the guillotine. They refused to have the sense to realise that they were in danger, and the Mob, for lack of being taken seriously, remained comic.’
The Whig oligarchy grew rich and built classical-style homes, many of them destroyed in the aftermath of the First World War (when decline really set in), ruling in tandem with the deeply unimpressive but impressively resilient House of Hanover.
The Earl of Chesterfield said of George I, the first of the dynasty, that he ‘was an honest, dull, German gentleman…. Lazy and inactive even in his pleasures, which were therefore lowly sensual… He was diffident of his own parts, which made him speak little in public, and prefer in his social… hours the company of wags and buffoons. Even his mistress, the duchess of Kendal, with whom he passed most of his time, and who had all the influence over him, was very little above an idiot…. If he had nothing great as a king, he had nothing bad as a man; and if he does not adorn, at least he will not stain the annals of this country.’
The outstanding character of the era was the Prince Regent, the future George IV, the ‘first gentleman in Europe’ but ‘considered a poltroon by nearly everybody’. The Regent would be ‘bled by a physician in order to look pale and interesting when pressing an affair of the heart,’ and had a self-inflicted flesh wound from when he pretended to commit suicide for the love of his mistress Mrs Fitzherbert.
In order to pay off his gambling debts Prince George was forced to marry Princess Caroline of Brunswick, and The Earl of Malmesbury recalled this romantic moment: ‘She very properly, in consequence of my saying to her it was the right mode of proceeding, attempted to kneel to him. He raised her (gracefully enough) and embraced her, said barely one word, turned round, retired to a distant part of the apartment, and calling me to him, said: “Harris, I am not well; pray, get me a glass of brandy.”’