In Britain at least, the Victorian era has often been revered as a time of imperial and industrial advancement, when the nation’s influence (for better or for worse) spread round the grateful globe to the sound of shiny, marching boots and patriotic anthems, while at home there was increasing prosperity and social harmony. People went to church regularly, wore their dresses long and their corsets tight, doffed their caps and top hats to their betters, paid their bills, disciplined and raised their many children right , abhorred divorce, adultery and any other deviance, politely tolerated foreigners as long as they spoke English and stayed in their own benighted countries, worshipped God and the Queen Empress in equal measure and generally knew their place.
Beneath this façade, however, the reality was somewhat different. The vast fortunes of the industrial revolution were amassed at the expense of slaves or cheap labour in unsafe factories not unlike the slums inhabited by the uneducated, unprotected workers. The degradation, disease and barbarity of the Crimean War may have produced the saintly Florence Nightingale, but it would be another century before a new, secular age created a universal health service for the nation. Many marriages were a stifling sham with women forced to bear children almost yearly – at the risk of their own and the child’s life – while the birch-wielding paterfamilias amused himself with mistresses or prostitutes, not infrequently importing venereal disease into the marital bed. Capital and corporal punishment were the order of the day, as were the workhouse, the poorhouse and debtors’ prison. But appearances were rigorously maintained; unalloyed and visible virtue reigned supreme.
It is well over a century since Queen Victoria died, but the spirit of her long, strictured reign is once again at large. A new breed of Victorians is vociferously setting the tone via social and other media, casting a suffocating blanket of boundaries, regulations and glittering perfection over society. These virgins of the second millennium strive to police every aspect of daily life, both public and private: conversation, vocabulary, dress, relationships, education, finance, food, transport, energy and reproduction – the list is endless. Bathroom, bedroom, living room, dining room, kitchen, school, workplace, bar and high street are all subjected to their self-righteous gaze. Not content with controlling our outward behaviour, they also demand to regulate our thoughts; to bring them into line with their own. No deviation is permitted; their vision of perfection is homogeneity on their terms. In California, one of their High Places where speaking your truth is an obligatory fashion, zealous female consultants now dictate how sex scenes are scripted and filmed, while grammatical lexicons impose rules about every word, phrase and tone of voice. Failure to observe these apparently liberal constraints results in calling out, cancellation, media storms and death threats; they have reintroduced the death penalty for the slightest breach of their black and white Code.
The quest for perfection has always existed and brings many positive advances – when tempered with self-knowledge. But self-knowledge is something the New Victorians lack. They claim to be perfect, or ‘correct’, in every aspect of their lives: emotions, ecological and cultural awareness, relationships, diet, dress, opinions – this last in particular. It is compulsory to think correctly. And they demand that we lesser beings should be equally perfect.
There is one significant area where they closely resemble the original Victorians: hypocrisy. Despite their strident claims to virtue, they themselves fall far short. And in one vital way this is where they also differ fundamentally from Victoria’s subjects. As Christians (often inwardly as well as outwardly), the people of Victorian Britain were often painfully aware that they were hypocrites in many parts of their lives. Sometimes they tried to put this right, but mostly they contented themselves with preserving a respectable appearance.
Being ignorant of any religion except their own, be it one of the Feminisms, Me Too, BLM, Wokeism or a constantly growing number of other sects, the New Victorians see only the faults of others, never their own.