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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Sensibility, in its broadest and most neutral sense,
designates the process by means of which intellectual
perceptions and sensory experience interact according
to a relatively consistent pattern. The term recognizes
the psychological fact that just as there can be no
human feeling without a minimum of intellectual dis-
crimination, so men are unable to reason without
experiencing some feeling. Sensibility produces senti-
ment, which is feeling and thought in association as
distinguished from pure thought and instinctual emo-
tion. Although sensibility and sentiments vary from
individual to individual, if the members of the domi-
nant class in a particular society share the same basic
values and possess sensory mechanisms conditioned by
the same environment, a particular pattern of thinking
and feeling may be said to characterize a whole society.
It is in this sense that one can speak of a Victorian
sensibility and Victorian sentiment.

The term “Victorian” was at first applied to the
period of English history that coincided with a long
reign. Recent usage, however, has tended to confine
the term to a more limited and more coherent phase
of English culture extending approximately from 1830
to 1880.

As in other epochs, the sensibility and sentiments
characteristic of Victorian culture were shaped both
by external pressures and by inherited attitudes of
which the Victorians themselves were not always con-
scious. The major external pressures were an expanding
population, spreading industrialization, greater con-
centration of people in large urban areas, and an in-
crease in wealth which was diffused among growing
numbers of people. The conscious Victorian response
to these external changes was in large measure deter-
mined by attitudes and values inherited from the past,
the most important of which were Evangelicalism
in religion and utilitarianism in philosophy. The
coalescence of these external pressures and internal
attitudes created a social structure and cultural pattern,
centering in the middle class and characterized by a
distinctive mode of thinking and feeling, that gave
stability to English society for approximately fifty

The most important conscious element in Victorian
culture was its Evangelical religion, a variant of
English Protestantism which combined diverse ele-
ments from the older traditions of Puritanism, Meth-
odism, and Anglicanism. The latter forms of Eng-
lish Protestantism have been described as religions of
the State, of the heart, and of the Church, respec-
tively. Evangelicalism's uniqueness lay in its being a
religion of the home. Like the traditions from which
it derived, Evangelicalism emphasized personal faith
and the direct relationship between the individual soul
and God, but combined this Protestant doctrine with
special emphases of its own. Unlike Puritanism and
Anglicanism, which offered a coherent theology and
a corporate ideal of holiness in the State or in the
Church, Evangelicalism stressed the nonrational, emo-
tional element of religious experience and personal
holiness within the family; unlike Methodism, it re-
tained ecclesiastical elements such as The Book of
Common Prayer
and a sense of the value of corporate
public worship. It exercised its pervasive influence
mainly by creating a strong sense of family and of
self-discipline. The Evangelical watchwords of “duty”
and “earnestness” appeared in the writings of professed
Victorian agnostics and of working-class radicals as
well as in the sermons of Evangelical ministers.

Religious censuses of the period indicate that less


than half the population of Great Britain attended
Sunday church services regularly, and that not more
than one in ten of the metropolitan poor attended
church at all, yet Victorian England can be described
as deeply religious. The virtues cultivated within the
Evangelical patriarchal family structure—obedience,
chaste love, self-improvement, and fellow-feeling
—carried over into Victorian public life in corre-
sponding social virtues: deference to one's superiors,
marital fidelity, industry, and sympathy for the deserv-
ing poor. The sense of duty was thus both familial and
social, and a sober earnestness provided the moral
atmosphere in which these duties were performed.
From its center in the middle-class home the tenets
and tone of Evangelicalism gradually infiltrated both
the Victorian aristocracy and the lower classes. The
latter were exposed to Evangelical teaching and
philanthropies through the literature and the charitable
works of numerous religious societies which served as
organized social agencies for spreading the Evangelical
ethos. Except for the unreachable paupers in the great
urban areas and agricultural laborers scattered in re-
mote localities, it was the rare Victorian who was not
touched, directly or indirectly, by the values and atti-
tudes of Evangelicalism.

If Evangelical Christianity might be described as the
heart of the Victorian sensibility, utilitarianism was its
mind. Like Victorian religion, the dominant philosophy
of the period had its roots in a variety of eighteenth-
century attitudes, ranging from the common-sense
deistic morality of eighteenth-century Anglican divines
to the radical application of the principle of utility
in legal and economic reform proposed by philo-
sophical rationalists. Unlike Evangelicalism, utilitari-
anism was grounded in logic and was completely
secular in orientation; it was outspokenly antireligious,
resting its claims on sensory and rational experience
rather than on the supernatural or the feelings of the
heart. The function of philosophy in the utilitarian
view was, in the words of one of the most influential
writers of the period, not to make men perfect, but
to make imperfect men comfortable. Utilitarianism
posited self-interest, explainable on the basis of an
egoistic psychology of pleasure and pain, as the
governing impulse in human behavior. Its exponents
were committed to the possibility of improving man's
estate through rational education of individual egoism
and political and legal reform of existing social struc-
tures. The “pleasure” for which the individual was to
be educated and social institutions were to be designed
was not the transitory pleasure of the individual but
a “general utility”; the maxim which served as the
guiding utilitarian principle in politics, ethics, and
economics alike was “the greatest happiness of the
greatest number.” The chief obstacles to the achieve-
ment of this general good were the ignorance and
superstition which in the past had created irrational
structures such as the Church and the aristocracy. The
leading utilitarians collected and published statistics in
support of their specific proposals for reform: the reso-
lution of the inherent political antagonism between
rulers and ruled through universal suffrage, and free
competition in an open market in the realm both of
ideas and of economic activity.

Utilitarianism was thus not only different from but
intellectually incompatible with the basic attitudes
underlying Evangelicalism. Yet, in what might be
called the orthodox Victorian sensibility, the two tra-
ditions complemented one another in important ways.
Three assumptions which were basic to the Victorian
response to the problems posed by industrialization and
urbanization were upheld by both, though they inter-
preted and defended them on quite different grounds:
(1) the primacy of the individual, (2) the possibility,
and the duty, of improving man's estate, and (3) the
need for asceticism on the part of the individual if men
were to be happy. For the Evangelical the individual
soul was free before God to work out its eternal salva-
tion through faith and good works; for the utilitarian
the individual man was free to attain happiness on
earth, rationally, by following certain universal laws.
For both, the happiness of the individual was bound
up with his willingness to help his fellowman, that is,
with his development of a capacity for sympathy, or
fellow-feeling, or benevolence, as it was variously
called. For the Evangelical the duty to practice asceti-
cism was based on a religiously formed conscience; for
the utilitarian it was based on the Malthusian socio-
logical theory of population growth and the Ricardian
economic theory, based on Malthus, of the distribution
of wealth in an open-market economy. Outward ex-
pression of fellow-feeling took the form of philan-
thropy for Evangelicals and of social reform for the

In addition to these positive beliefs, Evangelicalism
and utilitarianism displayed common hostilities which
were equally important: toward the merely sensuous
and merely speculative; and toward idleness, play, and
fictions. Because the progress of the individual, and
therefore of society, was for both schools a serious and
pragmatic business, anything which did not contribute
to the realization of the larger goal was rejected as
frivolous or worse. To the earnest middle-class Vic-
torian the “idle” rich and the “lazy” poor were equally

The society brought about by the interaction be-
tween these personal attitudes and the impersonal
pressures of the environment was shaped by three


general qualities which characterized the middle class:
(1) moral idealism; (2) intellectual nonconformity; and
(3) social conformity (C. Dawson, in Ideas and Beliefs
of the Victorians,
1949). The attitudes and sentiments
attaching to these qualities overlapped and inter-
penetrated one another in a cohesive social culture
which withstood inward contradictions and external
threats despite rapid changes during the period in both
the human and the natural environment.

Victorian moral idealism was nurtured primarily by
the Evangelical belief in the sanctity of the home and
by the sentiments connected with this belief. Accounts
in contemporary diaries, letters, and religious tracts
convey a sense of the powerful role played by family
prayer in the training of Victorian children and do-
mestics. The regimen of the household of an early,
influential, and wealthy convert to Evangelicalism
conveys something of the quality of Evangelical disci-

Abt. a quarter before 10 oClock, the family assembled to
prayers, which were read by Wilberforce in the dining
room. As we passed from the drawing room I saw all the
servants standing in regular order, the woeman ranged in
a line against the wall & the men the same.... —When
the whole were collected in the dining room, all knelt down
against a chair or Sopha. Wilberforce knelt at a table in
the middle of a room, and after a little pause began to read
a prayer, which He did very slowly in a low, solemnly awful

(Davies [1961], p. 220).

Such scenes were repeated in numerous Victorian
homes. In the country more conscientious members of
the squirearchy set a similar example in the Hall. The
practice of daily family prayer, supplemented by spir-
itual reading and weekly sermons in church or chapel,
generated a strong bond between Victorian parents and
children, and between brothers and sisters, which
persisted even when, as not seldom happened in later
years, serious differences of opinion developed regard-
ing the theological superstructure of Evangelicalism.

In addition to the Bible, one of the popular family
books of the period was Pilgrim's Progress. The Puritan
stress on self-discipline, piety, and self-improvement
was disseminated through Victorian society in a flood
of Evangelical treatises and didactic tales prepared by
the religious press. A typical tract, The Sinner's Friend,
published in 1821, had by 1845 sold 800,000 copies
and by 1867 more than a million and a half copies
(Chadwick, 1966). The twin evils of sexual promiscuity
and alcohol held a prominent place in this literature,
a preoccupation which deeply affected the secular
literature of the period as well. The emphasis upon
chastity and temperance was in part a reaction to the
promiscuity and drinking so conspicuously evident in
the great underworlds of poverty in Victorian cities;
in this respect Victorian reticence was a phase in the
“history of the battle for refinement and civilization,
and above all the better protection of women, against
promiscuity, animalism, brutality and grossness which
had been common even in the eighteenth century”
(Clark [1962], p. 126). Even apart from this rein-
forcement, the Evangelical emphasis upon sexual re-
straint and temperance would have had the effect of
idealizing chaste love, woman, and the home, and of
surrounding these objects with sentiments of attach-
ment, reverence, and even worship.

Evangelical moral idealism made itself felt outside
the home in negative form in the censorship which
it exercised over literature and the arts. The tradition
which held that the arts should teach as well as delight
was interpreted in the light of a moral aesthetic which
associated delight primarily with moral teaching in a
way that severely limited both the areas of experience
that could be treated in art and the manner in which
the matters which were treated could be presented.
Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, the later Dickens,
George Eliot, and other leading writers were in this
respect typically Victorian. This moralism had to do
not simply with prudishness in matters of sex, but with
a deeper and more comprehensive alteration in sensi-
bility which might be described as a loss of the sense
of play. Dress, conversation, intellectual speculation,
religious liturgy, games themselves, as well as literature
and the arts, were affected. One of the notable features
of the age was the Sabbatarianism which forbade not
only drink and games but even secular reading on

The other important form in which Victorian moral
idealism had its effect outside the home was more
positive. Generally a culture that enforces its taboos
has focused energies of considerable power. The senti-
ments of benevolence and charity which were an im-
portant part of Victorian moral idealism resulted in
prodigious philanthropic efforts and political activism.
The William Wilberforce whose household was
described above was largely responsible for the passage
of England's first antislavery legislation; a close friend,
an Evangelical banker, donated six-sevenths of his an-
nual income to charity until he married, after which
he gave one-third.

The reform of political and legal administrative
procedures, as well as Victorian intellectual noncon-
formity, stemmed primarily from utilitarianism, the
basic impulse of which was rational conviction rather
than emotional commitment. The essential utilitarian
virtues were likewise intellectual: sincerity in thinking,
strict logic, a conscientious study of facts, and the
courage to follow wherever facts and logic led. For


John Stuart Mill, the best known of the utilitarians,
uncensored conflict of opinion, intellectual tolerance,
and philosophical and religious pluralism were the very
conditions for human advancement. Though utilitarians
could be doctrinaire, in principle the utilitarian philos-
ophy was committed to disinterested examination of
the facts, including facts regarding the way in which
the mind itself works. Characteristically, whereas
Evangelical influence originated in the family and
spread from the home into Victorian society, the
utilitarian influence was exercised primarily in the
discussion of public affairs in public debate and spread
thence into the Victorian home. The conflict of opinion
produced by their widely different assumptions helped
to create an atmosphere of intellectual tolerance and
a less polemical tone in the press.

The combination of moral idealism and intellectual
nonconformity helped to produce the third marked
characteristic of the Victorian sensibility, an extraor-
dinary impulse to conform socially. Elements in Evan-
gelicalism and utilitarianism made compromise and
conformity possible, since neither was as extreme or
as belligerent as its eighteenth-century predecessor,
Methodism and Philosophical Radicalism, respectively.
The memory of the social upheavals caused by the
French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars early in
the century was still disturbing to many Englishmen
in 1830 and persuaded them that men of good will,
however diverse their intellectual or religious princi-
ples, should work together to pursue the immediate
practical advantages made possible by an expanding
technology. In addition, the spread of poverty and
urban slums after 1830 tended to unite members of
the ruling classes in a common fear as well as a com-
mon sense of guilt. What distinguished Victorian
England from the rest of nineteenth-century Europe,
one historian has noted, was that while in France,
Germany. Italy, and Russia idealists were usually
extremists who despised compromise, in Victorian
England devotion to compromise was strongest pre-
cisely among the most sincere idealists (Dawson,
op. cit.).

The pressure of social conformity expressed itself in
two popular terms—carried over from at least the
Renaissance—in the Victorian vocabulary, “gentle-
man” and “respectability.” Both terms escape precise
definition because of their manifold implications for
their Victorian user. In a general and vulgar sense, a
gentleman was an educated man with an independent
income and therefore one who ranked in the middle
class or higher on the social scale. But in its narrower
and more essential meaning it referred to the moral
training and sensitivity which wealth and education
made possible. The moral dimension was described by
the novelist Thackeray when, in answer to his own
question “What is it to be a gentleman?” he replied
that it was “to have lofty aims, to lead a pure life,
to keep your honour virgin; to have the esteem of your
fellow-citizens, and the love of your fireside; to bear
good fortune meekly; to suffer evil with constancy; and
through evil or good to maintain truth always”
(Houghton [1957], p. 359). The idea of respectability
was more superficial and more widely applied than the
idea of the gentleman, It included the suggestion of
bodily cleanliness and neatness, particularly in its ap-
plication to the lower classes.

Neatness is the outward sign of a conscious respectability,
and Respectability is the name of that common level of
behaviour which all families ought to reach and on which
they can meet without disgust. The Respectable man in
every class is one whose ways bear looking into, who need
not shrink or hide or keep his door barred against visitors
... who lives in the eye of his neighbours and can count
on the approval of the great and the obedience of the

(Young [1936], p. 25).

The notion of respectability thus had covert political
implications in the relationships between social classes.
A leading politician of the age remarked that “The
middle classes know that the safety of their lives and
property depend upon their having round them a
peaceful, happy, and moral population.” Respectability
was the standard applied to ensure such a population,
denoting “at once a select status and a universal mo-
tive. Like Roman citizenship, it could be indefinitely
extended, and every extension fortified the State”
(Young, op. cit.). The note of deference which predomi-
nated in Victorian social relationships underlay a strong
admiration for national heroes and leaders, including
a deep-rooted devotion to Queen Victoria herself and
a general suspicion of persons and institutions which
were not English.

The basic pattern of thought and feeling which
characterized the orthodox Victorian sensibility—
moral sentiments centered around the family and the
virtues of duty and earnestness; intellectual sentiments
centered around the ideals of intellectual sincerity
and tolerance; social sentiments centered around
the ideals of gentlemanliness and respectability—
produced what one of its critics called “an epoch of
hearts uplifted with hope, and brains active with sober
and manly reason for the common good. Some ages
are marked as sentimental, others stand conspicuous
as rational. The Victorian age was happier than most
in the flow of both these currents into a common stream
of vigorous and effective talent” (Buckley [1951], p.
13). The dark shadows cast by the positive qualities
of the Victorian sensibility were equally real, however,
the result of the fact that a sensibility harboring ideals
which were not logically related and which in some


important areas were in direct contradiction to one
another was inevitably subject to tensions that could
not always be successfully resolved. The more sensitive
Victorians were aware of these contradictions. John
Ruskin pointed out to his readers that while their
Evangelical religion told Victorians to love their
neighbor, their utilitarian economic principles told
them that the deepest instinct of man was to defraud
his neighbor. He could think of no precedent in history
for a nation's establishing a systematic disobedience to
the first principles of its professed religion. The Vic-
torians assimilated the contradictory attitudes as best
they could. The agonized personal crises and frequent
painful wrenchings of family relationships recorded in
the literature of the period reflected the tensions that
accompanied the attempt to reconcile them. At a still
deeper level a profound psychic ambivalence expressed
itself in other ways.

One way was the sentimentality which marked the
popular literature and art of the age, the tendency to
present scenes of “pathos feasting on itself.” The most
famous sentimentalist of the age was the novelist
Charles Dickens, whose treatment of grief and death,
particularly where children were involved, was
immensely popular. He was accused of handling the
death of little children “as if it were some savoury
dainty which could not be too fully appreciated”
(Richard Stang, The Theory of the Novel in England
New York and London [1959], p. 62). Sen-
timentalism likewise affected Victorian painting, which
exhibited two prominent features: a love of literal
detail and a tendency to exaggerate sentiment. The
connection between the literalism and the senti-
mentality was an important one: “Victorian senti-
mentality is largely the imposition of feeling as an
afterthought upon literalness” (H. House, Ideas and
Beliefs of the Victorians
[1949], p. 223). The scientific
love of fact was utilitarian in emphasis; the price it
exacted, evident in the autobiographies of Mill and
Charles Darwin, was a threatened loss of the capacity
to feel. The sentimental love of fact was mainly Evan-
gelical in inspiration, and the price it exacted was a
weakening of the capacity to reason. Evangelical liter-
ature and practice were not above exposing to public
view the agonies of a dying child or the delirium
tremens of the drunkard for purposes of edification.
The utilitarians, by contrast, agnostic or atheistic in
matters of religion, doubted the immortality of the soul
and the possibility of rewards in another life, and
therefore attached all the more importance to reducing
pain in the present one. The wavering between a
scientific and a sentimental view of pain reflected a
dangerous split in the Victorian sensibility.

The fissure beneath the surface solidity of Victorian
thought and feeling was most evident in the ambiguous
relation of the Victorian sensibility to nature. During
the first quarter of the nineteenth century English
romantic writers had hopefully envisioned the possi-
bility of men developing an “organic sensibility” by
means of which the rival claims of intellect and feeling
as sources of truth could be reconciled. The recon-
ciliation conceived by the romantics went beyond the
inward psychic integration of thought and emotion and
included man's relationship to the external universe as
well. The latter point rested on romantic assumptions
regarding the “correspondences” that obtained be-
tween the inward forms of human thought and feeling
and outward natural forms, the inward and outward
worlds being regarded as so adapted to one another
as to make possible an integrated participation of all
the human faculties in a reassuring encounter with the
universe. Two circumstances contributed to the rapid
decline of this romantic faith: first, the emergence of
what one Victorian poet called the “terrible muses”
of astronomy and geology, and secondly, an increasing
sense, as the century progressed, that the powers of
reason by which men were mastering nature through
technology had created a new irrational power over
which men might lose control: the machine.

Of these two disturbing pressures, the impact of
scientific thought, notably of geology and biology, was
the earlier felt and contributed most to the ambiva-
lence in the Victorian response to nature. Geology gave
rise to a time-consciousness, later reinforced by studies
of biological evidence, which stemmed from the
discovery that the universe had existed for millions of
years and that “whilst this planet has gone cycling on
according to the fixed law of gravity,... endless forms
most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are
being evolved.” Darwin himself was deeply moved by
his evolutionary vision, but the ordinary Victorian felt
that the human species was dwarfed in a terrifying
abyss of endless time. It was as though the roof and
walls of a long-inhabited room had been removed and
familiar objects were seen in a new, strange, and
disturbing light. The Victorian response to this new
nature reflected the same ambivalence that can be
detected in Victorian art. On the one hand, there was
an intense fascination with natural forms and minute
details evident in Victorian word-painting in prose and
the naturalism of its art; on the other hand, there was
a compelling need to invest natural forms and details
with moral significance. As the traditional “evidences”
of the handiwork of a Creator became more difficult
to discern, the orthodox Victorian sensibility found it
correspondingly difficult to evoke the moral reassur-
ances it sought in nature.

The science of biology cast a shadow of another kind
as well: the threat to human life posed by the instinct
to procreation. T. R. Malthus' An Essay on the Princi


ple of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement
of Society,
published in 1798, evoked a dire vision of
the natural tendency for human population to increase
faster than the means of subsistence. It was Mathus'
theory which inspired David Ricardo to construct his
pessimistic theory of political economy. Whereas to
Adam Smith society had been one great family, to
Ricardo it was the scene of a bitter contest for
supremacy and survival, the view which Darwin ex-
tended to all of organic life. The utilitarians responded
characteristically by arguing that if “nature” was blind
and cruel, man had the power, and the moral duty,
to ameliorate its effects through social reform. Yet the
specter of a nature “red in tooth and claw” haunted
the Victorian imagination and contributed to the sen-
timentality as well as to the reticence of its treatment
of nature and natural instinct.

The threat posed by the increase in population and
the extension of technology involved representative
institutions as well as individuals. A London clergyman
who found himself assigned to a city parish with 35,000
parishioners (Clark, 1962) might wonder whether the
Church could keep pace with the changing environ-
ment. Similarly, agricultural depressions threatened the
competitive economy built on Ricardian principles,
while all through the period a steady stream of social
legislation designed to meet urban and rural problems
created a growing government bureaucracy in direct
opposition to the consciously held political ideals of
the age. Impersonal forces were silently making the
representative Victorian institutions obsolete.

The result was that alongside the dominant senti-
ments of confidence and hope there was another, less
reassuring set of pressures and feelings creating a sensi-
bility characterized by anxiety and fear. In addition
to the more remote threat of alienation in a meaning-
less universe, there were immediate dangers which
generated deep-seated fears: in politics the fear of mobs
and revolution, in economics the fear of bankruptcy,
in family life the fear of orphanhood. These fears
appear again and again in the literature of the age,
either consciously or unconsciously, providing the
plots as well as the emotional energy of much of the
writing. Debt, ruin, and madness haunt Victorian
fiction: characters struck down are usually shown to
have deserved their fate, while “deserving” characters
are conveniently rescued by a legacy, emigration, a
fortunate marriage, or a change of heart (Williams,
1958). But the arbitrariness of the solutions reinforces
the impression of a serious incompatibility between
conscious Victorian sentiments and the realities to
which these sentiments had to be related.

In protecting itself against a seemingly blind nature
and the nonrational impulses of the body and the
unconscious—fear of the void, sexual desire, the play
instinct—the Victorians developed a powerful will to
belief and action, mobilizing the virtues in support of
this will at the expense both of reason and of uncon-
scious impulses. The law of psychic life that basic
impulses cannot be thwarted without paying a price
seems to be borne out in reading the private journals
and correspondences of the age; one is struck by the
number of “headaches” and other forms of illness
which plagued the Victorians.

By the latter half of the century observers were
commenting on what seemed to be a notable increase
in the number of suicides. The ambivalent relationship
between the conscious and unconscious elements of the
Victorian experience produced a consistent pattern of
behavior: the search for individual autonomy, either
through religious adherence to the laws of God or
through rational adherence to the laws of nature; the
powerful role assigned either to the superego or con-
science or to reason in this search; the prevalence of
guilt, connected with violation of accepted codes; and
a tendency to hysteria, related to repression. As early
as the 1850's Matthew Arnold identified the charac-
teristic feeling of the age as ennui, and the dominant
note of its intellectual life as a “dialogue of the mind
with itself.”

Arnold's diagnosis of the malaise of the Victorian
age in the 1850's was shared by few of his contem-
poraries; most men were comforted by the “march of
mind” and the impressive material progress evidenced
by the Great Exhibition of 1851. With few qualifica-
tions English culture seemed stable and triumphant
through the fifties and sixties and England itself moving
in the vanguard of human advancement. But by 1880
the contradictions which were disguised or contained
for half a century by the Victorian capacity for com-
promise had become intolerable. The sentiments and
sensibility of Victorian orthodoxy lost their energy and
were increasingly placed on the defensive by new
conscious attitudes and sentiments.

Imperialism, the emergence of an unscrupulous class
of nouveaux riches, the second-rate quality of a second
Evangelical revival, a growing “yellow press,”—these
and other symptoms of decline marked the imminence
of a major shift in sensibility. The influence of the
Evangelical conscience was undermined from within
by the spread of religious skepticism, and from without
by attacks on Evangelical piety as a hypocritical use
of an ostensibly Christian fervor to disguise essentially
worldly ambitions. The supremacy of the utilitarian
principle was similarly weakened, in part by the im-
pact of German idealism and psychology, and more
seriously by charges that its economic principles simply
rationalized an inhuman social structure based on the


struggle for wealth. With the questioning of these
central elements of the Victorian sensibility, new atti-
tudes and values emerged which were essentially anti-
Victorian in their bias and which signified more a
rejection of Victorianism than the arrival of a new
integration of thought and feeling.

The two major forms of anti-Victorianism, although
united in their common revolt against Victorian prin-
ciple and practice, were opposed to one another in
most other matters. The earlier of the two reactions
can be described under the general term of “aestheti-
cism,” the reassertion of the play instinct not only as
an end in itself but as the only possible response to
a hideous environment. This development was associ-
ated primarily with the arts and literature, first in the
form of Pre-Raphaelitism and later, partly in response
to influences from the Continent, in the form of im-
pressionism. But there were important social implica-
tions in aestheticism as well, notably the revival of
dandyism and satirical wit, a withdrawal from politics
of the usual kind, a new concern with ritual and form,
and a thoroughgoing intellectual skepticism. In effect,
aestheticism marked a radical disengagement from
Victorian moral commitments and social concerns
through escape into the amoral world of art and play.
In asserting that the only stay against ugliness and
meaninglessness was in the formal coherence of art,
aestheticism reversed the Victorian practice of literal
imitation of nature: one of the most-quoted epigrams
of the new movement insisted rather that nature must
imitate art.

The skepticism which underlay this aestheticism
appeared in its subjectivization of experience, its car-
rying Victorian individualism to the ne plus ultra of
solipsism. Each man was an island unto himself; the
“facts” of experience were seen as a series of impres-
sions which the individual memory could store and the
individual imagination could rearrange, but from
which no rational or objective or common knowledge
could be inferred. Ugly objects and immoral action
were as susceptible of artistic treatment as conven-
tionally beautiful things or noble conduct; indeed, it
was no longer possible to make such distinctions since
one could only try to rescue one's private impressions
from the flux of experience by capturing them in a
work of art.

Aestheticism represented a turning of the Victorian
sensibility in upon itself and a consequent dissolution
of accepted certainties under the pressure of the dia-
logue of the mind with itself. The other major devel-
opment, which might be generally called “politicism,”
represented an opposite movement. In its dissatisfac-
tion with Victorian culture, politicism turned outward
and aggressively attacked existing social structures. In
the form of socialism politicism called for the creation
of a new social structure through the active interven-
tion of the state; in the guise of anarchism it called
for the abolition of social structures altogether. To both
political schools aestheticism seemed an immoral re-
treat from responsibility: not only was great art moral,
as the Victorians had insisted, but it was specifically
public, political, and revolutionary in its moralism. The
career of William Morris was representative: influ-
enced in his youth by the religious revival in Oxford,
he moved first through a phase in which his aesthetic
conscience led him away from social concerns as alien
to the artistic embodiment of idle dreams, and then
to a final phase of political activism on behalf of revo-
lutionary socialism.

Aestheticism carried Victorian individualism and
intellectual nonconformity to extremes unassimilable
by the orthodox Victorian sensibility. Politicism, on the
other hand, refocused Victorian moral idealism through
its political radicalism. Both rejected Victorian social
conformity, and the ideals of the gentleman and of
respectability which had sustained it. Aestheticism
regarded the respectable gentleman as insensitive, dull,
and prudish; politicism regarded him as rich, selfish,
hypocritical, and counterrevolutionary. In its initial
stage the fin de siècle revolt against Victorian ortho-
doxy generated an excitement and hope similar to that
which had accompanied the romantic movement at
the beginning of the century, but the later movement
lacked both the range and the depth of the earlier one,
being essentially negative in character and divided
against itself in its aims. Although Queen Victoria lived
on until 1901, after 1880 her name was no longer an
adequate symbol for the events, values, and sentiments
which were shaping and expressing a new sensibility
for which historians have not yet found a satisfactory


Valuable surveys of the period are provided in W. E.
Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (New
Haven, 1957); G. M. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of
an Age
(London, 1936; 2nd ed. 1953); and Ideas and Beliefs
of the Victorians
(London, 1949), a collection of BBC talks
by experts on various aspects of Victorian England. Relevant
social histories are G. Kitson Clark, The Making of Victorian
(Cambridge, Mass., 1962); G. M. Trevelyan, Illus-
trated English Social History,
Vol. IV: The Nineteenth Cen-
(London and New York, 1952); and G. M. Young, ed.,
Early Victorian England, 1830-1865, 2 vols. (London and
New York, 1934). For utilitarianism, see É. Halévy, The
Growth of Philosophic Radicalism,
trans. M. Morris (Boston,
1955). For Evangelicalism, see H. Davies, Worship and
Theology in England: From Watts and Wesley to Maurice,


1690-1850 (Princeton, 1961); and Owen Chadwick, The
Victorian Church: Part I
(New York, 1966). R. D. Altick's
The English Common Reader (Chicago, 1957) studies the
mass reading public. J. H. Buckley, The Victorian Temper
(Cambridge, Mass., 1951), and R. Williams, Culture and
Society, 1780-1950
(London, 1958; New York, 1960; also
reprint) gives an overview of the literature of the period.

Studies of important individual Victorians appear in Asa
Briggs, Victorian People (Chicago, 1954); The Great Vic-
ed. H. J. and H. Massingham (London, 1932); and
Basil Willey, Nineteenth Century Studies (London and New
York, 1949) and More Nineteenth Century Studies (London
and New York, 1956).


[See also Agnosticism; Deism; Evolutionism;Religion and
Romanticism; Sin and Salvation; Utilitarianism.]