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Author Topic: "How the Victorians had more fun than us" article. Hmm...  (Read 1712 times)
SteamBlast Mary
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A spanner in the works


« on: February 14, 2009, 08:36:35 am »

How the Victorians had more fun than us

- Christopher Howse, The Telegraph, 13/02/09


To Jeremy Paxman, Victorian houses look grim. Grimness is a leitmotif of his BBC series The Victorians, which starts tomorrow – workhouses, gruel, industrial accidents, slums, the usual suspects of "Dickensian conditions".

But that is all wrong. The Victorians were a fiery bundle of energy – noisy, voracious, partial to bright colours and bad jokes, fit, energetic, sentimental but hardy, unconventional, but addicted to reform and liberty. A popular weekly paper was simply called Fun.

Fond of plum puddings and pantomime, fisticuffs and education, our forebears were the opposite of the dour, bloodless caricatures sketched by the jealous Lytton Strachey 17 years after the end of their era. They had suddenly met things undreamt of before: vast cities, famine, mass production, global wars. But their response was resolute and successful. The Victorian age was not distinguished so much by child labour as by compulsory education; not by industrial accidents but by Factory Acts; not by slums but by suburbs; not by cholera but by sewerage (well in hand before the summer of the Great Stink).

Paxman says that the Victorians lived in fear of the masses. How could they, when they gave them the vote, and walked among them protected only by constables bearing not guns but truncheons? Liberty meant that anyone could buy a revolver or an ounce of opium.

Remember, too, what the masses rioted about. Chartism, the largest populist movement, led to huge demonstrations and monster petitions, not riots. But close the pubs on Sunday afternoons, as was tried in 1855, and rioters crowded Hyde Park. Ten years later, religion provoked riot in the East End: the ignorant fear of Papistry, not the hunger of the poor.

It wasn't that no one cared. They countered poverty through free hospitals, free schools, housing associations. Victorian ideals were medieval: in architecture, religion, charity and chivalry. Victorian cruelty was scientific: its worst aspects were the products of modern thought, such as the Panopticons, the Benthamite prisons founded on pitiless solitary confinement and brutalising hard labour, or the workhouses based on the latest Social Darwinist theory. But the prisons were at least built with lavatories in the cells (which were later removed) and the workhouses inspected. Many became public hospitals in the 20th century – not something to boast about.

And what of Paxman's "Dickensian conditions"? As a writer, Dickens actually stood out not because he depicted the injustice of poverty, but because he caught the humanity of the poor. A young painter in his twenties by whom Dickens was forcibly struck was Luke Fildes, and Paxo is right to focus on a painting by Fildes that took the Royal Academy by storm in 1874. Called Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, it shows women, children, thin old men, a fat old boozer queuing in the snow.

"Of all the appalling sights in which this vast and luxurious metropolis abounds," wrote the art critic of The Daily Telegraph, "there is not one more dreadful and more shameful than that of beggars and tramps, the sickly and half-starved mechanics and labourers, with their wives and children, waiting at the gates of the police stations for tickets which shall entitle them to a bed, a lump of bread, and a pannikin of gruel in the vagrants' wards of the London workhouses."

The 2,000 words devoted by the Telegraph to Fildes's painting were accompanied by no picture: technology did not yet allow it, and readers accepted the limitation. Artists made fortunes by selling engravings of famous pictures, but it is still a little perverse of Paxman to try to present the Victorians to us through their paintings. They hardly painted some of the dominant influences of their age at all, including the railway (despite notable exceptions such as W P Frith's The Railway Station). So, the new television series falls back on photographs. We know the Victorians in a different way from preceding generations precisely through their photographs – "faithful pictures instantaneously limned by the fingers of light", as Sir Edwin Arnold, a great editor of The Daily Telegraph wrote in 1900, in the lamentable prose style approved at the time. Victorians took photographs that have never been bettered: John Thomson's photographic essay London Street Life (1877) tells us more by its depiction of clothes, faces and walls than that fanciful French poverty-tourist Gustave Doré ever did in his gas-lit engravings. The Victorians confronted new urban horrors openly through books such as Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor because they were doing something about them.

Yet if Dickens and Mayhew represented a campaigning response to social evils, more far-reaching changes were being wrought by inventions. In his review of the 19th century for this newspaper, Sir Edwin singled out the sewing machine and agricultural mechanisation. The former abolished the hand-stitching, sweated labour of the garret that had been attacked in Thomas Hood's Song of the Shirt; the harvesters, threshers and crop-drills of the latter accelerated the depopulation of the countryside.

The literal engine of social change, the steam train, was met by the democratising wheel of change, the bicycle, as soon as prosperity had spread to a million clerks and respectable tradesmen – and their wives and sweethearts. Far from being shocked even by legs being on display, whether on a bicycle or a piano, the Victorians were extremely keen on sexual intercourse, with Queen Victoria leading the way. They deprecated but tolerated remarkably high levels of prostitution. Otherwise, sexual relations were often conducted by the proxy excitements of fashion, dancing and song. Nothing was too outrageous for fashion: think of the bustle. Women bared shoulders for dancing. A duet brought boy and girl cheek to cheek over the same music.

Once marriage was clinched, it meant a decade or two of hard childbearing for women. But there was a chink of light: anaesthetics. In 1853, Queen Victoria popularised anaesthesia in labour with the chloroform-cushioned birth of Prince Leopold. "If I had to select one special gift and glory of the century," wrote Sir Edwin in 1900, "I should certainly name the discovery and application of anaesthetics. This is the greatest conquest ever made in the dark regions of death and pain."

There was no going back, but anaesthesia crowned the most insidious of all Victorian inventions: comfort. The Georgians had elbow chairs; the Victorians had deep, upholstered armchairs. They perfected the fitted carpet (seen in Robert Tait's A Chelsea Interior, with Thomas and Jane Carlyle at home, in 1857). In place of jolting stagecoaches, railway carriages were sitting-rooms that moved. If the fireside was cosy, central heating pipes brought a domestic level of warmth even to public institutions.

The discovery of comfort seemed like a reversal of the Fall of Man. Instead of our eating bread in the sweat of the brow, they thought machines would do the work and education would fill up leisure time. It was not to be. We, heirs of the Victorians, work more than ever, men and women with only nightly television as a hypnotic tonic.

We have come to love Victorian things that Strachey and the Bloomsbury set despised. A gap of more than a century lends enchantment. We wonder at Bazalgette's sewers; we regard artisan's cottages as "dream homes". We turn the Gothic train-shed of St Pancras into an ideal champagne bar and Dickens's novels into television drama.

But while Gladstone walked, rode a horse or travelled by horse-bus, scrupling, though a rich man, ever to indulge in the luxury of a cab, we loll in motor cars and deliver our children to school like swaddled consignments of hothouse fruit. We sit amid the ruins of the Victorians' achievements like Saxons among the broken columns of a Roman forum: we renovate their libraries but empty them of books; we look at their paintings but can't ourselves paint; we enjoy their architecture (in a condescending way) but build nothing that lasts, or would be wanted if it did last.

They had never found things so bad, and immediately set about putting them right. We have grown used to never having had it so good. This year, now that we have been shaken from our comfortable dream, we desperately need the Victorians' sinews to dig ourselves out of a hole.
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« Reply #1 on: February 17, 2009, 11:27:28 pm »

No joke that we build nothing that lasts.  I often wonder what evidence people will have of us 200 years from now.
The fact that so much incredible architecture has faced the wrecking ball simple because it was considered gauche sickens me.  In Indianapolis, the called it "Urban Renewal."  It used to be a beautiful city.  And everything built in the name of urban renewal is despised to this day as eyesores.
I think there is a correlation between the happiness of city workers/dwellers and the beauty of their surroundings.  Back when architects were concerned with making cityscapes forbidding, featureless clusters meant to be worked in and then abandoned for the day, the idea of city living was openly mocked.  Now we have paid for it in gas-dependence and sprawl.
The upside to this is that there is a movement toward city living in Indy now, as well as a new concern with historic preservation.  Main thoroughfares are being landscaped, abandoned factories are being turned into lofts, and most new buildings and condos are being built to be aesthetically pleasing and to blend better with the historic properties.  They even built the Lucas Oil Stadium out of brick.
My only regret is that so much of it was lost before we suddenly realized that were were destroying our history, buildings so remarkable that we can scarcely re-create them today. 
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E.A. Claringbold
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« Reply #2 on: February 17, 2009, 11:30:58 pm »

In Indianapolis, the called it "Urban Renewal."  It used to be a beautiful city.  And everything built in the name of urban renewal is despised to this day as eyesores.

The upside to this is that there is a movement toward city living in Indy now, as well as a new concern with historic preservation.  Main thoroughfares are being landscaped, abandoned factories are being turned into lofts, and most new buildings and condos are being built to be aesthetically pleasing and to blend better with the historic properties.  They even built the Lucas Oil Stadium out of brick.

Didn't know that they built the LOS out of brick. Then again, I haven't been there yet. And I do have to say some of the "artwork" that they put up in the city is as much as an eyesore as some of the architechture....Take those recycled tire artworks for example....I really hate those.  Tongue
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Rose Streiffe
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« Reply #3 on: February 18, 2009, 12:03:31 am »

What passes as art leaves much to be desired.  I don't mind modern art, I just don't want it to be crap.
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Doctor When
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« Reply #4 on: February 19, 2009, 12:41:08 pm »

Ooh, that's a lovely article! Good find, m'dear.
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« Reply #5 on: May 18, 2011, 11:37:08 pm »

It would appear my dear, that he's back at it.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00hvg67

He makes some good points. He glosses over a lot of stuff too.
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« Reply #6 on: May 27, 2011, 10:17:15 pm »

They had different standards; longer attention spans, and a lot less information to keep up with...Wink As for the colors...from what I've seen so far, I agree with Oscar Wilde, who reputably said 'either the wallpaper goes, or I do' on his deathbed...Wink
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« Reply #7 on: May 27, 2011, 10:52:47 pm »

It's a shame to hear that ideas of urban renewal are just as misguided in the states as they are here. I'm from Birmingham- a truly victorian city if there was one. The heart of the industrial revolution. In the 19th century 'Made in Birmingham' was a mark to be proud of. Their were factories and there was many slums but also many beautiful buildings. In the 60's they ripped the heart out of the city and filled it with modern concrete. Come the millenium when it was time for more urban renewal ,instead of restoring the damage they decide that ultra modern is the way forward- like the bullring. The Central Library in Birmingham used to be in a red-brick gothic building (very like the law-courts which thankfully survived the purge), in the 60's it became a concrete cancer lump. Now they are building a new library in Centenary square- and quite frankly I'd keep the concrete cancer than be subjected to the new eyesore. Seen here: http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/cs/Satellite?c=Page&childpagename=Lib-Library-of-Birmingham%2FPageLayout&cid=1223092589101&pagename=BCC%2FCommon%2FWrapper%2FWrapper
I only hope that one day we shall learn- like you did in Indianapolis. In the meantime I am very thankful that a lot of the remaining beautiful buildings are listed and therefore safe from the wrecking balls.
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« Reply #8 on: May 28, 2011, 03:22:02 pm »

In the meantime I am very thankful that a lot of the remaining beautiful buildings are listed and therefore safe from the wrecking balls.

Not neccessarily the case, I fear.  All listing does is to acknowledge that the building has merit- if somebody comes along with a proposal to demolish it, they have to prove the case why it should be demolished.  If that can be proved, unless it's Grade I or II* (ie- something really spectacular), chances are the wrecking ball will come a-knocking. 

And, to be even more galling about it, some of the 1960s concrete eyesores themselves are now listed. 

The 'good' news is that it appears to be a case of swings and roundabouts- I had a good chuckle a few weeks ago when I saw an artists' rendering of the proposed HS2 station in Birmingham.  It is basically a carbon copy of what Birmingham New Street Station looked like back in the 1850s- right down to the parabolic arched glass roof. 
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« Reply #9 on: May 28, 2011, 05:47:16 pm »

"the Victorians had more fun than us"

Have you ever played Halma?
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« Reply #10 on: May 29, 2011, 10:53:45 am »

Oh i know there aresome monstrosities that are listed- like the Materials and Metalurgy building at Bham Uni- it's listed because it was a new type of design- the only supporting walls in the buildng are the exterior walls and the central stair well- this was done to allow the rest of the walls to be moved around when the use of the space required it. Of course now it's listed getting permission to move a wall would be very difficult. Still I firmly believe that it is better to overprotect our historic (and not so historic) buildings than ever allow the wholesale destruction that used to occur to happen again.

I shall have to investigate the station designs- I haven't seen those. Thanks for alerting me to them.
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« Reply #11 on: May 29, 2011, 11:34:35 am »

Just to play devils advoate for a moment. Perhaps the Vicotrians made the social changes of compulsory education ect, because they created the problems. As far as the long lastning Architecture goes. They build with the matriels they had avaliable. If the cost effective  Steel and Glass method of construction had been avaliable to the Victorian Architects then the "jobbing" architects would have gone for a more cost effective solution.
I don't see the Victorians as that diffrent to us, because the industrial revolution is where modern thinking began. And just like today there are two extremes the dickensian povery and the bohemian extravagance, is it so much diffrent to the undeclass of today and the cleleb lifestyle?
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