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Prude’s Progress

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

Toward the end of 1828, Charles Lamb composed a sonnet which gave him great pleasure by its elaborate construction. It was entitled “The Gypsy’s Malison”:

“Suck, baby, suck, Mother’s love grows by giving,

Drain the sweet founts that only thrive by wasting; Black manhood comes, when riotous guilty living

Hands thee the cup that shall be death in tasting. Kiss, baby, kiss, Mother’s lips shine by kisses,

Choke the warm breath that else would fall in blessings; Black manhood comes, when turbulent guilty blisses

Tend thee the kiss that poisons ‘mid caressings. Hang, baby, hang, Mother’s love loves such forces,

Strain the fond neck that bends still to thy clinging; Black manhood comes, when violent lawless courses

Leave thee a spectacle in rude air swinging.” So sang a wither’d Beldam energetical, And bann’d the ungiving door with lips prophetical.

The sonnet was published in Blackwood’s Magazine. It had been intended originally for The Gem, one of the popular Annuals, but, as Lamb indignantly reported to Barry Cornwall,

the editors declined it, on the plea that it would shock all mothers; so they published “The Widow” instead. I am born out of time. I have no conjecture about what the present world calls delicacy. I thought “Rosamund Gray” was a pretty modest thing. Hessey assures me that the world would not bear it. I have lived to grow into an indecent character. When my sonnet was rejected, I exclaimed, “Damn the age 1 I will write for Antiquity !” . . . The Scotch . . . were not so mealy-mouthed as to refuse my verses.

A week later, he sent Procter another diatribe against the “trumpery annual,” exclaiming:

Oh, Barry Cornwall, my whole heart is faint, and my whole head is sick (how is it?) at this damned, canting, unmascu-line, unbxwdy (I had almost said) age! . . .

Under the half-jesting exasperation of these letters there is a serious note of dismay, as if Lamb realized that his experience was symptomatic of a most important literary trend of the time. Every detail of the episode is exactly typical of the new forces that were at work. The rejection of the poem by an Annual, and its acceptance by Blackwood’s, indicate the conflict in standards between two opposing groups of publications. The reason for the rejection indicates the new respect for feminine delicacy and domestic sentiment. The simultaneous objection to “Rosamund Gray,” because it alludes to the seduction of a village maiden, is further evidence of the same tendency to suppress all references to the more painful aspects of existence.

The movement had been gathering force for some time. In 1818 Dr. Thomas Bowdler published his expurgated “Family Shakespeare.” When Mary Shelley returned to England in 1823, she was shocked by the change that had occurred during her absence abroad: as evidence that “the reign of Cant in England is growing wider and stronger each day,” she cited the fact that a farce had just been rejected by the licenser of plays because it contained “nine damns and two equivocal words.” In the same year, so pure-minded an author as Sir Walter Scott was compelled by his publisher to recast an episode in “St. Ronan’s Well”: in the original version, Clara Mowbray yielded her virtue to Tyrrel before her mock marriage to his brother; but James Ballantine, with the backing of Constable, insisted that Scott must not “obtrude on the fastidious public the possibility of any contamination having been incurred by a high-born damsel of the nineteenth century,” and Scott reluctantly complied.

It would not be difficult to trace the invasion of prudery back to eighteenth-century sources. It was partly responsible for the literary feud between Richardson and Fielding, and the novel of sensibility was not free of its touch. But not until the 1820’s did it become a censorious influence, wielding power and prestige. Until then it was so completely identified with social inferiority, and so deficient in channels of literary expression, that it evoked ridicule rather than respect. One of its chief features—the continual dread of public opinion—found its most famous utterance in 1798, when Thomas Morton created the catch phrase, “What will Mrs. Grundy say?” But this occurred in a comedy of rustic life, and the sophisticated audience was expected to laugh at the simplicity of the farmer’s wife in her concern about her neighbour’s opinion. Thirty years later the situation was different: the dreaders of Mrs. Grundy were sitting in the audience and purchasing the books. In 1820 Sydney Smith estimated that “there are four or five hundred thousand readers more than there were thirty years ago, among the lower orders.” And of those who now had leisure and wealth to patronize literature extensively, an increasingly large proportion were women. The “virtuous young female” became the determining factor in literary judgments, and anything which might “bring a blush to her cheek” was anathema.

Victorian “prudery” can not be identified with the older “puritanism.” The Puritan, with his furious devotion to virtue, was brutally frank in his depiction of vice. There is nothing mealy-mouthed in Milton or Bunyan or Jonathan Edwards. The prude, on the contrary, deals merely in verbal taboos. He achieves smug self-righteousness by ignoring evil; if he cannot ignore it he mentions it with laborious euphemism.

Nominally, to be sure, there was a religious background to Victorian prudery: it was closely identified with the evangelical sects which had developed simultaneously with the Industrial Revolution. But in practice Nonconformity had come to be the label of a social class rather than a religious creed: the most active followers of Wesley and Whitefield had been the small shop-keeping folk of the Midlands, and when the sons of these families became the big business dictators of the post-war period, they used their evangelical faith as justification for a militant campaign for political and social power. Under the leadership of Wilberforce they began vigorously to invade the preserves of the Established Church and to prove by vast benevolences that they had the welfare of the nation at heart.

Neither eighteenth-century literature nor eighteenth-century religion, then, need be considered, as immediate origins of the so-called “Victorian” sense of propriety. The fact that the Romantic generation of Byron and Shelley and Landor and Peacock and M. G. Lewis, which had been utterly remote from prudery, was immediately succeeded by an era when prudery was dominant, indicates that something happened in the eighteen-twenties to change the whole mood of English literature.

The modern critics have been prompt to list “prudery” as one of the Victorian characteristics, but strangely evasive of defining the term. Even Chesterton, in “The Victorian Age in Literature,” did not turn his epigrammatic power toward a definition, except to call it “a more or less business proposal that every writer shall draw the line at literal physical description of things socially concealed”; and to account for the tendency, he suggested two influences. One was the participation of women with men in the profession of authorship: “the sexes can only be coarse separately.” This theory becomes untenable as soon as one recollects the productions of Mrs. Behn, Mrs. Manley, and Mrs. Centlivre. Secondly, Chesterton attributed the new prudery to “the treaty between the rich bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy, which both had to make, for the common and congenial purpose of keeping the English people down.” While this suggestion is more pertinent than the other, it misleads by its implication that the treaty was made promptly and by mutual consent. My thesis is that in the ‘thirties the literary exponents of the old aristocracy awoke too late to a realization that their prestige was imperiled, and fought a desperate, losing battle against the bourgeois forces.

As the modern critics give little aid, it is better to look for what the Victorians themselves said on the matter. A valuable epitome of their outlook is to be found in “The New Spirit of the Age,” written in 1844 by Richard Henry Home, with the collaboration of Robert Bell and Elizabeth Barrett. A characteristic passage comments upon recent developments in the novel:

Prose fiction has acquired a more respectable status within the last half-century than it held at any previous period in English literature. Very grave people, who set up to be thought wiser than their neighbours, are no longer ashamed to be caught reading a novel. The reason of this is plain enough. It is not that your conventional reader has abated a jot of his dignity, or relaxed a single prejudice in favour of “light reading,” but that the novel itself has undergone a complete revolution. It is no longer a mere fantasy of the imagination, a dreamy pageant of unintelligible sentiments and impossible incidents; but a sensible book, insinuating in an extremely agreeable form—just as cunning physicians insinuate nauseous drugs in sweet disguises—a great deal of useful knowledge, historical, social, and moral.

Here we find a clue to the truly significant fact. Imaginative literature—fiction, drama, and poetry—was now being read by a large and prosperous class of people who a generation before would have had nothing to do with such vanities. Authors who catered to the prejudices of these readers gained financial success, and economic pressure forced their competitors to conform, whether they liked it or not.

A few pages later in “The New Spirit of the Age” we find the critical standards of this class being applied to such an innocuous victim as Mrs. Frances Milton Trollope:

She owes everything to that audacious contempt of publie opinion, which is the distinguishing mark of persons who are said to stick at nothing, . . . Her constitutional coarseness is the natural element of a low popularity, and is sure to pass for cleverness, shrewdness, and strength, where cultivated judgement and chaste inspiration would be thrown away. . . . She takes a strange delight in the hideous and revolting, and dwells with gusto upon the sins of vulgarity.

These two quotations demonstrate the two chief criteria of the newly-rich business class: their approval of anything which was of practical value—anything which was “improving” and “elevating”—and their genteel hatred of everything “low.” Avid to rise in the social scale, they lacked the sublime self-assurance of the true aristocrat, who has no scruples about laughing at “vulgarity,” or even indulging in it himself, because he has no fear of being mistaken for a plebeian.

These two motives, utilitarianism and social pretensions, were the most potent causes of Victorian prudery; and the publications which gratified these tastes became influential. At first, the bourgeois evangelical class had restricted their reading of fiction to books that were so cheap in price and so ingenuous in literary quality that the more sophisticated authors had ridiculed them with good-humored contempt. The most prolific producers had been Hannah More and Mrs. Sherwood, but the individual best sellers were “The Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Legh Richmond, which was published in 1814 and sold about four million copies in the next fifteen years, and “The Sinner’s Friend,” by John Vine Hall (1821), which went through nearly three hundred editions. But with rapidly increasing prosperity and leisure, many of the readers of these books acquired handsome homes and sent their children to expensive schools, and they began to want books which should be not merely “improving” but also “genteel.” In 1822 an enterprising publisher produced what proved to be just what they needed: in that year Rudolph Ackerman brought out “The Forget-me-not,” the first of the Annuals.

A score or more of competitors were soon in the market, and their yearly earnings were estimated at 100,000. Literary aspirants with more industry than genius found comfortable positions as editors, and even impecunious ladies of title, such as the Countess of Blessington, discovered that the snobbery of the reading public conferred a commercial value on their names. Everything about the format of the Annuals was designed to attract the purse-proud; the literary contributions were of secondary importance, but the Annuals paid so well that the best authors could not refuse to contribute, though they usually alluded to their contributions with shamefaced deprecation; and in contributing they had to submit to the editorial taboos.

It was not long until the publishers exploited the new market more widely. Magazines began to offer a more tempting array of fiction, poetry, humor, and illustrations, instead of the ponderous literary and political articles of the old reviews. The format and contents of books were also affected. The publishers, being good business men, perceived the new vogue and brought pressure to bear on their authors; it is significant that the objection to “Rosamund Gray” came from a publisher, Hessey, and the similar objection to “St. Ronan’s Well” came also from a publisher, Ballantine. A change in social standards was imposing itself upon literature through economic sanctions.

The literary men who accepted the change most readily were those who had a natural predilection for placid, domestic, sentimental themes. It is not merely a coincidence that the most typical exponents of the new style were three married couples—Mr. and Mrs. William Howitt, Mr. and Mrs. Alaric Watts, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carter Hall. The marital accord which was thus publicly attested, and the almost embarrassing intimacy with which they used their homes and their children as themes for their poems and sketches, won the esteem of a public which had been scandalized by the behavior of the Byrons, the Shelleys, the Lan-dors, and the Bulwers.

William and Mary Howitt, both members of the Society of Friends, shortly after their marriage in 1821 published jointly two volumes of verse which immediately put them among the most sought-after contributors to the Annuals. Howitt made his greatest fame with his volumes of prose pastorals, such as “The Book of the Seasons” (1832): he also wrote controversial works of an evangelical tinge. His wife, whose contributions to Annuals led eventually to her becoming editor of one of them, “The Drawing-room Scrap-book,” was best known as a writer for children. The total output of husband and wife ran to about one hundred and fifty volumes.

In the same year that Howitt married Mary Botham, Alaric Alexander Watts married another young lady of literary pretensions and devout Quaker upbringing, Priscilla (Lillah) Wiffen, and in the next generation the son of the Watts married the daughter of the Howitts. Alaric Watts began his career with newspaper work in Leeds and Manchester, where he annoyed his employers by advocating safety devices in factories; but in 1824 he became editor of the “Literary Souvenir,” a successful Annual, and thereafter he grew in influence as a critic, editor, and poet. After appearing in separate editions, his fluent, mawkish poetry was collected in 1850 under the title “Lyrics of the Heart,” and became a standard adjunct of Victorian drawing rooms. His wife contributed to the Annuals and magazines, and edited gift-books such as “Tableaux of National Character.”

The career of Samuel Carter Hall followed exactly the same pattern as that of Watts. Beginning as a sentimental versifier and diligent sub-editor, he soon took the editorship of an Annual, “The Amulet, a Christian and Literary Remembrancer,” established two years later than Watts’s “Literary Souvenir.” In 1824 he married Anna Maria Fielding, whose numerous tales of Irish peasant life were superior in literary skill to the work of any other member of the group. When the Annuals began to lose their vogue, Hall founded The Art Journal, which gained wide success through its mixture of the aesthetic and the practical. Its purposes were to raise the level of art in the average English home, to promote the prosperity of native artists by condemning foreign importations, and to recommend new mechanical devices and more attractive household equipment. By his own estimate Hall and his wife were responsible for writing or editing five hundred books.

The Howitts, the Watts, and the Halls formed a literary phalanx with wide authority over the reading public. All six began their careers of authorship about 1820, and for the next twenty years they were the nucleus of the group which established the so-called “Victorian” outlook in English literature. All of them were intensely active in promoting charitable organizations and temperance campaigns.

In spite of their blamelessness of character and nobility of purpose, there was a kind of complacency about them which aroused bitterness and fury in the spokesmen of the old unregenerate party. Blackwood’s and Eraser’s Magazines, as well as their more disreputable weekly contemporaries, such as The Satirist and The Age, made Watts and Hall the butts of their fiercest attacks. One cannot help feeling that Christopher North and Maginn and their friends exaggerated the raffish, devil-may-care, gin-and-water atmosphere of their writings out of sheer bravado, to flaunt their defiance of their goody-goody adversaries. Almost nauseated disgust is audible in Maginn’s description of Watts:

He has some talent in writing verses on children dying of colic, and a skill in putting together fiddle-faddle fooleries which look pretty in print. In other respects, too, he is . . . of an unwashed appearance, no particular principles, with well-bitten nails and a great genius for back-biting.

Goaded by persistent and ingenious ridicule, Watts finally brought a suit against Eraser’s Magazine in 1835, his main contention being, characteristically enough, that the magazine had impaired the sales of his Annual and impugned the chastity of his wife. Although he was awarded damages, the evidence was so ludicrous that the magazine regarded itself as justified in its attitude toward him.

Carter Hall and his wife were treated with similar contempt for their sentimental domesticity. Glimpses of how they were regarded by the sophisticated may be found in the letters of Lady Bulwer Lytton, who referred to Mrs. Hall as “the prize Ox of Periodicals” and “the red round-of-beef,” and declared that

at the time I knew them, “Maria, my love” used to produce a book and a baby every nine months, both of which were invariably buried the following week—the former in oblivion, the latter in a garden that [Hall] then possessed filled with little homeopathic tombstones labelling these lucky little abortions. One cold day in March, he kept me in an east wind beginning an elaborate explanation of the idea (??) he meant to work out in collecting his annuals there, but I cut him short by saying “Yes, yes, I perceive, Mr. Hall, the fact is you have converted this into a nursery garden!”

When Dickens published “Martin Chuzzlewit” in 1844, it was immediately assumed that Carter Hall had been the model for Pecksniff; such writers as Lady Bulwer Lytton and the Hon. Grantley Berkeley thereafter used the name whenever they mentioned him, and in Punch the jest was worked to death, week after week, with Hall’s schemes for “art in industry” burlesqued as specimens of Pecksniff’s unctuous oratory. In other caricatures, also, such as Stig-gins, Chadband, and Gradgrind, Dickens showed the same dislike of the canting, smug type of person who was growing so despotic. Thackeray, too, used the weapon of ridicule against them. The change from the old generation, with its hearty coarseness and self-indulgence, to the new generation with its taboos and hypocrisies, is forcefully exemplified by old Sir Pitt Crawley and his sister in contrast with young Sir Pitt.

Nor was the conflict restricted to the satirical magazines and novels. “Vanity Fair” again provides a clue, when we notice that the Rev. Bute Crawley, the country rector, addicted to port-wine and horse-races, speaks bitterly of young Sir Pitt as “that spooney” and “that Methodist milksop.” From the days of Herrick and Burton to those of Sydney Smith and R. H. Barham, the clergy of the Established Church had been exceptionally remote from prudery. Both Smith and Barham were conspicuous in the campaign against the new censorship. In spite of his tolerant and humanitarian attitude on most subjects, Smith felt so strongly on this one that when Jeffrey asked him to review Southey’s “Life of Wesley” for the Edinburgh Review, he replied:

What I should say, if I undertook it, would be very unfavorable to Methodism, which you object to, though upon what grounds I know not. Of course Methodists, when attacked, cry out, “Infidel! Atheist !”—these are the weapons with which all fanatics and bigots fight.

Sydney Smith, as a Whig, had some degree of sympathy with certain features of the new bourgeois outlook; but his colleague, Richard Harris Barham, was a Tory of the Tories, who admitted freely: “Yes, I am a priest and a bigot, of course; I know it; and I firmly believe that England will never be a really free country till we have abolished Trial by Jury and the Liberty of the Press.” In a life-time devoted to good living, hoaxes, puns, and all species of merriment, Barham ridiculed temperance propaganda and other moralistic campaigns in his doggerel rhymes, and shocked the Puseyites by burlesquing ecclesiastical traditions in “The Ingoldsby Legends,” several of which are fabliaux of the most unblushing ribaldry.

To the evangelical and Methodist mind, it was particularly horrifying that Rabelaisian tastes should be expressed by the clergy; “The New Spirit of the Age” may be cited again, as representing the more moderate and intelligent element in the movement. Sydney Smith it damns with faint praise, but there is no lenience in the condemnation of Barham, of which a few sentences must suffice to exemplify the fifteen pages of abuse:

There is a very large class extremely disposed to be pleased with a clever dalliance amid unseemly subjects and stories,—a liquorish temerity which continually approaches the very verge of verbal grossness, and escapes under the insinuation,—in fact, an ingenious “wrapping up” of all manner of unsightly, unsavory, and unmentionable things. . . , His licentious works are unredeemed and unextenuated by any one sincere passion, and are consequently among the very worst kind of influence that could be exercised upon a rising generation. Wherefore an iron hand is now laid upon the shoulder of Thomas Ingoldsby, and a voice murmurs in his ear, “Brother!—no more of this!”

The foregoing instances have been intended to show that between 1820 and 1840 a bitter conflict was being waged between two irreconcilable points of view in English literature. If it had been merely a squabble of the Annuals and the magazines, involving such third-rate authors as Watts, Hall, and Home vs. Maginn, Barham, and Mrs. Trollope, it would be of little significance. But it was powerful enough to impose itself on established writers of such eminence as Lamb and Scott, and we may infer that it had a fuller influence on the leading writers of the next generation, whose careers began in the midst of the campaign.

If so, it cannot be merely negative, an editorial censorship or an avoidance of unpleasant subjects. An immense proportion of English literature is entirely free from obscenity or even indelicacy, not because it is “prudish,” but simply because it deals with topics in which the interdicted ideas have no place. If traces of prudery are to be found in the work of the major Victorian authors, it must show itself in some positive and detrimental form.

Only a rabid “modernist” would assert that this quality is so general in their work as seriously to impair its literary merit. But even the most loyal admirer of the great Victorians must admit that there are passages in their works which are painfully and startlingly inferior to their usual standard. Sometimes an author actually confessed that in deference to public taste he was consciously omitting details of libidinous episodes. Thackeray, with his usual mixture of conformity to convention and uneasy grumbling at it, did so lengthily in Chapter 64 of “Vanity Fair,” in explaining why he “must pass over a part of Mrs. Rebecca Crawley’s biography with that lightness and delicacy which the world demands.” Not often did a novelist so brazenly tell his readers to supply from their imaginations what he might not set down in type. More generally, the influence of the prevailing prudery merely caused the substitution of shallow and prettified emotions for the deeper and stronger ones which might give offence because they dealt with sexual passion, religious blasphemy, or even the pity and terror of tragedy, if that tragedy implied too strongly the cruelty and injustice of existence. The “happy ending” was inevitable, and for all love stories the automatic happy ending was marriage. It was under strong pressure from Bulwer that Dickens rewrote the end of “Great Expectations” to unite Pip with a repentant Estella. The only variation from a happy ending was a tearful display of pathos, such as the death of Little Nell, giving opportunity for “improving” comment. This tendency to virtuous platitudes produced another unfortunate effect, the “holier than thou” attitude which is best described as “priggish,” as in Tennyson’s “Lady Clara Vere de Vere” when the un-dazzled young man advises the aristocratic flirt to “teach the orphan boy to read, or teach the orphan girl to sew.” And by the innoculation of the sanctimonious serum, an author could even venture to bring his readers into the presence of social infections which were otherwise excluded.

Thus it appears in full eloquence, at the expense of all realism, in Nancy’s interview with Rose Maylie, in “Oliver Twist.”

We might wonder how this mawkish taint could invade such masculine intelligences as Tennyson and Dickens, if we did not see it flourishing in the work of the Howitts, the Watts, the Halls, and all the other authors beloved of the Philistines—work so widely admired that few contemporaries could wholly escape its tarnish. We find bourgeois belief in the depravity of aristocrats paradoxically allied with bourgeois snobbery (contempt for anything “low”), so that on the one hand we see such melodramatic villains as Dickens’s Sir Mulberry Hawk and Thackeray’s Hon. Algernon Deuceace, and on the other hand such “Cinderella” themes as Tennyson’s “Lord of Burleigh” and Miss Barrett’s “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship.”

A favorite English dogma, the inferiority of all foreigners, was reinforced by the assumption that foreigners were universally lax in morality, and hence that English ascendancy was a divine reward for good conduct. Miss Barrett’s ode on the accession of Victoria is a perfect specimen of the mixture of religious meekness, domestic sentimentality, and patriotic complacency, ending:

And so the grateful isles

Shall give thee back their smiles, And as thy mother joys in thee, in them shalt thou rejoice;

Rejoice to meekly bow

A somewhat paler brow, While the King of kings shall bless thee by the British

people’s voice!

With this apotheosis of the young queen the discussion may close. I have ignored the personal influence of Victoria and Albert, because the outcome of the conflict was already assured when she came to the throne. It was not so much Victoria’s popularity that enforced her standards of domestic conduct as her standards of domestic conduct that assured her popularity.


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