The Fascination With The Victorians

Great Britain, Media, The Arts

This autumn one of the biggest Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions ever seen is being assembled at Tate Britain before heading to Washington and Tokyo. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it all before, but I’ll still go. Why does this era continue to fascinate?

First, for many of us it’s tangibly only just out of reach. My grandmother was a proper Victorian, keeping a silent, aspidistra-filled house free of all activities except ‘improving’ reading on Sunday, and I feel the late Victorian mentality is a shadow that will always touch me. Our houses and streets and public buildings are mainly still Victorian.

Jan* Morris’s ‘Pax Britannia’ trilogy brilliantly captures the intentions of the Victorian empire, how its roots surprisingly lay in improvement, fairness and universal equality, how it became corrupted by aggressive Christian intrusion and the desire to reform belief. All kinds of capitalist disasters occurred along the way. British textile manufacturers learned the techniques of Indian dyeing so well that they destroyed the Indian cotton industry. And yet to go to India now is the closest experience you can have to stepping into a largely still revered Victorian past. Even the language you hear feels like the conversation of your great-grandparents.

The Victorians were great self-mythologisers, reimagining a pure Arthurian past that had never existed, and that’s the problem with much Victorian art. Just two decades ago, Pre-Raphaelite paintings were still in such an unfashionable trough that a dying friend of mine sold his entire collection of Waterhouse, Millais, Rossetti and Holman-Hunt pictures for virtually nothing. One year later, the collection surfaced at Liberty’s with massively inflated prices attached.

We love and hate them, often because our thinking about them has become clouded by lazy tick-boxes of what it meant to be Victorian. Prudery, hypocrisy, laissez-faire arrogance – yes, there were elements of all, but the picture is far more complex than that. Victoria’s own youthful desires to do good were ultimately stifled by her ministers, and perhaps after sixty years of stability every state must stagnate.

To me the late era is perfectly summed up by the Millais Ophelia, not a picture of madness and suicide at all, but a becalmed and graceful unawareness, its beauty hiding inner darkness.

*In the Comments it has been pointed out to me that James became Jan a long time ago – not in my editions. I was unaware of the change.

13 comments on “The Fascination With The Victorians”

  1. Mary says:

    The paiting of Ophelia is so beautiful and very skillful. Thank you.

  2. John Howard says:

    The BBC4 series on the pre-raphaelites was very good I thought. Not because any of the dialogue or scenes were necessarily accurate but because it made me more aware of Holman-Hunt. I was well aware of Millais, Rossetti & Ruskin but he had passed me by. The images and back story for him really rounded out the picture (sorry – pun not intended) Like you I will definitely be going along.

    P.S. Admin you are really getting out your wooden spoon by continuing to mention James Morris instead of her new name. I wonder if another ticking off is coming your way.

  3. snowy says:

    The Victorian era is very interesting in many ways. The key thing is it was a long, stable period of comparative comfort for most people.
    So long, it is possible to prove any thesis you wish, by ‘cherry picking’ bits of history from the period.

    Did they really cover the legs of tables for reasons of modesty? Was it a joke played on our American cousins?, did it just stop the cat scratching away the lacquer? or were they just completely mental deranged with a chintz fetish?

    But it still inspires new works, in UK cinema the latest is a rom-com called ‘Hysteria’ which is based around the period where a sufficiently wealthy woman, could visit her doctor to receive a ‘manual pelvic massage’. [I am given to understand younger people would describe this as ‘having their bean flicked’.]

    So lengthy and tiring was this procedure, for the poor doctor, that one enterprising chap mechanised it. First using steam, then another bright spark thought of electricity and the home personal massager was born. [About a decade before the vacuum cleaner, and years before you could sit on the washing machine.]

    I suspect it did not get a very wide release in North American cinemas, things being what they are. But it is out on DVD.

    [I’m certain someone will be along shortly with a stout winch, to haul the tone back up to a respectable level.]

  4. Brian says:

    Agreed Mr. Howard, this makes it twice in two weeks he has referred to her as James. It is now 40 years since she became Jan so one would think Admin would be used to the idea by now. I can’t believe he persists with the wrong name through some form of prejudice – or could he?

    Given that her entire back catalogue is now published under the name Jan Morris there is really no excuse for what is starting to look a bit nasty.

  5. admin says:

    Hi John & Brian

    About the James/ Jan point – I never noticed because my editions say ‘James’ on them, and I had not been aware of the change in gender.

  6. keith page says:

    I can actually remember my great-grandmother and her gaslit house[ yes, really, and I’m not quite as old as this might suggest]

  7. John Howard says:

    Sorry admin, didn’t mean to bring the wrath of Brian down upon you. I inadvertently seem to have had my own wooden spoon out.

  8. snowy says:

    I was going to ask what everyone’s favourite Cat Stevens record was, but I’m afraid I might get my head bitten off.

  9. Brian says:

    Dear oh dear, Mr. Howard I’m just a gentle old soul with no wrath to bring down on anyone. However, amongst my friends I have two who fit into the same “category” as Jan Morris and over many years have witnessed some appalling responses to them so I guess I tend to notice or perceive slights (sometimes mistakenly) in other situations. I don’t really think Admin is one who be anti other people’s sexuality.

    Snowy, if I remember correctly Yusaf Islam only changed his name not his sex. Being the age that I am I will confess that I have quite a few Cat Stevens LPs tucked away along with all the vinyl of my youth; in fact I’m in the process of looking to upgrade my turntable. With the renewed interest in vinyl that market is starting to expand with some excellent equipment.

  10. snowy says:

    Brian, my slightly tounge in cheek reference to CS/YI was not to attempt to compare them directly. [And I was sad to read of the maltreatment your friends received.]

    But to point toward the risk that, if the focus moves onto a persons domestic life, we do them the greater disservice of overshadowing their body of work.

    May I wish you success in your search for a new deck, and if any oily salesman tries to persuade you of the merits of: high conductivity gold connectors, oxygen free copper wire, or a mains plug that reduces hum. They are talking through their hat. And definately decline any offers of slimline salad dressing!

  11. snowy says:

    Oops that has to be the most obscure cultural reference possible, without being deliberately oblique.

    Let’s try to fix that.

  12. John Howard says:

    Thank you for that snowy. I suspect your penchant for all things woofers, tweetery and super-het made your mind store that one away. I well remember the days of Stereo being the coming thing and my fathers’ collection of reference discs when he was building his own system in the fifties.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Oh that was lovely, but I would personally fire that pair if I were their employer. Grandad, indeed.

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