The word Victorian tends to evoke old-fashioned ideas: women confined in corsets, strict gender roles, and a prudishness about all things sexual. In a world where conspicuous consumerism and self-expression rule, these nineteenth-century notions of self-restraint and self-denial seem hopelessly outdated.
But the Victorian ethos is not dead, not by a long shot.
It lives on, manifesting itself in our contemporary upper middle class’s behavior. While some aspects have gone the way of the waistcoat, the belief that the bourgeoisie holds a place of moral superiority over the other classes persists.
Today, spin classes, artisanal food, and the college application process have replaced Sunday promenades, evening lectures, and weekly salons. But make no mistake, they serve the same purpose: transforming class privilege into individual virtue, thereby shoring up social dominance.
Historian Peter Gay used “Victorian” to broadly describe the culture of the educated upper middle classes of Western Europe and the United States in the long nineteenth century. Of course, they held much more complicated beliefs about sex, gender, and family than we paint them to have.
Victorians may have enforced a strict moral code, but they talked about sex all the time, almost obsessively. As Gay pointed out, wealthy couples often wrote love letters with more steam than a Newcomen engine.
And despite stereotypes of stern, authoritarian fathers, this period ushered in contemporary notions of parenting. A real man not only provided for his family, but also took an active interest in his children’s emotional well-being.
Although the nineteenth-century upper middle class was not nearly as prudish and stern as we imagine, it did adhere to strict behavioral codes. These normative codes reflected the period’s shifting class structure and the ascendant bourgeoisie’s desire to assert its moral superiority over the nobility, using virtue to challenge the old aristocracy’s place at the center of political, social, and cultural life. While the sons of the gentry hunted and dined, the sons of bankers and lawyers worked, built families, and educated themselves.
In Germany, the key word is almost untranslatable: Bildung, which means education in the form of personal cultivation and improvement. That idea, expressed in different languages in different nations, tied this rising class together across national borders. Self-improvement differentiated them from the decadent 1 percent.
For example, listening to music became an educational — rather than entertaining — experience. The eighteenth century’s classical chamber music functioned as a pleasant soundtrack for aristocratic soirees. At concert halls, the nobility would canoodle in their boxes, only half paying attention to the performers.
But when the rising capitalist class attended concerts, they did not gab away in a convivial fashion: they sat still and demanded silence, in order to concentrate on the music.
German Victorians coined the term Sitzfleisch — sitting flesh — to describe the muscle control required for sitting absolutely still during a concert performance. Even coughs and sneezes had to be stifled, lest they break anyone’s concentration and derail self-improvement.
The quest for Bildung saturated daily life as well. Wealthy young women, who could not hope for any career beyond wife and mother, learned at least one other language and took piano and singing lessons. Men often spent their evenings attending lectures or participating in civic organizations.
For this dedication to pay off, however, these enriched Victorians had to display it, making their difference from both the wealthier and the poorer obvious to all.
They spent a fearsome percentage of their incomes on home décor that showed affluence, taste, and modesty simultaneously. They knew that they had made it once they had a salon — a room in the house devoted entirely to entertaining guests that the residents would never enter alone. On Sundays, the entire family would promenade through the park.
In fact, across Europe and the United States, wealthy families pushed for the construction of more and more public parks. But, in line with their values, these spaces were not intended as commons that anyone could enjoy but as stages to show off their Sunday best.
New York’s Central Park, for example, forbade the public from going on the grass or playing sports. Children had to produce a “certificate of good behavior” from their school before they were allowed on playgrounds. Beer sales were banned on Sundays.
The park wasn’t for working-class leisure, but discipline. There, laborers learned to appreciate the proper way to enjoy the park: the stroll. Fredrick Law Olmsted’s early park served as a massive temple to the Victorian notion of nature as a site of improvement.
While we don’t often see men in top hats and women in petticoats parading their children on Sundays, parks remain a place to display virtue and discipline: contemporary fitness culture perfectly embodies the nineteenth-century ethos of improvement and discipline.
Victorians were famously averse to physical activity — which was for the proles — and they saw carrying extra weight as a marker of class and respectability. Fitness and sport began to infiltrate middle-class life in the twentieth century, and today serves the same function as the promenade.
This first struck me nine years ago. I was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and enjoyed riding my bike as a way to explore an unfamiliar place. One day, I decided to visit East Grand Rapids, a very wealthy suburb, because it has a bike path around Reeds Lake.
Once I arrived, I immediately realized that I was the only person not wearing exercise clothing. This is not to say everyone was exercising — most were out for a stroll, much like their predecessors — but they were dressed for the gym. The other cyclists all wore tight-fitting spandex outfits, as if they were at the starting line of the Tour de France.
These clothes were sending a message: “Make no mistake, we are not walking or riding bikes for transportation. This is exercise.” The wealthy residents of East Grand Rapids had turned a walk in the park into a fitness routine; their athleisure wear proclaimed that this activity was an act of improvement.
Current exercise trends, like hot yoga, spin, and CrossFit, all demonstrate a commitment to self-denial and self-discipline, values much praised by the Victorians. Marathon running has become the ultimate signifier: competitors can post photos on social media to prove to everyone that they have tortured their bodies in a highly virtuous — and not at all kinky — fashion.
This seeps over into everyday activities as well. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are filled with people dressed in workout gear with no sweat in sight. This clothing marks its wearers as the type of people who care for their bodies, even when they aren’t exercising. Yoga pants and running shoes display virtue just as clearly as the nineteenth-century wives’ corseted dresses did.
Being fit now indexes class, saturating both fitness and food culture. As calories have become cheaper, obesity has changed from being a sign of wealth to a sign of moral failure. Today, being unhealthy functions as a hallmark of the poor’s cupidity the same way working-class sexual mores were viewed in the nineteenth century.
Both lines of thinking assert that the lower classes cannot control themselves, so they deserve exactly what they have and nothing more. No need, then, for higher wages or subsidized health care. After all, the poor will just waste it on cigarettes and cheeseburgers.
Both then and now, these purported health differences register disgust with working-class bodies. In The Road To Wigan Pier, George Orwell discussed his late-Victorian upbringing, writing that he was trained to believe “that there was something subtly repulsive about a working-class body.” In Orwell’s time, soap — not fitness — made that distinction; he was taught that, in his words, “the lower classes smell.”
Nowadays, the Internet registers cross-class horror on websites like People of Wal-Mart. Instead of being repulsed by the “great unwashed,” the modern Victorians blanch at the “great overfed.”
While the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie saw full figures not as embarrassments to be eradicated, but as comforting signs of their prosperity, their spiritual descendants are obsessed with eating the right kinds of food. In the last fifteen years, organic food has gone from fringe phenomenon to absolute necessity.
Consider the gluten-free movement — those who choose to eliminate gluten from their diet, not those who have celiac disease and must eschew wheat entirely. A few years ago, I joked that finding a gluten-free resident in my rural Nebraska hometown would have been akin to finding the collected works of Peter Kropotkin in the local library. Now “gluten- free” food appears on nearly every local supermarket shelf.
This food discipline is a form of virtuous self-denial that would have made the Victorians proud. If only my grandparents had lived long enough to realize that growing their own potatoes and cucumbers made them high class, not hicks.
Mommy Wars and College Apps
A similar dynamic infects family life today. Like their ancestors, today’s upper middle classes place a great deal of emphasis on the family. Although nineteenth-century authoritarianism has fallen away, this period first saw childhood as a distinct and special period in life. Parents acted accordingly, setting aside nurseries in their homes for their children.
Child-rearing practices get more onerous with each passing year, demanding that parents exercise extreme discipline and self-denial. A recent book — All Joy And No Fun — sounds like music to a Victorian’s ears. What could be more frivolous and less educational than fun? There’s no time for it amidst the demands of modern parenting.
Mothers must breast-feed for an extended period, provide only organic food to their children, and keep screen time to nil. Slip-ups indicate failure. This represents perhaps the clearest link between Victorian values then and now: both restrict women and reinforce gender hierarchy.
It is hardly coincidental that these new expectations require money and time. A working mother who has to juggle multiple service-sector jobs will find it much harder to pump breast milk at work than a woman in an office job. (Not to mention the disparity in parental leave between white- and blue-collar workers.)
The moralistic imperatives now attached to breast-feeding allow working-class women — who are less likely to breast-feed — to be judged moral failures. Indeed, public battles over breast-feeding restrictions rarely extend to demands for better lactation access for working-class women.
Intensive parenting expectations continue well after children leave infancy. Young children are encouraged to participate in costly club sports, and parents to give up their free time to support them. These activities take time and money, two resources working people lack.
This proliferation of organized activities represents a form of improvement: a child’s free time is now completely subsumed by Bildung. And the ability to provide these opportunities to kids is portrayed as a reflection of a family’s morality, not their economic situation. Just as Victorian women had to learn to play the piano and speak Italian — showing off a refinement unavailable to the other levels of society — modern kids play soccer, learn Mandarin, and volunteer at a local charity.
But the capstone of the modern quest for Bildung is surely the college application process. There is no good nineteenth-century analogue for this ridiculous new ritual, although Dickens would’ve been perfectly able to satirize its inherent absurdity: Millions act as if a system weighted very heavily toward privilege is in fact some kind of meritocracy, and that a person’s worth can be judged by the prestige of the school where they have been accepted.
Most Americans who go to college only apply to a couple of schools. But upper-class children take standardized test prep classes, intern or travel over the summer to have material for their entrance essays, and often apply to a dozen schools, all to maximize their chances at getting into the one with the best name. Parents — no matter their children’s actual intellectual capacities — can then rest easy in the knowledge they are of a better sort than the plebs who attend Directional State U.
Bildung For All!
Today’s upper middle class maintains the fiction of a meritocratic society, just as the Victorians did. This story allows them to shore up their economic position behind the backs of workers, who are taught that their health problems and dismal career prospects represent individual faults, not systemic dysfunction.
Of course, exercising, eating organic food, and pushing children to use their spare time usefully are not inherently bad things. However, they become markers of bourgeois values when they are marshaled to assert one class’s moral superiority over another and to justify social inequality. It was just as obnoxious in the nineteenth century as it is today.
We should care about health, food, and education. But instead of seeing them as ways to prop up class dominance, we should improve them for everyone. Imagine if all of the energy used to get mediocre, upper-class children into prestigious colleges was redirected into making higher education more accessible and affordable across the board. Imagine if access to healthy food for all was prioritized over attaining status through buying the most virtuous products. Imagine, in short, what our world would look like if socialist values — not Victorian ones — dominated.