Commentary Magazine

The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, by Peter Gay

Sex and Society

The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Volume I: Education of the Senses.
by Peter Gay.
Oxford University Press. 534 pp. $25.00.

We are promised that this is the first installment of “a project of enormous scope,” a “multivolume study of the European and American middle classes from the 1820’s to the outbreak of World War I.” Actually, it is an extensive but not particularly systematic survey of sexuality in the 19th century. Peter Gay is an ambitious and unusually wide-ranging historian of culture, and no one can fail to admire the industry with which he seeks knowledge and his zest in communicating it. Peering behind the formal 19th-century attitudes to sex, he has not only read the relevant secondary authorities, and ranged very widely in the published diaries and memoirs in English, French, and German, he has also tapped the rich sources of unpublished letters and diaries deposited in American libraries. He has come up with some real plums, too, notably what he calls the “exhaustive record” which Mabel Loomis Todd, a middle-class girl who grew up in Washington, D.C. in the 1860’s and was later to become the wife of an Amherst astronomer and the woman responsible for bringing Emily Dickinson’s poetry before the reading public, kept of her “erotic life.”1 Professor Gay has an engaging manner and a sharp eye for a telling quotation and a choice example. Even experienced students of the period will find plenty here that is new and interesting.

Nevertheless, at bottom this book is a lot of miscellaneous information chasing a subject. It lacks a pervasive theme and a solid shape. The title of the larger project, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, gives the game away. Let us take the three elements in turn: “Victoria,” “Freud,” “Bourgeois.”

I am coming to believe that the term “Victorian,” which was coined in its popular, pejorative sense by Bloomsbury intellectuals, ought to be avoided by historians, even in reference to English history. A change in tone toward religiosity and public decorum had set in long before Victoria came to the throne. Her personal impact was really limited to the period when she was under the influence of Prince Albert, that is, from the early 1840’s to his death in 1861. From 1868 on, the first Gladstone government ended the Victorian consensus, if there ever was one; and the financial crisis and agricultural distress of the late 1870’s introduced a new age of economic change and social strain.

In many ways Victoria herself was most un-“Victorian,” with much wider sympathies than most of her subjects, and especially the official and ruling classes. For instance, she had warm feelings toward the Jews, dating from the days when she stayed as a child in Sir Moses Montefiore’s house in Rams-gate. Also, as anyone who visits the most personal of her homes, Osborne, can see, she loved her Indian subjects, whose portraits and mementos clutter the house. The prime ministers she liked best, Melbourne and Disraeli, and the servants who won her confidence, John Brown and the Munchi, were all tremendously un-“Victorian” as well. Inside that round little body there was an impulsive radical struggling to get out, and sometimes succeeding. What she was not (as Gay claims) was a bourgeoise: no bourgeoise ever ate breakfast off solid gold.

Gay’s use of Freud also seems to me misleading. Most of Freud’s best work was done around the turn of the century, but his impact on the wider world outside Vienna did not begin until the end of World War I. Then, in due course, it was seismic; but it is largely irrelevant in terms of Gay’s period. Gay appears to be a more or less orthodox Freudian, and that is a disadvantage to a historian now that most of us have come to see Freud not as a scientist but as an imaginative writer, if an original and illuminating one. Gay is not so foolish as to buy the full psychobiography and psychohistory package, but I shudder when he tells us his purpose is “to integrate psychoanalysis with history.” How would it sound if one said one’s purpose was to integrate phrenology / table-turning / mesmerism with history?

Gay, indeed, is obsessed with Freud, who pops up in his text persistently and incongruously. We have Freud on the use of Latin, on John Stuart Mill, on the spread of contraception, on Malthus, on breast-feeding, and on many other matters. Thus, discussing Mary Wood-Allen’s book on what to tell children about sex, Gay cannot help noting: “Sigmund Freud intensely disliked this kind of equivocation.” Informing us that Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone had eight children in fourteen years, Gay feels bound to add: “The Freuds had six children in eight years.”



But a more fundamental objection to Gay’s framework is his use of the word “bourgeois” to characterize his period. He frequently refers to it as “the bourgeois century.” The implication is that the dominant culture of the 19th century, in Europe and North America, was that of the urban business class. I believe this to be not so much a grotesque oversimplification as fundamentally invalid. Gay himself admits and dismisses at length problems of definition, conceding that some historians argue that the reality of bourgeois power in the 19th century has been much exaggerated. But after this genuflection, he hurries on to do what he had intended all along, ignoring the very substantial objections to his fundamental assumption.

But these objections cannot be ignored. The nearest approach to a bourgeois society before 1900 was the United States. Even there, the description is misleading. Until the 1860’s, the South was very much a gentry society, as were for long after states like Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, and even parts of California. Parts of New England, up to 1900 and beyond, were highly stratified under the leadership of commercial dynasties which had perhaps more in common with the Medicis in Florence or the Moncenigos in Venice than with Dickens’s Dombeys or Veneerings. From the late 1870’s, the United States was expanding with such astonishing speed, both geographically and demographically, and receiving such vast numbers of peasants, small tradesmen, craftsmen, and refugees from so many quite different backgrounds, as to defy any kind of social-cultural classification. In due course, a cultural fix was imposed, and it was middle-class of a kind; but it came only in the 1920’s when immigration began to slow down. One might say, indeed, that the true bourgeois age began in the United States only during World War I, and thereafter lasted until the late 1950’s.



The position in Europe was not so very different. Up to the fall of the Kaiser in 1918, Prussian Germany was ruled by Junker landowners. The Liberals and even the Social Democrats might do well in elections but they never exercised real power. Even civilian ministers addressed the Reichstag in uniform; it is difficult to imagine anything less bourgeois than that. It was precisely because the dominant German culture was so deeply militaristic that the bourgeois Weimar republic proved so feeble and was so easily overthrown by the Nazis. The Austrian empire was less homogeneous, but in all essentials court and aristocracy retained their power until the Hapsburgs left their throne: bourgeois politics was for local and occasionally regional government.

France was a more complex case. To begin with, it had four aristocracies: two Bourbon (noblesse d’épee and noblesse de robe), one Orleanist, one Napoleonic (itself divided into First and Second Empire titles). They were mutually exclusive with distinct cultural variations, not least on sexual mores. Broadly speaking, and with help from the Church and the high bourgeoisie, they governed France, except for brief intervals, until they lost effective long-term power during the struggles over the Dreyfus case in the decade from 1895 to 1905. There is something to be said for the view that the general election and Combes ministry of 1902 was the first time the French middle class took possession.

Much the same is true of the British general election of 1906. Gay’s notion of the “bourgeois century” does not fit the facts of 19th-century Britain. The Reform Bill of 1832 did not hand over power to the middle classes. The commercial interest might win victories, such as the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, but for at least a generation longer the gentry were dominant in Parliament. If we look at the cabinet Gladstone formed in 1880 after an overwhelming Liberal victory, what do we find? Of fourteen members, one was a duke, one a marquess, five were earls, and one of the commoners was of Plantagenet descent. Its Conservative successor in 1885 numbered one duke, one marquess, three earls, a viscount, and a baron; of eight commoners, three were the sons of dukes and three others were closely related to the nobility. Even the famous radical cabinet of December 1905 had (of nineteen members) a marquess, three earls, two barons, and five landowners.

Gay is often baffled by European class structures. He cites Gladstone constantly, referring to his “punitive evangelical superego” and his “bourgeois conscience.” But Gladstone was not an evangelical but a High Anglican. Furthermore, although his family background was Scots-Liverpool commerce, his education was at Eton and Oxford, and his classical Anglican culture was that of the upper class; he married into one of the oldest landowning families in Wales, lived in a castle, and managed a large estate. He was a pillar of London society, and his diaries show he went on the usual summer-autumn round of country houses; when he dined alone at his club he drank an imperial pint of champagne like any other grandee.



Far from the middle classes taking over society with their culture, it was the other way around until 1914. The single most striking phenomenon of 19th-century social culture was the cult of the gentleman, the engine of which was bourgeois emulation of upper-class behavior. As the novels of Trollope repeatedly demonstrate, the decisive question in mid-19th-century England was whether a man could plausibly call himself a gentleman; that was the dividing line. The phenomenon was not confined to England or the English, as Henry James makes clear. Indeed it was everywhere. An immigrant like Karl Marx, sweating away in London at Das Kapital and so poor he was constantly in and out of the pawnshop, nevertheless forbade his daughters to work and kept them at home playing the piano and painting watercolors so that he could “prove” they were ladies.

Marx betrayed his confusions when, in the 1848 Manifesto, he and Engels referred to “the idiocy of rural life.” The bourgeoisie no longer agreed with him on this point. By mid-century they were acquiring country houses, if they were successful enough, and so aspiring to gentry status and with it absorbing an aristocratic culture of a sort. Dickens’s Mr. Dombey Senior was already old-fashioned, clinging to his grand merchant’s house in the City. A generation later he would have been building in the country, like Galsworthy’s Soames Forsyte. The essence of the bourgeois is that he is a city dweller. He changes his status, and culture, when he acquires broad acres.

Gay quotes Stendhal: “The bourgeois has replaced the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and the bank is the aristocracy of the bourgeois class.” But by the time Stendhal wrote, English banking families like the Coutts and the Carringtons (né Smith) were already in the aristocracy proper and reflecting its culture. The Rothschilds began to lose their bourgeois status when they left Frankfurt. By mid-century they were acquiring country palaces, like Ferrières-en-Brie, Mentmore, Tring, and Waddesdon. Their culture was that of the court, the great art dealers, the fashionable jewelers and carriage-makers, Ascot, and Vincennes. Their attitude to morals reflected ruling-class habits. At Waddesdon, for instance, I have seen a staircase built so that Victoria’s heir, the Prince of Wales, could communicate with the bedroom of his current mistress when both were guests of the Rothschilds.

The Rothschilds were exceptional but not unique in their upward mobility. Gay quotes Heine as an excoriator of bourgeois cultural values. But Heine’s own family reflects the upward movement which confuses the line of class demarcation. One of his brothers became a baron; another married into the nobility and acquired a “von”; other members of the family became barons, duchesses, and princesses, and even a reigning prince of Monaco. The culture of many members of the Heine family was no more bourgeois than (in a different way) was Heine’s own.



In short, the framework of Gay’s book lacks accurate definition and, above all, chronological precision. Am I being pedantic? I don’t think so. Gay’s method of writing history makes large claims. It springs in part from the French Annales school of “total history” which, under its progenitor Marc Bloch, cast beams of light into remote corners of the Dark Ages but which, under Fernand Braudel and Le Roi Ladourie, and still more among their imitators, has been characterized by pretentiousness and flatulence. Its greatest weakness, issuing from the desire to avoid narrative and consequential argument at all costs, is the lack of a chronological framework. History without chronology tends to degenerate into fuzzy anecdotage.

In his multivolume study of capitalism, Braudel habitually strings together snippets of evidence from different periods and widely disparate societies to prove a specific point. Gay follows this unsatisfactory method. Thus, to show that “death provided material for heartless humor” in the “culture” he says he is anatomizing, he cites evidence from 1826, 1859, and 1885, drawn from England, France, and Germany. Both the geographical and still more the chronological span are much too wide. After all, 1826 was the morrow of Byron’s death, 1885 the eve of T.S. Eliot’s birth. Or, to put it another way, 1826 saw the opening of the first commercial railroad, 1885 the first automobile. To have any useful meaning, a cultural generalization requires a much sharper focus than this: often, a decade is too long.

I stress the defects of Gay’s methodology because the taxonomy and presentation of evidence are even more critical than usual when the subject is as elusive as sexual behavior. Gay’s book suggests that it is not possible, at any rate at present, to characterize 19th-century sexuality with any precision, and certainly not to give it a “bourgeois” label. American society, not surprisingly in view of its origins, had always set unprecedented standards of sexual propriety in public, and the 19th century brought no essential change, so far as one can see. In England, there was a marked improvement in court morals from the 1840’s, and in upper-class morals, at any rate for public consumption. In both Britain and the United States, contemporaries agreed there was a falling off during and immediately after World War I.

But all this is commonplace knowledge. Gay’s material shows there are exceptions to any and all generalizations. There are also great continuities. Byron went into exile in 1816 at least partly to avoid scandalous disclosures about his sexual habits. Oscar Wilde went to jail and exile in 1895. Thirty-five years later, Earl Beauchamp was forced into exile for exactly the same reason, thus providing Evelyn Waugh with his Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited. As recently as the 1950’s, one of my Oxford contemporaries, Lord Montague, was jailed for this kind of offense.

The big change, it seems to me, came in the 1960’s, perhaps the biggest change in sexual mores in the whole history of the West. But even then some continuities remain. In 1886, Gladstone, compiling his cabinet list, felt obliged to write “unavailable” against Sir Charles Dilke’s name because that enterprising baronet was already publicly associated with a salacious divorce action. Last autumn, Cecil Parkinson was forced to leave Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet when behavior in every way less reprehensible than Dilke’s was publicly disclosed. Publicity is the criterion, as it nearly always has been. There seems to be a strong and continuing popular desire that homage should be paid to virtue in public, irrespective of what happens in private. And, pace Peter Gay, that is about the only generalization it is safe to make.




1 The correspondence of Mabel Loomis Todd and her lover Austin Dickinson (Emily's brother) has recently been published in a selection by Polly Longsworth, Austin and Mabel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 449 pp., $24.95.

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.

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