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Decency and Dissent in Britain: 1789-1837

by Ben Wilson

Pub Date: March 19th, 2007
ISBN: 1-59420-116-1
Publisher: Penguin Press

They didn’t emerge full-blown from the prissy head of history: The values we now associate with the Victorians were formed by the experiences, mores and manners of their immediate ancestors.

Wilson (The Triumph of Laughter: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press, 2005, not reviewed) makes his case by examining British daily life during the years from the French Revolution to the coronation of Victoria. Apart from passing allusions to Newt Gingrich and a “moral majority,” his engaging account makes few connections to contemporary events, but the parallels are nonetheless evident. The British had long been a rowdy people and proud of it, but war with France and fear of revolution made them nervous and led to restrictions on personal liberty. Crime in the streets, partying in the public gardens and raucousness in the alehouses were denounced by charismatic evangelists who fomented “reforms” of all sorts during the years of concern. Their efforts, of course, began with the poor—as Mark Twain once observed, “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” Benevolent societies were founded and energized. In 1802, the Society for the Suppression of Vice began its noisy but ineffectual tenure. By the time Victoria was enthroned, a variety of social and economic forces had indeed tamed the British. For the first time, in its history London had a police force; the naughty Lord Byron (who makes multiple, always entertaining appearances here) was dead and Thomas Bowdler had completed his puritanical pruning of Shakespeare. Wilson ends generously, claiming the Brits did not really abandon all their dark ways when the Victorians turned on the lights.

A keen, compassionate understanding of the era.