Queen Victoria took the British throne in 1837, marking a monumental geopolitical shift for Great Britain. For the next 64 years, she oversaw the expansion of the British Empire which, at its peak, would colonize a quarter of the world. But just as sweeping were the cultural changes her reign introduced to much of European and American society, characterized by a preoccupation with propriety and reputation.
As Sally Mitchell writes in “Daily Life in Victorian England,” Victorian society was strictly segregated by socioeconomics, largely determined not only by wealth, but also by background, which included the source of the family’s income, and its connections. Victorians knew their standing, and observed it by, for example, boarding the correct “class” of train car -- first, second, or third. Stuck somewhere between the elite aristocratic class and the working poor, the middle class faced its own unique pressures, since this group "represented the essence of morality, stability and comfort," writes Mitchell.
The Importance of Reputation
Net worth was an abstract consideration in the Victorian era, writes Mitchell. Wealth did not come down to dollar amount as much as it did land holdings. And although the growing middle class offered some sense of social mobility, social roles were still determined more by the character of the work they did than the amount of money they earned. For example, some “white collar” office workers might earn far less than certain skilled laborers, but would still be considered middle class, while higher-earning counterparts would be working class.
Morality in the Victorian Era
Queen Victoria promoted a culture of moderation and sexual restraint, largely in reaction to the excesses of her predecessor, King William IV, often referred to as a rogue. Physical love was never discussed in polite society, and women -- specifically of the middle and upper classes -- were expected to conform to the most idealistic views of behavior and modesty. A premium was placed on chastity, to the point where many young couples entered marriage in a state of near-ignorance about sex. As Robert Crooks and Karla Baur write in "Our Sexuality," feminine ideals like grace and delicate femininity were emphasized by the fashions of the day, including physically restrictive undergarments like corsets and bustles. A famous physician of the day, William Acton, declared in writing that women were not troubled by sexual feelings in general.
One of the core values of Victorian culture is exemplified by a verse from John H. Young's 1882 book, "Our Deportment: The Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society." In the introduction, Young includes the following verse: "To go through this life with good manners possessed, Is to be kind unto all, rich, poor and oppressed." Throughout his more than 400-page tome, Young prizes etiquette as an arbiter of social order, saying that good manners represented the vital principles of Christianity and were essential in promoting peace and goodwill in humanity. Good manners also offered members of the lower classes some relief from the difficulties of poverty, in a social if not material sense. Adhering to good manners provided respectability, which promoted public reputation. Members of the poor and lower-middle classes especially prized respectability, in place of material wealth or even comforts.