First: If you’re Victorian enough to dislike burlesque, please contact me immediately — per the Contact page in my front page right margin — and volunteer to be our anti-burlesque debater at Lolita Bar next week. In this town, alas, it’s easier to find intellectuals who actually do burlesque themselves — hard to avoid them, in fact — than to find one who denies burlesque is art, whether for moral, political, or aesthetic reasons.
Nonetheless: a Camille Paglia piece this weekend blamed Americans’ purportedly waning libidos on our cultural inheritance from the staid, bourgeois Victorians — and praised Southerners and 80s New Wave acts such as Belinda Carlisle as exceptions, while dismissing Lady Gaga. I agree with some of that, obviously. I would contend, though, that the Victorians actually achieved an impressive balance of happiness and self-restraint from which we can still learn (and, not coincidentally, they were culturally dominated by a combination of utilitarian Darwinians and evangelicals).
Luckily, I happen to be doing a summer of Victorian-themed reading (which will pay off in the form of a steampunk comic book script if all goes as planned), so I can learn from James Laver’s Victorian Vista (published in 1955). It’s an entertaining, scrapbook-like collection of telling little pieces of nineteenth-century British culture: menus, song lyrics, newspaper reports — the random things that remind you there was internal logic to that era (and that humanity has nonetheless always been nuts).
As my Book Selection last month detailed, the stereotypically “Victorian” middle third of the nineteenth century was preceded by a period that was both more decadent and more Tory-dominated, odd as that may sound to most moderns (except Helen). The very first page of the first chapter of Victorian Vista (this book mainly concerning the middle part of the century) contains this sentence summing up the earlier period: “Many of the grandes dames were openly promiscuous, and their husbands and lovers drank heavily, gambled prodigiously, and consorted with pugilists and jockeys.”
By contrast, intellectuals were already griping by 1864 that Brits were becoming a bunch of tacky tourists at the shore, with one of the pieces excerpted in Victorian Vista from that time describing a typical beachgoer (then a new phenomenon) thusly:
[H]e reclines upon the sands, and gazes lazily upon the ocean, [succumbing] to a state of the most helpless inactivity. The monotony wearies, yet fascinates him; and it is difficult to do otherwise than stare in a vacant manner at the moaning, foaming, sad waves. To fling pebbles, at deliberate intervals, into the sea, is an occupation perhaps the best suited to the situation, the effort to throw while one is in a sitting posture taxing to the utmost the physical energy, while the strain upon the attention required in aiming at a particular crest of an advancing wave is as much as the mind can conveniently bear under the circumstances.
Twentieth-century condescension toward the Victorians seemingly can’t match their own self-loathing when it peeks out between bouts of progressive triumphalism and imperialism. Speaking of military matters — and tourists — Laver wittily notes that there was unrest on the Continent but also an increasing tendency for the English tourist to head to the Continent for vacation. “He was therefore extremely annoyed when, in 1848, revolutions broke out all over Europe. For the first time for many years he was compelled, for political reasons, to ask himself the question, ‘Where can we go this year?’”
This collection is, by design, a bit fluffy at times, but still revealing. An excerpt from an etiquette book of 1855, for instance, teaches us that the breakdown of manners has been a concern for over a century and a half:
[I]t is now not only allowable, but even thought clever, to be loud, positive, and rapid; to come into the room like a whirlwind, carrying all before you; to look upon everyone else as inferiors, with the idea that it enforces that conviction; to have your own set of opinions and ideas, without the least reference to what others think; and to express them in terms that would have been far better comprehended in the stable than by a company of ladies and gentlemen some twenty years ago.
On a more serious note, we learn that the pre-Raphaelites, lofty as their artistic aspirations may seem now, were part of a larger and arguably lamentably-bourgeois tendency toward literalism and realism in painting. They just used more forest nymphs.
We learn that archery was considered suspect because of its tendency to be played by both sexes (it being less physical taxing for the increasingly liberated modern woman than would be, say, rugby). Archery clubs were everywhere, and rumors about them abounded (just like gender-equalizing croquet — but more about that in next month’s Book Selection, which is about my own home town, Norwich, CT).
The pretensions of the moderns were kept in check through satire, such as this Python-worthy 1877 poem from Punch mocking aesthetes (Wilde being among their targets):
Glad lady mine, that glitterest
In shimmah of summah athwart the lawn,
Canst tell me which is bitterest –
The glamour of Eve, or the glimmah of dawn,
To those whose hearts thou litterest
The field where they fall at thy feet to fawn?
As a buttahfly dost thou fluttah by!
How, whence, and oh! whither, art come and gone?
In short, I contend these Victorians were fairly self-aware, and, you know, I suspect some of them were darn sexy to boot (there are some cute women doing archery in one painting in the book, I must say). Contrary to Paglia’s take, maybe Americans’ libidos wouldn’t be waning — if something like that can even be accurately measured — if they still had the Victorian capacity for self-restraint and modesty instead of walking around with belligerent slogans written on the seat of their pants and gold jewelry worn instead of shirts on hot days.
And if you think likewise, again, please contact me and argue against burlesque next week. (I live in a city where even the religion correspondent of a major news network celebrates her birthday with a big “margarita party,” so I could really use a Mennonite or something here, but a garden-variety ballet snob or curmudgeon would also be appreciated.)