The first half of the 19th century saw the population of Britain expand more rapidly than was healthy. Thanks to huge medical advances, more hygiene and better food, and because more children survived (out of the broods of a dozen or more), early Victorian families (1841 – 61) in the population of England, Scotland and Wales grew from 17 to 23 millions. Large families were the rule in upper, middle and lower classes. Queen Victoria herself was to have nine children. In the mining districts seventeen was considered normal.
Guests admitted to the sacred circle of the family home would find their hostess pregnant, attended by a flock of little boys and little girls coming for a peep. The father or paterfamilias was the absolute centre of regularity and order; whether or not he adored his children he was an awe-inspiring figure, whiskery, his judgements infallible, supposedly irreproachable in his moral conduct (though many contemporary writers thought not); his wife, who had probably been a mere wisp of a girl when he married her at seventeen or eighteen, had become (and had to become) a ‘housekeeper, nurse, governess, and sitting hen’. She would be broad, stiff in her corsets, and lacking in ideas (though contemporary writers would seem to give this last conceit the lie!).
The prosperous families would send their boys off to a private or preparatory school, where they lived under the supervision of a headmaster who could be a saint or a devil. This was at eight years old, and for the next ten years these boys would stay in the rough malestrom, most surviving . . . some not. Sensitive males from the best homes where they had lived sheltered lives would rise in the small hours of the morning during three long terms a year, to light fires and make toast for senior boys, sweep and dust rooms, run errands, and be prepared for anything from their ‘fagmasters’, school and house masters, prefects (or praeposters), and of course the ‘Headman’. From these they could expect some education, mostly the Classics, good or bad example, beating with a cane, birch or any other instrument their betters chose. They slept at night in smelly, noisy, crowded dormitories where they were subject to ‘influences’ that would make their sisters and mothers faint – if they understood, which is most unlikely.
The girls in the richer Victorian families were so sheltered as to cut them off from normal ways of life and thought. They would come to be regarded as the chief measure of a father’s or husband’s wealth, social standing and dignity. They had to be chaste, obedient and delicate. They could decorate rooms with flowers, play the piano and sing if called upon. They could make wax figurines, crochet and sew and knit stockings and scarves for their brothers. ‘That a gentleman’s womenfolk should be able to devote themselves to occupations so materially useless was a tacit tribute to the labour and self-sacrifice that had gone into the making of the wealth’. “Oh yes, ma’am,” says the cook in a Punch cartoon, “she’s a perfect lady! She don’t know one joint of meat from another, ma’am. Ever so proud of her, I am!”
These young ladies in embryo were artificially kept from all knowledge of any seamy or even ‘normal’ sides of life, tight-waisted, clad in voluminous skirts like fortresses for their virginity. And it was their virginity which was at stake, for no proud father could marry a daughter to any young pretender (however rakish he himself was) unless she was intact. Soon married, each little girl turned rapidly into her own mother and grandmother, until one could hardly tell the difference between the generations.
Meanwhile, under the relentless pressure of all that money-making, the character of the middle class was changing too. It grew sterner, less sympathetic as thousands of the newly rich emerged from the working classes – as one would expect in a great industrial nation. The new kind of public school (fee-paying) virtually invented by Dr. Arnold of Rugby catered for boys from the middle and upper classes who needed hardening. They must learn to be reticent, unemotional, regular in their habits and self-reliant. The Victorian boy could not wear spectacles even if he had bad sight, because it wasn’t ‘the form’. From the first day he arrived by train, cab or crested coach at school – usually his father’s school – he learned rapidly to keep a stiff upper lip. He must not cheat, he must not sneak, he should be bloody good at games or someone would have to know the reason why! His studies were way down the list in importance and he was taught how to swot at the last minute to slide into Oxford or Cambridge with a good chance of a third. Of course some of these boys won First Class Honours but they were almost always unpopular and /or wore glasses. For a sensitive or affectionate child this species of Spartan severity was hell on earth. It was natural self-defence to learn to keep their emotions to themselves. In France a philosopher said that in France anyway, happiness depended on affection, but that in Britain it depended on having none at all.
So boys brought up in this way were like young bull-dogs, tough, tenacious, indefatigable, ferocious. The average product of the Victorian public school had no sympathy for the classical authors whose works were often beaten into him by merciless beaks. The boys preferred soccer or rugby anyway. The most solid, brawny and muscular became Captain of Games, and Head Boy. His grandsons would all be lost in the mud and filth of the First War trenches.
These were the ‘good old days’. The average boy of eighteen from Rugby or Harrow or similar places came up to Oxford and Cambridge (there were other universities but unless they were Harvard, Princeton or Yale they were ignored) without any genuine love for real learning, even if he came from a cultivated home. He probably had character, integrity and energy, but his emotional and intellectual development was stunted; which is why he fell easily into that unthinking worship of purely material attainment that was the fault of his epoch, but which went towards even greater extention of the Empire already so huge and scattered about the globe that it was coming apart. Only the scorned intellectuals knew that.
‘Play up! Play up! And play the Game!’
‘Change and decay in all around I see!’
Those were the good old days.