Victorian Rhapsody – or What the Victorians Can Do For Us

Talking about my fondness for the Victorian period is often a fraught experience. Why, I’m asked, did they starve workhouse children and throw domestic servants impregnated by moustache-twirling masters out onto the (snowy) streets? Why were the Victorians so uptight and coy about sex? Like most periods in history reality is much more complicated and nuanced, but the Victorian period has more than its fair share of historical myths.

In my own research I have discovered that workhouse children were often better fed and clothed than the children of poor labourers. Although female servants were seduced by dissolute employers, most young working-class girls’ first sexual experience would have been with a boy of their own age and class. Similarly, a look at Queen Victoria’s diaries and letters would soon demonstrate her physical attraction for her beloved Prince Albert.

V and A

‘Victorian values’ have been promoted as industrious and family-centred, but also unjust and exploitative.  Both characterisations are valid, but although Victorian society was teeming with poverty and disease, it was also a period which generated extensive philanthropic endeavour and enormous scientific discovery. The Victorians were also prodigious record-keepers, inspectors and newspaper readers, and thus left behind vast amounts of information for historians to enjoy. The eccentricities and scandalous behaviour of the Victorians is wonderful, and can be seen in newspapers such as the Illustrated Police News and publications like Punch.

This portrayal (below) of a girl shooting a man dead for standing on her foot and declining to apologise from the Illustrated Police News in 1898 was particularly popular when I posted it on Twitter, and it was retweeted over 300 times.

IPN girl shoots man

I make extensive use of my own research about the Victorians in my teaching. Victorian prostitution always fascinates students, and my module Victorian Cities explores the multiple and fluid identities of women whom were defined as prostitutes. My research into prostitution in Victorian Swansea has found both similarities and differences between perceptions of prostitutes across the UK, which emphasises how important regional research is.

This year most of my dissertation students are researching Victorian cultural histories with a regional focus. Two students are exploring how Victorian ‘lunatics’ were treated; one focuses on the Denbigh Asylum in north Wales and one on the Glamorgan County Asylum. One student is looking at another local institution, the Glamorgan Reformatory School which was intended to ‘reform’ young juvenile delinquents from south Wales and another is researching the prevalence of crime in Swansea Market.

While perceptions of sombre and solemn Victorians endure, they also knew how to enjoy themselves. My students are researching the rise of Barry Island as a tourist destination, the early resort of Swansea Bay, and the Victorian music hall. All these students are well advanced with their research and their dissertations will add considerably to local histories and Victorian scholarship.

I often use the writings of Charles Dickens in my own work and in my Practice of History group this year we used digitized primary sources with a focus on Victorian Popular Culture. The fiction and social writings of Dickens, Stevenson and Kipling formed part of one presentation. The presentations also included such gems as representations of women’s suffrage in Punch, body-snatching, and smoking and drinking in periodicals and newspapers. The wonderful online databases that are available for historians ensured that our research was done without leaving our computers.

Next semester in 2015, my Victorian Cities module will run again and I will be updating it to include a seminar looking at new technology and innovation in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  This will demonstrate that even a ‘gothic horror’ novel can offer the historian insights into Victorian Britain. Again, I hope students will discover that the Victorians were fascinating, complex, funny and above all an exceptional focus for historical research.

Written by Dr Lesley Hulonce