Victorian Era Offers Model, Not Solution for Today

The De-Moralization of Society:

From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values

By Gertrude Himmelfarb

Alfred A. Knopf

314 pp., $24

Few would deny that most of us living today could do a lot worse than look to the once-ridiculed Victorians for role models. Gertrude Himmelfarb, a distinguished historian who has written lucidly and provocatively about 19th-century England over the past five decades, is too sensible to propose a wholesale return to a bygone age. But she strongly believes we could learn a lot from taking a fresh look at formerly mocked Victorian virtues.

Her latest book, ''The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values,'' contains the kind of perceptive insights about 19th-century manners and mores we have come to expect from her, along with somewhat nebulous, inadequately thought-out suggestions about restoring a sense of virtue to modern life.

Not to mince words, this is a disappointing book. Despite the intelligence the author brings to portraying the Victorians and their ideals, when it comes to examining today's world, the book has little more to offer than the usual warmed-over neoconservative nostrums.

Himmelfarb rightly takes issue with left-wing academicians for belittling the Victorian ideals of hard work, thrift, sobriety, cleanliness, and honesty as merely middle-class values: ''respectability,'' she reminds us, ''was the common denominator linking all the classes.'' The Victorian credo of self-help and self-respect, she shows, far from engendering selfishness, fostered a keen sense of social responsibility toward the less fortunate. Private philanthropy flourished alongside government programs for reform, sanitation, and public welfare.

And, while religion played a formative role in many Victorian lives, even those who were unbelievers maintained an unshakable commitment to morality -- so much so, that it was often said, morality was the Victorians religion, whatever their particular affiliations.

Foreign observers like French philosopher Hippolite Taine (1828-93) were impressed by the difference between the French gentilhomme, a model of elan and elegance, and the English gentleman, an honorable and decent human being. Although the term was originally linked to a class (the ''gentry''), by the later years of the Victorian era, gentlemanliness was a question of character rather than birth. ''It was no small feat for England, in a period of massive social and economic changes, to attain a degree of civility and humaneness that was the envy of the rest of the world,'' Himmelfarb notes approvingly.

But her chapters, interesting as they are, treating everything from ''The Jew as Victorian'' to ''Feminism, Victorian Style,'' do not form a coherent thesis. And while her understanding of the Victorians is subtle and acute, her vision of modern times is lacking in precisely those qualities.

Turning to the present ''de-moralized'' age, Himmelfarb points to the horrifying increase in violent crime that has, according to some statistical analysts, made the life of the average inner-city youth riskier than that of a GI during World War II. But rather than examine the complex reasons for society's increasing lack of humaneness and civility, she focuses -- almost obsessively -- on the issue of illegitimate births, predictably blaming the 1960s counterculture for this and most other lawless behavior. (In 1988, Scott Davis's book ''The World of Patience Gromes: Making and Unmaking a Black Community'' made a similar point far more persuasively.)

But if the counterculture can be blamed for glamorizing promiscuity, irresponsibility, even violence, Himmelfarb remains notably silent about the jungle-style ethics of the so-called free marketplace: of developers eager to make a quick buck at the expense of the environment, of an entertainment industry that sees nothing wrong with continually ratcheting up the level of graphic film violence, of journalists doing anything to sensationalize a story, of some lawyers, doctors, and other professionals more concerned with profits than with service to people.

Nor has she any word of caution to the new horde of deregulators itching to ''get government off the backs'' of businesses (like the drug and airline industries) that actually seem to need more oversight than they are currently receiving. Schools that hand out contraceptives alarm her a good deal more than the proliferation of assault weapons -- ironic, considering her horror of illegitimacy.

The Victorians, as Himmelfarb portrays them, combined a sense of broad social responsibility with a respect for the conscience of the private individual.

There are far more lessons to be learned from their conscientious and public-spirited ethos than Himmelfarb is prepared to present to the ''de-moralized'' society so greatly in need of such inspiration from the past.

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