HOUSE Speaker Newt Gingrich has discovered Queen Victoria, or more precisely, he has discovered the writings of historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. She argues that contemporary society would do well to reconsider the value of Victorian virtues of self-restraint, fidelity, and hard work.
The Speaker, drawing on Ms. Himmelfarb's writings, has called for a revival of the concept of ''shame.'' The Victorians, he suggests, changed their world ''by being willing to look at people in the face and say, 'You should be ashamed when you get drunk in public.' '' He is calling for more moral suasion, and for, in a society that seems to value tolerance as the paramount virtue, some judicious intolerance of what we used to call ''vice.''
He may be onto something. Himmelfarb says that during the Victorian era, illegitimacy declined from 7 percent to 4 percent; crime fell by 50 percent. In the United States over the last 30 years, illegitimacy has risen from 5 percent to 30 percent and crime by 300 percent.
But as Himmelfarb herself has noted, ''Victorian England was no Arcadia.'' Children labored in factories. Alcoholism was rampant. The sexual double standard flourished, and a Victorian-era girl who ''got into trouble'' was likely to be banished from her home and to end up as a prostitute -- or dead. Abortion was not an issue; infanticide was practiced instead.
It was an age of great social reformers, and they had plenty to work on. And so does contemporary society.