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Keeping up appearances: were the Victorians really so civilised?

The notion of the Victorian era has historically been one of a formal, well-mannered, civilised and seemingly repressed society. Andersson's research in the Journal of Victorian Culture challenges this neatly preserved image of Victorianism and reveals aspects of society and Victorian expression which lay beneath the facade.

Keeping up appearances: were the Victorians really so civilised?

It was once believed that Victorians were so embarrassed by naked table legs, that they dressed them in skirts. Since disproved, Andersson looks beyond the traditional vision of what it was to be Victorian, largely portrayed by bourgeois literary texts evincing elaborate rituals amongst the social elite of introductions, calling cards and dinners.

Was every day Victorian life really so well measured with restrained courtesy?

He brings to the fore more varied aspects of popular Victorian culture to reflect the 'underdog perspective' usually constrained to separate disciplines of labour or social history. Andersson draws on nonverbal cultural sources; photographic images of everyday Victorian life depicting working, dancing, fighting and prostitution.

He also uses court transcripts documenting raucous shenanigans on the Victorian streets. All of these provide alternative insights to working class Victorian codes of conduct. The upper classes too were photographed pursuing leisure; cycling, bathing scantily clad and showing 'unmasked' body language contrary to our traditional view of Victorian decorum.

Such 'backstage' sources of Victorian folklore have revealed the existence of a vernacular culture more in keeping with the previous late medieval era of revelry.

Indeed restraint and civility did feature in some social spheres but Andersson concludes, "It is only through a constant attention to peripheries, deviances, and misbehaviour that a historical diversity can be acquired. Unless Victorian scholars do some soul-searching concerning their reliance on metropolitan, elitist, and, not least, exclusively British sources, this discipline will keep presenting a biased picture of a historical period."

Source: Taylor & Francis [December 07, 2015]
TANN

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