The De-moralization of Society

THE DE-MORALIZATION OF SOCIETY: FROM VICTORIAN VIRTUES TO MODERN VALUES strips away the familiar facade of Victorian life, with its draped piano legs and corseted women, to expose what the author perceives as its authentic virtue. She offers this as a corrective model for the problems of contemporary life, since it embodies a larger ethical framework than that of personal taste. Contemporary “values”, Himmelfarb asserts, are nothing more than subjectively defined goods, relativistic and uninhibited by any external canon. “Virtue” in contemporary language connotes sexual restraint, chastity, and marital fidelity.

Victorian virtues joined elaborate social norms to traits of character. “Family values” were defined patterns of behavior for both the private and the public sphere. The character of the individual was the backbone of the body politic. Such conventions as “Sunday best” clothing and cleanliness were external manifestations of internal virtue, describing and protecting respectability, even among the poor.

Himmelfarb’s picture of Victorian England, however, admits its flaws. She documents the emergence of the welfare state from the well-meaning seed of Victorian charity as well as lapses in the private behavior of public persons. The book is worth reading for these revealing passages alone. Victorians who broke the rules at least knew that they were breaking the rules and felt remorse.

Victorians sentimentalized the family, installing it as civic religion and protecting as well as defining its more tender members—women. According to Himmelfarb, this aspect of Victorian life has been overemphasized. Many Victorian women extended their nurturing role to philanthropic causes, social work and the like; some early feminists worked for liberation—although Himmlefarb believes that the “womanly” values they espoused would not motivate modern feminists.

Himmelfarb’s slice of Victorian life is refreshing and insightful, and her indictment of contemporary moral relativism is likely valid. Yet in the final chapters, the author’s strong conservative filter renders her conclusions about modern life more as caricature than clairvoyance.