Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 972

Victorian Life

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The values of the Victorians were largely shaped by the Evangelical movement that emphasized salvation and the Utilitarian movement that emphasized efficiency. Both promoted self-control and self-denial. Victorians believed that one should be in total control of oneself at all times. Thrift and usefulness were highly regarded virtues, so people were expected to spend their time and money reasonably and with good purpose. Hard work was the key to success, so laziness and drunkenness were seen as the road to perdition. Self-help was another honored virtue. Even though class structure was rigid in Victorian England, members of the lower classes were expected to make an attempt to better themselves through education, personal development, and temperance. There was little sympathy for those who did not succeed in bettering their lot because failure was assumed to be a result of lack of effort. Other social forces were not given much consideration for the plight of the poor. This attitude was further reflected in the temperance movement that was aimed at the working class, ignoring any problems with alcohol in the other classes, because what was most important was getting the labor force to work in a sober condition for better productivity, which increased the wealth of the middle and upper classes. Victorian England was a society of great poverty existing alongside a still enormously wealthy aristocracy and a growing middle class. This middle class consisted of people whose improved economic status allowed them to afford their own horses, but an improved lifestyle did not necessarily mean that they learned how to take care of horses. Consequently, the abuse of horses became the serious problem addressed in Black Beauty. The Industrial Revolution also provided many new jobs and opportunities for rural people, but it led them into urban slums. Naturally, the working class resented the hypocritical effort of the Temperance Movement that diverted attention away from the problems of sanitation, overcrowded housing, poor working conditions, and other social abuses.

The Temperance Movement in Victorian England

A major social reform effort in Victorian England was the temperance movement. In effect, the temperance movement was also a class conflict because it was led by the middle-class but aimed at the working class. Specifically, the reform target was working-class men, because they drank in public and women usually did not. Drinking practices in the home were of some concern to the feminist movement in later years because of the link to domestic violence, but the original intent of the temperance movement was to affect a wasteful behavior that was contrary to the Victorian ideals of self-control and self-denial. Drunkenness caused one to lose control; therefore, it was logical that the consumption of alcohol was destructive. Besides, spending money on liquor was a wasteful form of entertainment; rather, one should save one’s money and avoid useless times spent in self-indulgent leisure.

Morality was not the only driving force behind this movement. Industrialization demanded a reliable work force for the factories. At first, the intent of the movement was not to outlaw drinking, but to control it. Nor was there an attempt to “cure” drunks, who were seen as lost causes. Instead, the movement aimed to curb social drinking. Eventually, however, control was enforced through various forms of legislation. In addition, some temperance organizations took the step of requiring members to abstain entirely from alcohol consumption, but this “teetotalism” was a passing phase of the movement, as were attempts at the total prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages. Another tactic was to appeal to workers to refrain from drinking liquor because it was unhealthy...

(The entire section contains 3127 words.)

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Critical Essays