The New Statesman Profile - Victorian Britain

Obsessed by a fear of revolution, haunted by a collapse of faith, it yet nurtured great minds, great

Although it is said Margaret Thatcher had a thing for gay men, one doubts whether she would have seen eye to eye with Lytton Strachey. Yet together, the two of them, the louche Bloomsbury historian and the virulently uptight matriarch, managed to gut the reputation of the Victorian era. The combination of Strachey's Eminent Victorians, with its denunciation of the Florence Nightingale generation and its hypocrisy, and Thatcher's fond reminiscences of her parsimonious grandmother condemned the 19th century to being considered a time of cloying evangelicalism, repression and illiberalism.

Strachey's fellow traveller Leslie Stephen best summed up the 20th-century sentiment: "One thing is pretty certain, and in its way comforting, that however far the rage for revivalism may be pushed, nobody will ever want to revive the 19th century."

On 22 January 1901, the bells of St Paul's tolled across London and Queen Victoria finally departed to join her beloved Albert at the Frogmore mausoleum near Windsor. Now, a century later, it is time we celebrated the radicalism and excitement of the Victorian age. This is particularly apposite for the left, which has shamefully allowed Tory apologists to champion the century as their own - a tradition that reached its apogee in 1986 with Sir Keith Joseph writing the preface to a new edition of Samuel Smiles's Self-Help, so turning a radical text for the artisans of Victorian Leeds into a social handbook for Thatcherite economics.

When the young Victoria acceded to the throne in 1837, she took on a nation haunted by the collective memory of the French revolution. As the cold war and fear of nuclear annihilation drove European thought for the latter half of the 20th century, so the Jacobin terror dominated Victorian political culture. What unnerved those journalists who filled the Edinburgh Review, Quarterly Review, Westminster Review and Eclectic Review was the conviction that the revolution was the product of a collapse of faith; they feared that something similar would engulf Britain.

While Strachey rebelled against the 19th century as an age of overbearing Quakers and Evangelicals, the Victorians regarded themselves as a nation horribly fallen. Faith, and fear of a crisis of faith, persecuted the Victorian mind. No one described it better than Thomas Carlyle's autobiographical hero in Sartor Resartus: "To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb." The same apocalyptic fear occupied John Stuart Mill after his mental breakdown; Marian Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot, turned to the writings of Hegel for release from her spiritual sink.

The Victorians nailed faith even to business. A trinity of values governed the market: credit was virtuous, speculation corrupting and debt sinful. In an economy of growing share transaction and increased capital flows, the dread of debt and horror of bankruptcy consumed the imagination. Through Middlemarch's bankrupt financier Bulstrode, Eliot acutely described the religious terror of commercial failure: "Night and day, while the resurgent threatening past was making a conscience within him, he was thinking by what means he could recover peace and trust - by what sacrifice he could stay the rod." Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby and Melmotte (a part that Robert Maxwell was to emulate flawlessly a century later) in Trollope's The Way We Live Now played on the same abiding fear, which led to the draconian bankruptcy laws that the government has only now started to relax.

If a surfeit of faith governed commerce, it was the absence of Christian sentiment that disturbed architectural critics. When Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace, she looked over a London triumphantly Georgian in style. The great developments of Nash had produced a capital to rival Augustan Rome. Bristol, Bath, Edinburgh and Newcastle were all festooned in classicism.

For the Gothic revivalists, this was anathema. Pagan architecture not built to the glory of God was morally bankrupt. The Catholic polemicist Augustus Pugin derided modern architecture for dwindling to a mere trade. Instead, he celebrated the "faith, zeal and unity" of England's medieval craftsmen, who had created Gothic edifices as glorious as Westminster Abbey and Winchester Cathedral. With Charles Barry, he tried to restore those same Catholic attributes in the new Houses of Parliament.

The greatest sage of them all, John Ruskin, held up Venice as a warning. When that city's piety lapsed and it turned into "the masque of Europe", its architecture faltered. Without faith, there could be no proper design. Ruskin's championing of early Venetian building inspired Victorian architects. Even railway trains, the most profound symbol of industrial progress, started to terminate in buildings that glorified a Greek, Renaissance or medieval heritage. The Gothic arches of St Pancras station could just as easily have housed a medieval cloth hall as a railway hotel.

It is one of the abiding ironies of the 19th century that a period renowned for its sense of self-progress was littered by historicist design. The Victorians were drawn passionately to the past, particularly the medieval past. "Don't you dote upon the Middle Ages, Mr Carker?" Mrs Skewton inquires in Dickens's Dombey and Son. "Such charming times! . . . So full of faith! So vigorous and forcible. So perfectly removed from the commonplace! If they would only leave us a little more of the poetry of existence in these terrible days!" In the face of industrialisation and urbanisation, medievalism became the dominant cultural motif. The dreamy images of communal solidarity and chivalric valour conjured up by Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe entranced a nation beset by tales of urban horror and labour unrest.

At the 1851 Great Exhibition, which marked the pinnacle of Britain's industrial self-confidence, pride of place was given to a medieval court designed by Pugin. When Victoria celebrated the success of the exhibition, supper was served in a crypt fitted up as an old baronial hall, with waiters dressed in medieval armour. The medieval mania surpassed itself with the Eglinton Tournament - a farcical day of jousting, archery and chivalry acted out by fashionable young toffs at the Earl of Eglinton's Ayrshire seat.

Popular interest in the past extended into the roots of Britishness. Victorian ideas of nationality were not, as the historian Linda Colley contends, simply a product of the Napoleonic wars which neatly knitted the nation together as a patriotic, Protestant and unified kingdom (an idea of the "construction" of Britain that has influenced much lazy thinking on patriotism in new Labour circles). It was far more racially oriented, around Britain's Saxon heritage. King Alfred became a cult hero and the attributes of liberty, self-government and stability were liberally ascribed to a Teutonic temperament. In contrast, the Norman conquerors were depicted as despotic, Catholic and "foreign".

This vision of two races, "between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy . . . who are formed by different breeding, are ordered by different manners", transferred into an analysis of class relations. In Disraeli's Sybil, or the Two Nations, the story of a Norman aristocracy whose wealth is built upon the plunder of Saxons reduced to factory hands, the two tribes become "the rich and the poor". The depiction of the working class as oppressed Saxons under a Norman yoke made its way into Chartist literature and then into Marx and Engels's epic narrative of class struggle.

Yet socialism, the 19th century's most celebrated ideology, imported from France by Robert Owen, was by the 1840s discredited as hopelessly utopian and sexually disgraceful, a philosophy of spiritual discovery and communal living that was just one of the many eccentric ideas circulating in the vacuum left by the collapse of Christianity. When socialism reappeared in the 1880s, it was again championed by those looking for a new religion of humanity - there was little political programme affixed to it.

Communism ("scientific socialism") was a very different beast, as it had developed the idea of a proletarian class bred by the industrial revolution and posing an instinctive threat to property relations. But by the 1870s, both Marx and Engels were dismissing their Communist Manifesto of 1849 as a historical document - a product of the 1848 revolutions with little political currency. Only at the end of the century, following G B Shaw's translation of sections of Das Kapital, did communism properly enter the British political blood.

Yet far from Fabian drawing rooms, in the provincial council chambers, a different form of socialism triumphed. In Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain municipalised the gas and water companies, providing him with resources for libraries and galleries as well as slum clearance. Impressed by Baron Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris, Chamberlain cleared the centre of Birmingham and laid out an entirely new urban plan. In Leeds, the councillors of the "new era" adopted a similar approach to urban living that lasted well into the 20th century. For the young Alan Bennett, growing up in 1940s Leeds, with "the arms of the City of Leeds embossed on public library books . . . fixed to lamp-posts and public buildings", the experience of such civic pride was comparable to growing up "a 15th-century citizen of Florence or Venice".

Municipal collectivism entailed a thoroughgoing attack on private property and vested interests; it was a direct affront to the sacred cows of liberal political economy. Despite parliamentary legislation on employment and housing and the 1867 extension of the ballot, it was in the cities that real social progress was made. Yet few Victorians regarded this as socialism. As Sidney Webb's councillor, who "walk[ed] along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water, and seeing by the municipal clock in the municipal market that he is too early to meet his children coming from the municipal school", famously remarked: "Socialism, Sir . . . don't waste the time of a practical man by your fantastic absurdities . . ."

The age of Victoria was not an era of stifling conservatism and cant. It was a turbulent century of socialism, illuminism, idealism and Methodism; of such intellectual giants as Carlyle, Ruskin, Tennyson and Macaulay; of the art of Turner, Burne-Jones and Waterhouse; and the political vision of Palmerston, Gladstone and O'Connor. It was a terrible, fascinating and creative age, one that deserves greater appreciation than the 20th century ever provided.