Were the Victorians really happier than we are?

And whose happiness are we talking about, exactly?

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As the front page of yesterday’s Times would have it, Britons have never been happier than when the British Empire was at its peak and Queen Victoria was on the throne. Citing research published in the science journal Nature, which tracked the emotional tone of books and newspapers over the past 200 years, the paper proclaimed that, “Britons really were more cheerful in the good old days.”

According to the researchers’ “index of national happiness,” Britain’s happiest decade was apparently the 1880s. That may come as a surprise to historians, who are more used to thinking of the late Victorian period as an age of anxiety pervaded by a growing awareness of urban poverty, social unrest, and fears of national decline in the face of growing international competition.

But whose happiness are we talking about, exactly? And can we really gauge the temperature of the “national mood” by taking what we read in newspapers at face value?

As any history undergraduate can tell you, the first task for historians is to analyse the biases in our sources and the context in which they were made. Books and newspapers can tell us an enormous amount about the values, opinions and worldviews of the people who produced them – predominantly male, middle- and upper-class publishers and writers, who wrote for a predominantly middle- and upper-class audience. If we listen to their words, we will hear much more about their confidence and optimism than we will about how the working classes felt about urban overcrowding, slum housing, child employment, unemployment, factory conditions, workhouses, domestic service, infant mortality, cholera or typhoid – let alone the feelings of British “subjects” under colonial rule abroad.

It is possible that in an age where emotional expression was ruled by the stiff-upper-lip, people simply “muddled through” or “got on with it,” and that ordinary men and women “knew their place” and accepted their lot as an unavoidable fact of life – though there are a wealth of sources, from Victorian enquires into urban poverty to working-class autobiographies, that tell a very different story. But the point is that books and newspapers give us an uneven account of history, and need to be read alongside an awareness of who historically had access to literacy and publication. And we need to read them critically, by taking into account the purposes for which they were written.

What the “index of national happiness” can tell us is an enormous amount about changes in journalism during the Victorian era. We know that in the 1880s there was a massive expansion in popular journalism to meet rising demand among the increasingly literate lower-middle and working classes. Journalists and newspaper editors became increasingly confident in their claims to represent the “voice” of the public mood, and wrote with a growing awareness that the press could be used to influence public opinion and government policy alike.

And newspapers are, of course, in the business of selling themselves. It is likely that, far from simply reflecting widespread happiness back to a complacent readership, newspapers keyed into the anxieties of their time by providing to their readers reassuring images of Britain’s greatness. Indeed, we know that, during times of imperial conflict and crisis, newspapers such as the Daily Mail whipped up enthusiasm for imperial aggression with rousing appeals to popular jingoism (a term which, incidentally, originates in the music hall songs and the yellow press of this period, in celebration of Britain’s frustration of Russian ambitions to capture Constantinople).

Which brings us back to the Times. Alongside a front page setting out Boris Johnson’s “one nation” election manifesto, the headline “Britons were happier when Victoria was on the throne” has more than a whiff of weaponised nostalgia for the “good old days” of British power. This is, like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent biography of Victorian “Titans”, the Victorian era reimagined as a conservative self-help manual for our current political crisis. “Don’t worry about crashing out of the EU!”, the editors seem to proclaim. “Economic productivity is only weakly linked to happiness!”

As the historian Robert Saunders has recently argued, this is nostalgia for a highly selective version of history, written by “second-hand dealers in the past” who “rummage through the scrapyard of history, pulling out the most useful parts and welding them together into a vehicle for their ambitions”. It is a useable vision of Britain’s past – one that aims to rebuild a sense of national confidence through Victorian “pluck” and endurance, and to teach us that, like the Victorians, we shouldn’t let social inequality complicate the business of national happiness.

Hannah Rose Woods recently completed a PhD in the history of emotions at the University of Cambridge, where she taught modern British history. She is currently writing a book on nostalgia in British culture.