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Morals

Victorian morality is a distillation of the moral views of people living at the time of Queen Victoria (reigned 1837 - 1901) in particular, and to the moral climate of Great Britain throughout the 19th century in general. It is not tied to this historical period and can describe any set of values that espouses sexual repression, low tolerance of crime, and a strong social ethic. Due to the prominence of the British Empire, many of these values were spread across the world.

Historians now regard the Victorian era as a time of many contradictions. A plethora of social movements concerned with improving public morals co-existed with a class system that permitted harsh living conditions for many. The apparent contradiction between the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity and restraint and the prevalence of social phenomena that included prostitution and child labour were two sides of the same coin: various social reform movements and high principles arose from attempts to improve the harsh conditions.

Victorian prudery sometimes went so far as to deem it improper to say "leg" in mixed company; instead, the preferred euphemism “limb” was used. Those going for a swim in the sea at the beach would use a bathing machine. However, historians Peter Gay and Michael Mason both point out that we often confuse Victorian etiquette for a lack of knowledge. For example, despite the use of the bathing machine, it was also possible to see people bathing nude. Another example of the gap between our preconceptions of Victorian sexuality and the facts is that contrary to what we might expect, Queen Victoria liked to draw and collect male nudes and even gave her husband one as a present.

Verbal or written communication of emotion or sexual feelings was also often proscribed so people instead used the language of flowers. However they also wrote explicit erotica, perhaps the most famous being the racy tell-all My Secret Life by Henry Spencer Ashbee, who wrote under the pseudonym Walter, and the magazine The Pearl, which was published for several years and reprinted as a paperbook in the 1960's. Victorian erotica also survives in private letters archived in museums and even in a study of women's orgasms. Some current historians now believe that the myth of Victorian repression can be traced back to early twentieth-century views such as those of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury Group who wrote Eminent Victorians.

Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, only four years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. The anti-slavery movement had campaigned for years to achieve the ban, succeeding with a partial abolition in 1807 and the full ban on slave trade, but not slave ownership, in 1833. It had taken so long because the anti-slavery morality was pitted against a powerful capitalist element in the empire which claimed that their businesses would be destroyed if they were not permitted to exploit slave labour. Eventually plantation owners in the Caribbean received £20 million in compensation.

In Victoria's time the British Royal Navy patrolled the Atlantic Ocean, stopping any ships that it suspected of trading African slaves to the Americas and freeing any slaves found. The British had set up a Crown Colony in West Africa—Sierra Leone—and transported freed slaves there. Freed slaves from Nova Scotia founded and named the capital of Sierra Leone "Freetown". Thus, when Victoria became Queen the British occupied a high moral ground as the nation that stood for freedom and decency. Many people living at that time argued that the living conditions of workers in English factories seemed worse than those endured by some slaves.

In the same way, throughout the Victorian Era, movements for justice, freedom and other strong moral values opposed greed, exploitation and cynicism. The writings of Charles Dickens in particular observed and recorded these conditions. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels carried out much of their analysis of capitalism in and as a reaction to Victorian Britain.


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