Downhill Since Victoria

Book cover
Life at the Bottomby By Theodore DalrympleIvan R. Dee. 263p $27.50

Though the mostly unheralded centennial of Queen Victoria’s death has now drawn to a close, it is pleasant to see various aspects of her sprawling era still being hailed by two writers who differ, as Victorian critics might have said, toto caelo. In a consistently engaging and spirited, if somewhat capricious (Schnitzler’s century? Why not Kafka’s century? Tolstoy’s century? Hardy’s century? Verdi’s century? Twain’s century?) coda to his monumental five-volume survey, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984-98), the award-winning historian Peter Gay looks back on the triumphs and failures of the endlessly rising and endlessly mocked middle classes (plural) and gives them a benign final blessing.

Oh yes, we know all about the miseries of capitalism, the oppression and repression, the complacency and hypocrisy, the vices and absurdities that bourgeoisophobes like Marx or Flaubert or Schnitzler (it takes one to know one) loved to flail. But Gay insists, and has by now massively documented, that from Waterloo to Sarajevo, from Berlin to San Francisco, the Victorians were, on balance and Lytton Strachey notwithstanding, not to be scoffed at. They were a fairly progressive lot with an enlightened agenda; they were not all philistines; and by the way, their conjugal lives were often richly and mutually satisfying. And then, of course, measured against the totalitarian, genocidal horrors of the 20th century, their messy melioristic efforts to extend the franchise, weave the safety net of the welfare state and promote feminism, privacy and individual fulfillment look very good indeed.


Meanwhile, Gay’s choice of Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), a non-practicing Viennese physician, a brilliant (and still underrated) writer, solid liberal, guilty sexist and secular Jew, as an emblem for the age is more than a little quixoticexcept that he did belong to a group on whom the century had a particularly stunning impact (and vice versa); and he presciently diagnosed the monstrous anti-Semitism that threatened and almost destroyed everything good in the Victorian legacy.

In any event, Gay does not press the case for Schnitzler too hard; and his mastery of the material is so complete that we are content to let him guide us effortlessly through the parliaments and factories and museums and salons and bedrooms of Europe, from the Crystal Palace to the Kulturkampf, from Lourdes to the Society for Psychical Research, from the decline of capital punishment to the spread of masturbation-hysteria, from the cost of concert tickets to the price of Impressionist paintings, statistics on church attendance, women in the work force, salaries for clerks, shopkeepers and bureaucratsGay knows it all. He has been at it for 50 years (The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx appeared in 1952).

Theodore Dalrymple shares Gay’s nostalgia for the Victorian Age; and he happens, like Schnitzler, to be a physician and psychiatrist (Freud called Schnitzler his doppelgänger), but that’s about as far as the similarities go. Dalrymple, who practices in the slums of Birmingham, England, is a ferocious hater of liberalism; and in this scorched-earth critique he blames it (along with generic human swinishness) for the violent, promiscuous, drug-addicted, alcoholic, murderous-suicidal anomie of his patients. Festooned with tributes from Norman Podhoretz, George Will, Hilton Kramer, Thomas Sowell and Peggy Noonan, Dalrymple’s book (a collection of 22 shortish essays recently published in City Journal) blasts liberal philosophers, psychologists, criminologists, teachers, social workers and a whole host of foggy-minded, value-free apparatchiks, including (!) the British police, for aiding and abetting the systematic irresponsibility of the underclass andcutting to the chasecausing the spiritual, cultural, emotional, and moral chaos of modern urban life.

Put so baldly, Dalrymple’s case sounds like a paranoid tirade or perverse tribute, but it is at least partially redeemed by the barrage of breathtakingly horrible true-life (one assumes) stories that this very angry doctor tellsand he can tell a storyto bolster it. Take this account of the fate of a child from the Ivory Coast at the hands of her demented, sadistic guardians:

Anna Climbie [age eight] died of hypothermia in February, 1999. Her body after death showed 128 marks of violence, inflicted with leather belts, metal coat hangers, a bicycle chain, and a hammer. Her fingers were cut with a razor. For six months she had been made to sleep in a black plastic garbage bag (in place of clothes) in a bathtub: sometimes she had been left in cold water, bound hand and foot, for 24 hours. She was emaciated to the point of starvation; her legs were so rigidly flexed that when she was admitted to the hospital the day before her death, they could not be straightened.

The formula behind both heart-rending tragedies like this one and Dalrymple’s more usual tales of dreadful, but non-lethal, woe is simple: mindless underclass behavior plus complacent coddling by social service providers equals disaster. The problem is, instead of just bluntly reporting from the frontlines, Dalrymple feels driven to harangue and accuse at every step. He should simply have heaved his dossier of jolting, politically incorrect accounts (of knife-wielding riffraff on the dole, battered women who keep returning to their abusive lovers to bear more illegitimate children, ignorant-and-proud-of-it louts, the whole cast of A Clockwork Orange) into the readers’ laps and let them draw their own conclusions. He has, after all, treated these people; and, whatever else their scarred bodies and wasted lives may show, they prove that something is terribly wrong somewhere.

But where Gay gives us serene distance and genial irony, Dalrymple has nothing to offer but snorting indignation. Dalrymple’s father was a Communistborn poor, but a hard-working, self-propelled, conscientious lad whom Dickens would have loved. And when his mum learned that eight-year-old Ted had stolen a penny bar of chocolate, she marched him down to the candy store owner, made him confess his sin and pay tuppence in expiation: It was the end of my shoplifting career. So he became a doctor, and not one of the tattooed, gold-toothed, spaced-out crack-heads to whom he ministersfor reasons he modestly or mysteriously passes over in silence and with no hope of ever changing his bedeviled and besotted society.

In the end, with the present and future so grim (a visit to New Zealand finds even that erstwhile dullish utopia descending into a liberal hell of proliferating crime and no punishment), Dalrymple can do no more than curse the liberals and take refuge in the good old daysthe days before the poor began bathing in self-pity and self-indulgence, before street gangs had learned the sneering Officer Krupke-refrain of pseudo-victimhood, before education became value-free and grammar optional, before multiculti cant was turned into sacred dogma, before British soccer-goons terrorized the Continent, before noble Victorian public buildings were bulldozed and replaced by Cyclopean-Le Corbusier concrete blocks, before....

Anyway, Gay and Dalrymple (and many others) would at least agree that Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee took place against a far more gloomy background, all things considered, than her great-great-grandmother’s did back in 1887.


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