The Victorians can be a difficult group to make sense of, not least because they were themselves so thoroughly addicted to endless self-diagnosis. "Never since the beginning of Time," wrote Thomas Carlyle, one of their leading self-scrutinizers, was there "so intensely self-conscious a Society. Our whole relations to the universe and to our fellow-man have become an Inquiry, a Doubt; nothing will go on of its own accord . . . but all things must be probed into." Nor, he and others admitted, was this compulsive introspection necessarily healthy. Plagued by what he diagnosed as "asphyxia of the soul," or what Matthew Arnold described as "this strange disease of modern life," Victorians sought refuge in a variety of commitments, from an often joyless religious fervour (the paintings in John Ruskin's childhood home were turned around to face the wall on Sundays, the better to keep people's thoughts from straying), to an unbridled work ethic ("the mandate of God to His creature man is work," thundered Carlyle), to a sphere of intellectual endeavour called "culture," which Arnold opposed to the anarchy of plebeian reformers and an unthinking and greedy middle-class.
It is not an altogether inviting image, but as Peter Gay's writings have demonstrated, neither is it the whole story. Schnitzler's Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture, 1815-1914 offers a reinterpretation of the era based on an account of the middle class, that segment of Victorian society that had the time and inclination to wrestle most strenuously with these sorts of existential questions. Gay, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and the author of twenty-three books, is best known for what he describes in the preface as "a massive five-volume study" collectively entitled The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984-1998), which challenged the prudish and maladjusted stereotypes that Victorians themselves were largely responsible for promulgating. Weaving together private experiences with public concerns, Gay offered a very different picture of people coping with problems, but also fully capable of healthy, passionate relations, sexual frankness, civic purpose, and general contentment. Schnitzler's Century synthesizes these volumes in an account that is directed to a general reading audience.
Gay's strength is his ability to make enormous generalizations across nations and generations with a kind of belle lettristic ease, without wholly evading the sorts of lived complexities that would unsettle these sweeping judgements¨which is a good thing, because this sort of story (it is a book about Europe as a whole rather than Britain) cannot be told without a gift for generalizing. By his own account, "the Victorian bourgeois was sizeable, diverse and deeply fissured." They inhabited "an age of explosive and ubiquitous change." The book's first chapter confronts the vexed question of "whether there is a single definable entity" known as the middle class. Many, including James Mill in 1826, synthesized a respect for diversity with an urge to generalize by pluralizing the term. "The value of the middle classes," Mill insisted, "is acknowledged by all." Many historians have cautiously followed suit, but having documented the often dramatic differences within it, Gay settles on the more definitive singular version in order to reflect his sense of the "pervasive unity" that informs the rich "historical tapestry" of middle-class life.
This sense of unity has its price. Radical cultural and political differences between nations, the abyss between extreme wealth and modest prosperity (both of which lay within the middle class), the profound ambivalence with which the professional and merchant classes regarded each other, and the real differences that many historians locate in the different epochs that comprise the Victorian period, are for the most part disregarded. Gay does a fine job of insisting that any issue was characterized by multiple, often very different perspectives, but beyond this, historical specificity is not really part of his account. The realities of these different people and places often seem more complicated than Gay would suggest, but as a literary tour of the foreign territory of an earlier era, it is a painless and often pleasurable one.
Gay's "biography of a class" is centered on his account of a not overly successful writer, Albert Schnitzler (1862-1931), who makes an appearance in each of the book's nine linked chapters. For better or worse, Schnitzler was in some ways a stereotypical Victorian bourgeois male. He dutifully entered the profession¨medicine¨chosen by his father (himself an eminent throat specialist and university professor), obsessed about the virginity or "purity" of his lovers, and tried, when romantic trysts developed into relationships, to prevent these women from having careers. But aside from the marketing benefits of providing a title that alliterates with a famous movie, Schnitzler is in some ways an unlikely hero of any story of the Victorian middle class. A citizen of Vienna all his life, he moved in the cosmopolitan world of bohemian writers and artists. Like all good members of the avant-garde, past and present, he prided himself on harbouring a suitable disdain for all things middle class. A more famous member of the Victorian avant-garde, Gustave Flaubert, insisted that "Hatred of Bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue." Schnitzler cultivated a similar if less vitriolic tone of superiority. Having been to dinner at the home of a respectable middle-class family, he privately judged them "bourgeois and dull." Three years later, he upbraided an acquaintance for displaying "stupid bourgeois views." Like his bohemian friends, Schnitzler cultivated an air of studied idleness that ran sharply against the grain of his age's (and his parents') tendency to equate industriousness with virtue.
Gay's own qualifier, that Schnitzler was "hardly the archetypal bourgeois," turns out to be something of an understatement. His 1897 comedy, Reigen, featured "ten amorous dialogues between two lovers, with one of the pair appearing in the next installment and so around the circle, with each episode culminating in sexual intercourse"¨not, one suspects, the sort of entertainment that would have been welcomed in the Ruskin household. His greatest praise for the medical profession, which he quit soon after his father's death, was that it brought him into contact with a series of attractive, young, and, if we accept his own account, easily seduced women. Scrupulous to a fault, Schnitzler recorded each of his amours in his diary, diligently tallying up his monthly total of orgasms. In all of these ways, Schnitzler is more colourful than relevant, especially because the revisionary force of Gay's work lies in its depiction of a well-adjusted middle class, unafraid to deal with issues such as contraception, fulfilled by rather than trapped in their domestic lives, and capable of often generous degrees of empathy in their romantic relationships. Gay's fidelity to this psychologically stable side of Victorian life amounts to what he himself describes as "a humble history" of ordinary but intelligent people: "within their limits, they lived with their eyes wide open. . . . Perplexing issues which engaged them engage us still; current debates over capital punishment have hardly advanced over their Victorian predecessors."
Gay's mission is not, however, to idealize an age which was itself prone to a great deal of unabashed sentimentality. His portrait blends a sense of people's capacity for self-fulfillment with a judicious recognition of anxieties which manifested themselves in a variety of ways including a ubiquitous condition known as "nerves" (often diagnosed as a consequence of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization) and the moral hysteria over masturbation. Where anxieties could not be contained in medical or ethical terms they could always be sublimated into higher beliefs, and the Victorians, Gay suggests, were as accomplished as any in the art of sublimation, whether this manifested itself in a turn to religion (either to evangelical piety or some more occult versions of spiritualism), industriousness, or a kind of stiff-upper-lip militarism. Successive chapters explore each of these themes as sites of contradictory responses. If the portrait that emerges is not, ultimately, very different from many informed perspectives of that age, it is a thoughtful synthesis of current ideas whose eloquence reminds us of Gay's description of Schnitzler's own literary predisposition: "in love with words, with their magical powers, their vast expressive possibilities, their uncanny capacity for masking as much as revealing the truth." ˛