Wednesday 15 September 2010

Rational Enjoyment

I love pious articles offering advice in Victorian journals. Here's one from the Leisure Hour in 1859, which begins by softening up the reader:

"Every unmarried lady should prepare herself, if possible, for the contingency of being one day thrown upon her own resources for happiness. Your property may take wings and fly away. Your relatives, now so fond of you, may die; or matrimonial alliances and commercial vicissitudes may remove them far from you. Your health may give way; and if it should not, advancing age will steal on and disable you for active employment. It is wise to guard, in so far as you can, against a surprise from these or any kindred evils."

Yes, if you haven't already killed yourself by the time you finish this introductory paragraph. But how does one guard oneself?

"It is superfluous to observe that  the best and only adequate shield is unaffected piety."

Ah. Still, there's more ...

"But, as a collateral reliance, there is none to be compared with books, provided one knows how to use them; and this art should be learned now. With the profusion of works on all subjects now issuing from the press, you can be at no loss to find those which will yield you equal profit and pleasure. The habit of reading, judiciously directed, will beguile many a solitary hour. It will open new and inexhaustible sources of rational enjoyment. It will indirectly, by its wise lessons and wholesome examples, fortify your trust in God, inspire you with resignation, assist you in interpreting providential dispensations, and nurture your healthful sympathies with humanity. It will enlarge your capacities of usefulness, and clothe you with attractions which will tell in the social circle beyond the fading charms of personal beauty, and the tinsel garniture of mere ball-room accomplishments. It will store away for you choice treasure which may help to solace the twilight of your days and to bring your sun to its horizon in peace."

The writer, however, has a purpose ... can you guess?

"But if general literature and mental improvement will conduce to these ends, how much more will the study of the Bible ..."

It's an interesting article, as it highlights, in a few sentences, the vulnerable position of the 'unprotected female' in Victorian society, and her reliance on husband and family. To be honest, I was going to laugh at it a little, but there's a sad beauty to the prose; and when I consider the question 'What is writing for?' I find my own answers rather shallow in comparison. I'm not remotely religious, but I rather admire the certainty of this author; and the very Victorian idea that art should have a moral purpose, beyond mere entertainment.


  1. The religious placebo has in its time been offered as a cure for every ill known to man and woman. As with all such, some people are convinced as to its efficacy as we see from the rapturous attendance at get-up-and-walk "healing" sessions even today.

    Unlike you, I do not admire certainty of belief in delusion and irrationality because this does far more harm than good as we see from those sad cases in the US where parents, relying on faith healing, have allowed their sick children to die.

    While the Victorian era sometimes seems complacently pious to us, I think we can also see in it healthy signs of increasing doubt and scepticism. In this, as in much else, the pioneers of the Victorian age helped prepare our modern world.

    Unfortunately, the battle against superstition and delusion has yet to be completely won.

  2. "Certainty of belief in delusion and irrationality" By this you mean religion?

    I am by no means religious, and can see only madness in these stories of Jehovah's Witnesses who will allow their children to die following an accident rather take blood, but religion is to people what people wish it to be.

    Many people have been comforted by it, even now in this age of science and technology people will turn to their religions.

    However, I believe religion is - and has always been - a way of making a vast number of people behave in a way you wish them to through fear.
    i.e, if you do THIS you will go to Hell, and this is what Hell is, so don't do THIS, but if you behave yourself, you'll go to Heaven, and this is what Heaven is.

    Religion is no different from government in a sense, both control mass numbers of people through fear of punishment, but I don't see how, on the whole, religion does more harm than good, I think there is a fair balance. As I said, many people will turn to religion in their hour of need, and the faith they have will serve them well. Placebo or no, if something works, it works.

    Homeopathy for example!

  3. The Christian tradition, however, is a crucial part of our history and, my guess would be, in terms of scholarship, and our own moral sense as 21st century atheists, that we owe it a good deal, however much we dislike its excesses and (ab)uses. The Victorians - or, at least, the middle-classes who thought about these things a good deal - were more conscious of this, I suspect.