Or I’m Not Victorian, But I Play Them in RPGs
Here again, I’m going to reiterate my caveat from part one. I’m going to make sweeping generalizations, with the aim of depicting the era. Don’t treat these as boundaries within which your character should stay. Treat them as a starting point, and figure out how your character should react within that environment.
In order to figure out why Victorians behaved as they did, we have to step back a bit. Under the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the Interregnum period saw an enforcement of Puritan values upon English society. They literally tried to suppress Christmas as being too hedonistic. With the restoration of Charles II, however, the English nobility returned from exile with the French Court, bringing with them some of the more libertine ideas in vogue there. Perhaps in reaction to the strict enforcement of Puritanical values, the Restoration and Georgian periods became known for a somewhat looser view. That’s not to say they didn’t have a sense of decency, just that the crusading moralists didn’t quite have the same influence.
Toward the end of the Georgian period, however, several reform movements came to the fore. In one hard-fought victory just before Victoria took power, they successfully achieved the abolition of slavery. This sort of crusading reform would have much more of a place in the coming years.
Around the same time, the Church of England was divested of much of its secular power, which, at least as depicted in Dickens, wasn’t exactly used effectively. The transition marked a turning point in which church attendance could become more about what you believed, and less about pragmatic necessity.
It also marked the waning influence of the Latitudinarians in the Church, who believed that doctrine, hierarchy, etc. mattered less than the state of the soul. In the days to come, pipe organs would replace amateur musicians, and ritual would gain increasing prominence. In other words, how you did something became ever more important, a concept that reflected society as a whole.
Queen Victoria took power during something of a crisis in public respect for the monarchy thanks to the excesses of her predecessors. She and Albert seemed to make every attempt to embody the moral rectitude that had been lacking. Despite an estrangement with her mother, (and despite being Queen) Victoria lived with her in the palace until she married, as required by cultural norms. Though it was said she hated pregnancy, and thought newborns were ugly, Victoria bore nine children, as might have been considered her duty.
However, Victoria also embodied some of the seeming contradictions of the time. Despite the famous Victorian prudery with the human form, Victoria drew and collected male nude figure drawings, even presenting one to Albert. She once criticized Prime Minister Gladstone, whom she disliked, for treating her as a “public meeting rather than a woman.”
When the Victorians encountered a problem, they liked to build an institution around it. You might build a workhouse to give the poor something to do. If you have lots of prostitutes, build an asylum to reform “fallen women” (technically any woman who had sex out of wedlock, but most often referring to a prostitute).
Much like today in its way, the Victorian Era was a time of great scientific progress. Strange new discoveries were popping up ever faster. Travel was easier, communication faster, and miracle drugs like Aspirin were cropping up like dandelions. The depths of the seas were being systematically measured, and the deepest Africa was being explored. It must have seemed, at the time, that the simple application of scientific progress would inevitably solve all of society’s problems.
The Industrial Revolution and England’s growing economy had created a large amount of wealth, which served to grow the relatively new Middle Class. This created several new possibilities which has previously been extremely rare. The ability to afford larger living spaces afforded more people the simple expectation of privacy. Also, the upward mobility, and the occasional feat of buying one’s way into the nobility, created a sense of potential that had previously been very rare. This seemed to cause a filtering down of what was once called “noblesse oblige,” the responsibility to act in accordance with one’s station, and for the betterment of society.
The Important Parts
How do the background and examples relate to characters? Here are a few guidelines on how to apply the Victorian world-view.
Things are either wrong or right. There’s no moral ambiguity; that’s modernism.
Though tales of modestly covering furniture legs are a bit of a stretch, the Victorians were circumspect anywhere near the topic of sex, to the extent of replacing the word “leg” with “limb” in polite conversation. Clothing generally covered from the shoulders to the ankles, and swimming was often segregated, even with the extensive bathing suits of the day. Still, none of that prohibited careful innuendo.
Women were placed on a pedestal, with definite expectations of “purity”. Thus, care must be taken to protect a woman from even rumors of impropriety. Unmarried people of opposite genders shouldn’t be alone together, they need a chaperone. Unmarried women must live with their mothers, a rule from which even the Queen wasn’t exempt. Obviously, courtship under these circumstances could be a long affair, and upper class people tended to marry late.
Civilized vs Savage
The Victorians were coming into contact with a lot of other cultures, and they firmly believed that civilization was good, and “savageness” was bad (see the above section on absolutes). Thus, if they could bring civilization to the savages by conquering them, this was explicitly good. This explains many of the expansionist tenancies of the day. Yes, this smacks of racism and the “White Man’s Burden”, and I’m definitely not saying that you should actually play all these things to the full extent.
Everything on the earth can be firmly categorized: civilized or savage, good or bad, right or wrong. Again, there are no gray areas.
Much like with the backlash against Latitudinarian theology, Victorians believed that how you do a thing mattered as much as actually doing it. If you behave as a gentleman in public, then you’re exemplifying of how society should be, which literally makes society better. Even if you later visit a prostitute in private, this doesn’t invalidate the good you did.
You have a duty to your family, and your country. If acting as a lady or a gentleman improves society, and you have a duty to improve society, then you’re obligated to behave accordingly. You’re also obligated not to unnecessarily impinge on someone else’s honor, because you’re actively hurting society. Thus, for instance, it’s up to a man to ensure that his courtship of a woman doesn’t create even hints of impropriety.
Your Mileage May Vary
How you put these ideas to use is up to you. My advice would be to evoke the sense of the time without constantly steering the game into uncomfortable topics, or dragging it into inaction. Playing an upper-class man in a group with an unmarried woman PC, I’ve tried to portray his attempts to maintain propriety without dragging down the game. After all, it makes it that much more difficult to defeat evil when you have to be followed around by a chaperone. Also, don’t let these ideas keep you from playing your character. My own PC is on something of a crusade against vampires, and will sometimes disregard propriety when absolutely necessary.