Scott McLemee
Victorian Misanthropy
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The Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 April 2004

All those episodes of Masterpiece Theater have left an indelible image of the Victorian era as a time of civility and restraint. People of that time may have been hypocrites, but at least they were polite.

A much more complex picture of the age emerges when you read its imaginative writers, according to Christopher Lane, a professor of English at Northwestern University. In Hatred & Civility: The Antisocial Life in Victorian England, published by Columbia University Press, Mr. Lane finds an undercurrent of misanthropy in the work of such authors as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontė, and George Eliot.

Q. Are we wrong to think of the Victorians as preoccupied with sociability and civility?

A. The word "altruism" is coined in 1853. It's part of a philosophical emphasis on sociability and fellow feeling that runs throughout the 19th century. But the fiction of the time, in the 1850s and later in the '60s and '70s, indicates a much more complicated vision of social interaction. Of course there is civility in the fiction, but it collides with a much richer set of contrary impulses. Victorian psychology and psychiatry tried to pathologize misanthropy, whereas in the fiction itself there is an attempt to recuperate the figure of the "benevolent misanthrope" from the 18th century. The character of the benevolent misanthrope is a kind of social scold, someone who points up forms of corruption and the inequities of society that he -- invariably, it's a he -- is profoundly dissatisfied with. That old figure is reborn in Victorian fiction, which shows a great preoccupation with what goes wrong in social relationships.

Q. What does the presence of these themes in the fiction imply about the historical reality?

A. We have to rethink this phrase "Victorian values." The neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and others are trying to portray the Victorians as being highly principled and moral. But one has to understand these are ideals that were not necessarily what the Victorians themselves felt they could live up to. There's a gap that opens, which the fiction itself represents, that makes the notion of "Victorian values" much richer, but also much darker, and therefore better able to speak to us today.

Q. Nowadays someone with a tendency toward benevolent misanthropy would probably be on Prozac.

A. What we have in certain forms of psychology and psychopharmacology is, ironically, in some ways an extension of 19th-century assumptions. We now have "antisocial-personality disorder" and "social-anxiety disorder." That outlook, which sees hatred as something to be remedied, is in fact quite 19th century in formulation. But we think of reconciling the individual to society through a drug now, instead of through moral instruction.