While people today think the Victorians to have been prudish, they were, like people of any epoch, progressive for their time. Indeed, the debauchery of the preceding era was being rejected by society as a whole, with a strong pull toward decency. However, only a few decades before Victoria ascended the throne, for example, waltzing was considered by most as immorality in the ballroom. Victorians and the Queen herself waltzed unhindered while their Regency era forebears were yet alive and even present! Shocking! Quite progressive, were they not?
Indeed, many of the things done then were for the sake of being progressive. Take, for example, the sign found at various offices- “You Are Requested to Speak of Business Only”. Today such a sign would be considered irritating, restrictive and perhaps even unconstitutional in the US. At the time, though, it was meant to promote a dutiful work ethic, which was an important thing to society in general. This was a change. While in the past the idle life of an aristocrat was thought of as right and something to wish one could attain to, or hope to marry upward into, during the Victorian era the lower classes began to pride themselves on work well done, on rising from poverty into self sufficiency and on doing their duty to the community. People were eager to be found Respectable, and there was no respect for those who deluded others or cut corners. Dishonest individuals would find that they did not fit well enough into society to receive invitations into the homes of most. People also worked long hard hours to keep their jobs, as there was no real job security or unemployment compensation. The result of these social and fiduciary pressures resulted in England’s skilled workers becoming well known around the world for their dedication and expertise. The sense of self-worth of the working classes began to be bolstered by their newly popular contempt for the idle rich, which likely contributed to their productivity and a higher living standard. Aristocrats began to feel guilty when idle and to find ways to busy themselves usefully, such as charity and public service, in order to not be deeply disdained. They had taken notice, too, of the French Revolution and its treatment of the nobility and preferred to avoid such an outcome.
Respectability was determined in other areas of life as well. A family should be living in a clean, tidy home, wearing clean clothing and displaying good manners. One would not call attention to themselves with loud ways or flashy clothing. It was far more respectable to do without than to go into debt. Thrift was encouraged. In a true emergency, a respectable person could rely on his or her neighbors because he himself, or she, had been helpful in the past and deserved it. Troubles should be born without complaint, it was thought, and so personal and family problems were often unknown outside the family. Neighbors kept their distance. In the middle class, there was some suspicion of a man who earned enough money for their children to inherit. Sons were to be taught a good trade and become self-sufficient. Earlier in the century, fathers would make great sacrifices to provide for a daughter who might not ever be married, but later, women began to become more independent.
There was great importance to being earnest, as you may have heard. Earnesty meant that recreation was for refreshment and health, but not for self indulgence. Drinking and indulgence were, after all, the causes of disease! Moderation, bath and exercise, along with cleanliness of the home, were the cure. Respectability involved punctuality, rising early, orderliness, self-denial, self-control, initiative, good use of leisure time and prudent marriage. Such traits were widely promoted in lectures, sermons, publications and worker's self-help societies.
I cannot personally see any problem with these standards! While there was quite a bit of unnecessary oversight of certain social rules, by neighbors and other busybodies, and a person could be shunned for being less than Respectable, the principles themselves contributed to health and prosperity.
It was quite important, also, to be a gentleman and chivalrous. In the early nineteenth century, a gentleman was only someone from the landed class or a barrister, clergyman, military officer or Member of Parliament. However, England was progressive, and as time went on, gentlemanly conduct became an obligation. Mistresses and illegitimate children were no longer openly acceptable, which did hopefully contribute to family happiness. Parliament could dismiss a member found to be living in such a way. The term "gentleman" began to apply to men who lived up to socially acceptable behavior. "Gentlemanly behavior was governed by a strict unwritten code of what was 'done' and 'not done.' It was clearly 'not done' to cheat at cards or question the honesty of another gentleman." He was "courteous, considerate, and socially at ease. He paid his gambling debts and kept his word- a verbal promise was more important than a handshake, and a written contract seemed faintly disreputable, as if it suggested that a gentleman's word could not be trusted." He was "honorable, dependable, and ethical. He did what was required without supervision- he didn't become a clock-watcher, but neither did he work excessively long hours just to make more money... A gentleman exhibited stoic self-control. He did not call attention to his own cleverness, or visibly work harder than others, or show too much enthusiasm.... loyalty, team spirit, courage, and fair play... he was motivated by an enormous fear of... visibly failing to live up to his standards and responsibilities." He behaved honorably toward all women, accepting their chaperones on every outing. A gentleman would not turn his back on a lady to whom he was speaking without first excusing himself, hat in hand, and at least giving a hint of a bow. No wonder we women today.... well, enough daydreaming here. It's just not going to happen.
Early in the century, women were taught young to become a wife and mother. Her duty in life was to rule the house under her husband's oversight. She was responsible to turn out healthy, self-sufficient sons and well trained daughters who could do the same. She was to keep the house and laundry clean (mind you, a great many women had servants, at least for the heavy work, but there was a lot of heavy work), oversee the children's education, preserve high moral values, guard her husband's conscience (men obviously being unable to do so for themselves?) and build society up by her daily Christian duties. If she were to do so properly, it was assumed that her husband and sons would have no cause to leave home for an evening's morally suspect entertainment. Girls were taught that as women, they would be more responsible for the "success or failure, happiness or misery, learning or ignorance, than kings, statesmen, philosophers, philanthropists, and clergymen." Women were legally subordinate, economically dependent, taught to be obedient to their husbands, and yet entirely responsible for the comfort, beauty morality and happiness of the family. She was trained to please and to suppress her own desires. In turn, she was to be protected from the shocks and dangers of the world, her purity and refinement safeguarded; she was to be safe at home. It was important for her to marry wisely, because her "marriage established her rank, role, duties, social status, place of residence, economic circumstances and way of life. It determined her comfort, her physical safety, her children's health, and ultimately- perhaps- even her spiritual well-being." Unfortunately, in earlier times, girls were not to hear of sex until their husbands taught them on the wedding night. I can't imagine that that was healthy in any way. I know a woman, now in her 80s, who had that same experience, so I believe that thinking carried through into the 20th century, as did many other ideas. To some degree, however, a lighter version of Victorian sexual mores was healthy. Where the standards were applied in fact, girls were, in general, safer, children were more often born in a two parent home with parents who took their responsibilities seriously.
In later decades, especially toward the end of the century, the "New Woman", or feminist, appeared. Girls began to grow up educated and took on work as a professional. They no longer had to have a chaperone every time they left the house, traveled by bicycle or public transportation and even lived in a flat with friends. You see? The Victorian Era was totally progressive. What is your view?
All quotes and some of the information was taken from Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell.