Notes on the 19th Century: The Functions of Victorian Manners

The functions of Victorian manners during the 19th century rested on its investment in creating a genteel populace. In this way Victorian manners can be seen as an “investment” of the body. Michel Foucault reminds that, “…the body is directly involved in a political field, power relations have an immediate hold upon it, they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs”(Foucault 25). Of special consideration is how this immediate hold fixes itself on the body through the ideals set forth by the social hegemonic domain of power.  The individual finds that the spaces they inhabit whether public or private test their mastery of Victorian manners.  As an ideological implement to serving a political/social hegemony, Victorian manners functioned in three important ways: to curb egalitarian “excess” in a purportedly democratic environment, promote consumerism in an increasingly capitalist, market-driven society, and to exert social control over the masses (Kasson 6).

Victorian manners stood as a “conservative bulwark” against social disorder and unrest (Kasson 62). As early as 1787 in the aftermath of Shay’s Rebellion, constitutional framers would convene to stabilize and strengthen the new American republic and stem the tide of social revolution (Franklin 93). Though the War for Independence was predicated on the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness this new government immediately saw danger in the lingering revolutionary fervor. Edmund Burke, 18th century political theorist and Anglo-Irish statesman declared that “manners are more important than laws. Upon them the laws depend”(Monaghan 75). Burke was laying the ideological framework for a conservative model of personal self-governance. Manners lead to a populace that respected the law and their “place.”

Similarly in 1832 Frances Trollope wrote of offenses stemming from people’s “fallacious ideas of equality” and how the institution of slavery itself appeared “far less injurious to the manners and morals of the [American] people…” (Kasson 58). Here Trollope points out how revolting it was that people from lower classes emboldened themselves into believing they were the political equal of those in the higher classes. Kasson indicates that in this statement Trollope came close to implying that an element of servility was essential to civility (58). Servility however seemed to be fitted best for certain classes of people- the poor and the enslaved Africans. Such notions of preferred behavior for the masses exemplify a need for acceptance of the status quo in order for them to be complacent with their condition, however pitiable.

A populace such as that would be less inclined to revolt or question authority. Dred Scott would find that his own “fallacious ideas of equality” within the judicial system would set a legal precedent in 1857 when Justice Taney declared that “blacks had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”  Ultimately the conventions of Victorian manners legitimated the political hegemony that kept people from questioning authority thereby curbing political unrest.


Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979

Kasson, John F. Rudeness & Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990. Print

Franklin, John Hope. From slavery to freedom: a history of African Americans.New York: A.A Knopf, 2000

Monaghan, David M. “The Decline of the Gentry: A Study of Jane Austen’s Attitude to Formality In Persuasion” Studies in the Novel. Vol. 7. No.1. 1975 pp. 73-87

Stancliff, Michael. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: African American Reform Rhetoric and the Rise of the Modern Nation State. NY: Routledge, 2011. Print

Notes on Darwin’s Origin of Species


The nineteenth century was rife with cataclysmic changes in economics, technology, and science. An increasingly diversified market of goods and services, new inventions, and population shifts were just some aspects of the rapid innovation and progress made during the 1800’s. Additionally the ideological discourses thrived with print material that challenged, provoked and brought new insights into the public mind. No other publication shook the foundation of how people saw the world more than Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. This book collapsed the relative peace between religion and the sciences, threatened the Victorian social order, and made Darwin himself vulnerable to reproof from traditionalist practitioners in his field.  For this reason Darwin’s work can be quite radical during the Victorian period.

Charles Darwin writes, “changed habits produce an inherited effect…with animals the increased use or disuse of parts…has marked influence…Hence if man goes on selecting and thus augmenting…he will almost certainly modify unintentionally other parts of structure.”(Darwin 14) Here Darwin speaks to the variability of characteristics among living things domesticated and compares them with attributes of the same species in a “state of nature” (the wild). Darwin said, “I fear great evil from vast opposition on all subjects of classification. I must work out hypothesis and compare with results. If I acted otherwise my premises would be disputed.” Here Darwin gives his reasoning for his scientific approach with his extensive time spent gathering evidence and traveling the world to assure the validity of his results.

Correct as Darwin’s theories may have been, religious authorities during the nineteenth century would not readily accept Darwin’s theory of species change. Though Darwin’s use of descriptive examples draw from zoology, botany, morphology  this evidence supported how selective breeding affected species change; the church’s stance on the biblical origins of creation ran counter to Darwin’s evidence.  This would disturb the so-called “harmony” between sciences and the church. If God made all living things in seven days then Darwin’s theory would be considered heresy. In spite of such an implication, Darwin was committed to methodological practice.

“A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase.” (Darwin 63) Here Darwin’s theory of natural selection gives example to the chaotic state of the natural world. Darwin writes on that “In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing considerations always in mind-never to forget that every single organic being may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life’ that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or old, during each generation or at recurrent intervals. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little and the number of species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.” (Darwin 65) This explains to Darwin’s reader the state of struggle in which living things have to endure in order to survive. These things being clear and rational, unfortunately implied a subtext that would cause the Victorians to bristle. Such a naturalistic, chaotic world was anathematic to one that was controlled by the eyes of an all seeing God. Darwin did not mention a divine presence in this passage. It was wholly material the laws within the state of nature. It seemed a merciless world that was not dependent upon the powers of prayer- but dependent only on survival. Such a world could presumably translate to some readers that a Judeo-Christian ethos was inconsequential when the true powers of fate lay in the uncontrollable laws of nature.

When Darwin wrote of the importance of the “largeness of area” he gave his readers some hope of how a species could “endure” for a longer length of time. Again there is no mention of a divine presence that ensures the safety of a living thing- only certain conditions that have proved “favorable” to the organisms he has studied over time. To think of “largeness of area” in human terms, one thinks of the types of dwellings the poor would find themselves living. The influx of immigrants into Ellis Island during the nineteenth century forced them into crowded tenements because of their lack of resources. Additionally on plantations, the enslaved were placed into one room cabins where one or two families would reside. Applying Darwin’s thesis it is no wonder that many of them suffered disease, abject poverty and due to their social location, social death.

Ironically as time would progress Darwin’s ideas would reach an audience that could reason with his evidence and apply the variables found in a “state of nature” to human beings.

Social Darwinism would find a large following in the United States. This theory attempted to explain human progress and posited that “like animals, society evolved adapting to the environment. Herbert Spencer’s term “survival of the fittest” kept the strong and cast out the weak. Such a belief system would impact how some policy makers viewed government intervention with those rendered indigent. Reform would “disturb” the nature’s intended purpose: to obliterate the weak and leave the strong. Such a thought pattern would jibe well with the capitalist ideology of the nineteenth century and exemplifies how easily scientific evidence can be used politically in service to whatever hegemonic impulse served those in power.

For the Victorians, any aspect of knowledge that threatened the status quo was dangerous- Darwin’s evidence implicitly highlighted a natural world devoid of manners, form and ceremony. The state of nature was a dangerous place that relied purely on instinct. Since many of the rules of Victorian behavior were undergirded by a Judeo-Christian ethos, Darwin’s ideas were subversive. But in Darwin’s view it was truth as he had studied, researched and written about. Keepers of conservative tradition, Victorians, and the religious establishment would all oppose much of the content in The Origin of Species.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Croce, Paul. Nineteenth Century Science and Religion. Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History 1999