Peter Gay's Bourgeoisie


Elizabeth: The Young Gloriana

Direct Testimony, 1307

Founding Ambiguities

Getting Business Going

Greatness Recollected


Impresario of Art

James Madison

Pazzi v Medici

Paris 1919



Tsushima and Tsar Nicholas

A. N. Wilson's Victorians

Peter Gay's Bourgeoisie

1 October 2002: The problem with Peter Gay's Schnitzler's Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture 1815-1914 is that it almost completely ignores its subtitle. Gay's discussion is riveted to the second half of his century, by which time the bourgeoisie of the West had forgotten its origins. To be sure, Gay isn't really interested in where the members of this new class came from. His objective appears to be to consolidate into one volume the revisionist conclusions of his five volume study, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Now, that would have been the right subtitle for the new book as well. 

Putting the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) in the spotlight signals Gay's major point, which is that 'the Victorians' - a handy nickname for the bourgeoisie of the Nineteenth Century both in Europe and in North America - weren't so prudish or uptight as they were made out to be by the Lost Generation writers who faulted them for steering civilization into the abyss of 1914. Nor were the Victorians as complacent and self-satisfied as they appeared to later writers. Schnitzler, who for all of his libertinage remains a full-bodied male chauvinist (at least in the bedroom), may have embodied the tensions of Victorian life, and Gay describes these well, but little to no light is thrown on how these particular screws came to be tightened. I accept and commend Gay's fuller, rounder portrait of Victorian complexity, but as to 'the making of middle-class culture,' 'Schnitzler's Century' is very unsatisfying - and it was curiosity on this very point that made me buy the book. 

There was, of course, a bourgeoisie prior to 1815, but it was not a middle class. The structure of old regimes throughout Europe (with the important exception of England) attached the bourgeoisie to the third estate, the class of those who worked, overwhelmingly comprised of peasants. By and large, the bourgeoisie consisted of those who provided non-military service to either to the state or to its aristocratic managers. Then something happened, and the bourgeoisie, now truly a class situated between the very rich (and the very noble, not necessarily the same people) and the proletariat, appeared to seize the reins of power. 

What happened? In a word, '1789.' But even this momentous date leaves most of what was to come unexplained. The Industrial Revolution, which passed through a state change during the years between the reigns of Louis XVI and his brother, Louis XVIII, caused at least as much displacement as the explosion of ideals that inaugurated the French Revolution, and possibly more. From a strictly phenomenal standpoint, one might argue that the Victorian middle class did not exist until the railroads spread their tentacles throughout the world. (Coincidentally, Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837,  the year of the first modern financial panic, which was occasioned by the collapse of the first railroad boom.) But how to explain the manners and the modes of this new middle class? Where did they come from, and how did they achieve acceptance? 

If we grant that the the railroads, and the large-scale trading networks that they created, spawned a broad class of affluent families, ranging from the plutocrats who exploited mineral reserves to the senior clerks who ran their operations, we are left with the interesting irritations, which never seemed to burst into open struggle, between the new bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy. Aristocrats, presumably, knew how to how live - how, that is, to spend money. The nouveaux riches, however, did not invariably imitate them, but struck out on their own in many ways. With regard to privacy, for one. Gay has a lot to say about the importance of privacy to the bourgeoisie, but he does not mention that it was relatively unimportant among aristocrats, who had long since perfected the trick of simply not seeing the unimportant people who might observe their intimate lives in the course of serving dinner or driving the carriage. Aristocrats might well believe that members of 'the lower orders' didn't count, but the bourgeoisie, oblivious as it might be about where it had come from, could not draw such a line between itself and its servants, and so, for this and many other reasons, it developed a habit of discretion that had never been seen before outside the world of diplomacy. I'd like to know more about those many other reasons. 

And who were the grandparents and great-grandparents of the nouveaux riches of, say, 1840? Where did the new talent come from? I can't believe that this question hasn't invited scholarly analysis, but I'm afraid that any results remain immured in moldering learned journals. My entirely anecdotal experience is that every Victorian worthy appears to have descended - aristocratic alliances aside - from prosperous yeoman farmers, at least in England. To what extent did the new middle class represent the crystallization of the affluent fringe of the old third estate? What continuities - as distinct from self-conscious revivals - can be tracked from the ancien régime's bourgeoisie to its post-Napoleonic successor? What was new about the new middle class? 

My answer to the last question is: self-consciousness. The new gentility of 1850 might cough politely at the discussion of ancestors, but its members knew that the world had undergone an unparalleled change in the previous century - a change that, for all we've been through since, remains, to my mind, not only unparalleled but unmatched for degree of transformation. A political order with its roots in the previous millennium had been, if not swept away, then largely discredited. And the market economy, formerly fractured into innumerable splinters, had begun to link everyone. (I am persuaded that these are not coincidences but aspects of the same process.) But the Victorians had no idea at all of where democracy and capitalism would carry them. Looking back, we can see why they faced the unscripted future with an almost hysterical optimism that conferred plausibility on the wildest forecasts. But if we have been cured of their irrational exuberance, we share their belief that the world is not a given but a responsibility, and a responsibility shared, however unequally, by everyone. That was a new outlook in 1850, and trying to figure out its implications remains the central project of modern life. (October 2002)

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press

Write to me