Diary of Mr and Mrs Nobody

30th May 1997 at 01:00

This is the fourth volume in Peter Gay's Freudian anal-ysis of Victorian culture. For the historian as for the psychoanalyst, "any expression, no matter how banal or absurd a dream, a fantasy, a slip of the tongue, a symptom, a linguistic habit - is a message waiting to be deciphered".

Yes, but while the analyst concentrates on a single patient, the historian looks through a wide-angle lens, and Gay, who regards the whole 19th century as "Victorian", is concerned not just with England but with the continent and North America. How is he to select material for deciphering?

In the first volume, Education of the Senses, he explained: "I have constructed my volume on the fundamental building blocks of the human experience - love, aggression and conflict. " He promised to pay less attention to political events and economic forces than to such questions as whether there was a "distinctive bourgeois style in sexuality".

He succeeded at least partially in his effort "to complicate and correct those tenacious misconceptions that have dogged our reading of Victorian culture as a devious and insincere world in which middle-class husbands slaked their lust by keeping mistresses, frequenting prostitutes and molesting children, while their wives . . . poured all their capacity for love into their housekeeping and their child-rearing".

But aggression has always been so commonplace that billions of examples present themselves to any good Freudian on the look-out for ways in which negative emotions can be disguised. Some of the violence Gay unmasks is sensational. In Cleveland, Ohio, during 1894, the clitoris of a seven-year-old child was surgically removed to stop her masturbating. This says something about the victimisation of children by sadistic parents and surgeons, but is it characteristic of 19th-century culture?

The main subject in the new volume is the Victorians' intense preoccupation with the self. Carlyle spoke of "these Autobiographical times of ours," and Emerson called them "the age of introversion". By the middle of the century, says Gay, "the attempt to hide or reveal, at least to understand, the secret life of the self had grown into a favourite, and wholly serious, indoor sport".

His aim is to deal "mainly with ordinary bourgeois, with readers of biographies, histories and novels as much as their authors, with obscure as much as well known diarists and letter writers". In his first volume he delved interestingly into the little-known diaries and letters of people such as Mabel Loomis Todd, Regent of the Amherst chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the sociologist Lester Ward, and Minnie Cabot, wife of Godfrey Lowell Cabot.

But it's easier to write about writers than about what their readers experience, and Gay comes close to admitting defeat when he concedes that since it was the "major authors" who "memorably reminisced in print" lending "expressive voice to the bourgeois struggles for emotional transparency", it is "their autobiographies that will necessarily hold the centre of attention in these pages".

His familiarity with Freud gives him great insight into writers who had not been alerted, as their 20th- century successors have, to the mechanics of repression. John Stuart Mill's autobiography, for instance, is remarkable both for what it reveals and what it conceals.

In his early notes Mill complained that not having "a really warmhearted mother", he "grew up in the absence of love and in the presence of fear". This admission "did not survive his and his wife's editorial scrutiny". His idealisation of his wife, "whose genius, as it grew and unfolded itself in thought, continually struck out truths far in advance of me" is "like the mournful tribute of a man in search of a woman he could unconditionally adore as he could never adore his real mother".

Gay writes interestingly about affinities between popular fiction and fairy stories: "in fantasy, grown-up readers returned, as it were, to childhood, emotionally revisiting stories they had heard long ago", such as those by the Brothers Grimm, who had promised to "tell of a time when wishing still made a difference". Victorian popular fiction introduced miraculous coincidences and meted out ferocious punishment to the villains.

Gay also writes revealingly about music and painting. At public and private musical performances, audience behaviour changed during the century as silence gradually become the norm. Stendhal found in the 1820s that the Romans used the opera house "as a kind of club and general centre for conversation". But listening to music was to become "a quasi-religious experience".

In art, too, it was often a religious ingredient, obvious or hidden, that made certain paintings popular. Millet sold his "Angelus" for 1,000 francs,but before it was put in the Louvre, it had to be bought back from the United States for 800,000 francs and Bocklin's "Isle of the Dead" became so popular that it was used to advertise mouthwash.

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