I have often wondered what the Victorians would make of our society should a character like H G Wells’ ‘time traveller’ actually manage to create a machine to visit the future. While one imagines that he would probably find some things to be predicable (motorized transport, even airplanes), others largely unchanged (like Parliament and the judiciary), it would be the leveling of daily life and the permissive nature of relationships that might give cause for shock.
Victorian society was not as buttoned up and prudish as it has sometimes been perceived. In fact, as Matthew Sweet argues in Inventing the Victorians (2001) even that oft repeated suggestion that they covered up the legs of their pianos is a myth; a joke aimed at themselves and at Americans (whom they felt were more obsessed with suppressing sexuality).
Nevertheless vice and obscenity were prosecuted in the courts and their definitions of what constituted ‘obscene’ were certainly narrower than our own. This is where I think the ‘time traveller’ would struggle to make sense of society: when he viewed television, looked at a tabloid newspaper, causally searched the internet, or simply walked down a busy London street, he would have been assaulted by images of (in his mind) semi-nudity everywhere.
In 1872 Frederick Shore was summoned to Bow Street Police court to answer accusations that he had published an indecent periodical. Shore, who was represented by a barrister, Mr Laxton, was the publisher of Days Doings and short-lived sensational magazine that carried all sorts of stories, romances, gossip, sports and entertainment news. The prosecution, brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, alleged that it was obscene.
Shore had been in court three months previously and had then promised that ‘all nude pictures and matters suggestive of indecency’ would be removed from all future editions of the paper. This then was a hearing designed, in part, to ensure he had kept his word.
Mr Bealey, the barrister instructed by the Society, argued that he had not. He produced a copy of the latest edition and read a selection of it to the court before showing the magistrate (Sir Thomas Henry) a nude image. The defense argued that the image in question was ‘a well known picture’ and that the editors had ‘added drapery to it’ to ‘decrease its nudity’. Sir Thomas said this only made it worse, it was now ‘even more obscene’.
He concluded that the proprietors of Days Doingshad ‘not kept good faith’. ‘There was no doubt’ he declared, ‘that the proprietors of the periodical pandered to a depraved taste’. He bound the witnesses form the Society over to prosecute and accepted bail of £150 from the defendant. The whole sorry issue would now have to go before a higher court.
Just how ‘obscene’ was Days Doings?Well not very would be the conclusion of a modern audience. It was risqué certainly, and humorous, catering for amiddle-class decadent readership. On its May 1871 cover it featured ‘Derby Night at Cremorne’ [Gardens] with a sensational scene of well dressed gentlemen drinking with women that might well have been prostitutes. Cremorne Gardens enjoyed a reputation as a lively and disreputable entertainment venuewhere the classes could mix. The 1871 article in the Days Doings supported Cremorne in the face of a sustained attack by organisations like the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Cheslea Vestry who wanted it closed down.
This brought Shore into the cross hairs of anti-vice campaigners who saw his periodical as part of the problem. In early 1872 Days Doings was (as this case shows) under constant attack and eventually caved in. It remerged as ‘Here and There’ a much milder version of itself but it still had room to comment on the attempts to close down Cremorne Gardens. It condemned the threats to popular entertainment ‘by the prudery of aldermen, ministers and police inspectors. Dancing is banned at Cremorne’ and other venues it stated, ‘for this “is the gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists”.*
Goodness knows what those same moralists would have made of most Britain today.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 02, 1872]
*quoted in Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon (2005), p.139