One of England’s grand masters of history provides a clear and persuasive interpretation of the creation of “respectable society” in Victorian Britain. Integrating a vast amount of research previously hidden in obscure or academic journals, he covers not only the economy, social structure, and patterns of authority, but also marriage and the family, childhood, homes and houses, work and play.
By 1900 the structure of British society had become more orderly and well-defined than it had been in the 1830s and 1840s, but the result, F. M. L. Thompson shows, was fragmentation into a multiplicity of sections or classes with differing standards and notions of respectability. Each group operated its own social controls, based on what it considered acceptable or unacceptable conduct. This “internalized and diversified” respectability was not the cohesive force its middle-class and evangelical proponents had envisioned. The Victorian experience thus bequeathed structural problems, identity problems, and authority problems to the twentieth century, with which Britain is grappling.