1. Man and Woman

What kind of moral life evolved from this class government, this changing economy, this union of state and Church, this education so limited in content and spread, this national heritage once strengthened by isolation, now challenged by communication, revolution, and war?

Men and women are not naturally moral, for their social instincts, which favor cooperation, are not as strong as their individualistic impulses, which serve the self; so these must be weakened, and those strengthened, by law expressing the will and power of the group, and by a moral code transmitted through the family, the church, the school, public opinion, custom, and taboos. Inevitably, then, there was considerable crime in the England of 1789–1815, a deal of dishonesty, and a flow of premarital sex. If we may believe Hogarth and Boswell, brothels and streetwalkers abounded in London and the factory towns. The aristocracy had found prostitutes less expensive than mistresses. Lord Egremont, open-handed host to Turner and other artists, “was said to have had a series of mistresses, by whom he sired many children…. The gossip, however, only added to the warmth his friends felt for him.”27 We may judge the morals of the upper classes by the amiability with which they adjusted themselves to those of the Prince of Wales. “The Prince grew up amidst the most licentious aristocracy that England had known since the Middle Ages.”28 The peasantry may be presumed to have respected the old moral code, for the family organization of agriculture required a strong parental authority, and allowed almost inescapable surveillance of the young by the old. The growing proletariat, however, released from such controls, imitated its exploiters as well as its income would allow. “Low wages in unregulated sweatshop industries made temptation strong”29 for women factory workers to sell themselves for an added pittance to their minimal wage.

Until 1929 the legal age of marriage was fourteen for the male, twelve for the female. Normally marriage was mercenary. A man or a woman was maritably desirable according to his or her actual or prospective income; mothers schemed night and day (as in Jane Austen’s novels) to marry their daughters to money. Love marriages were still exceptional, though literature was exalting them. Common-law marriage was legally recognized; formal marriage required a clergyman. Families were large, for children were economic assets, only a little less so in factories than on farms. Contraception was primitive. The rate of population growth was rising, but was slowed by infantile and senile mortality, and the inadequacy of nourishment, medical care, and public sanitation. Adultery was widespread. Divorce could be obtained by the husband or (after 1801) by the wife, but only by an act of Parliament, which cost so much that only 317 divorces were granted before the law was liberalized in 1859. Until 1859 a woman’s movable property became her husband’s at marriage, and he automatically acquired whatever such property came to her after marriage. She retained her property in land, but the income therefrom belonged to her husband. If she predeceased him all her property passed to him.30

We hear of wealthy women, but they were few. By the custom of entail a father who had no living son could—and in many cases did—bequeath his estate to a male relative, leaving his daughters dependent on friendship or courtesy. It was a man’s world.

2. Mary Wollstonecraft

Custom had inured most British women to these inequities, but the winds now blowing from Revolutionary France aroused some sufferers to protest. Mary Wollstonecraft felt them, and raised her voice in one of the ablest appeals ever made for women’s liberation.

Her father was a Londoner who decided to try farming; he failed, lost his fortune and his wife, took to drink, and left his three daughters to earn their own living. They opened a school, won praise from Samuel Johnson, and went bankrupt. Mary became a governess, but was dismissed after a year because “the children loved their governess better than their mother.”31 Meanwhile she wrote several books, including, in 1792, at the age of thirty-three, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

She dedicated it to “M. Talleyrand-Perigord, Late Bishop of Autun,” with a hint that since the Constituent Assembly had proclaimed the Rights of Man, it was morally obligated to issue a Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Perhaps to ease her way she took a high moral tone, professing loyalty to country, virtue, and God. She said little of woman suffrage, for “as the whole system of representation is now in this country only a convenient handle for despotism, they [women] need not complain; for they are as well represented as a numerous class of hardworking mechanics, who pay for the support of royalty when they can scarcely stop their children’s mouths with bread.” Nevertheless, “I really think that women ought to have representatives [in Parliament], instead of being governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government.”32 As an example of sexually based legislation she pointed to the laws of primogeniture and entail. And custom was even crueler than law, for it branded and punished a woman through life for one moment’s departure from chastity, “though men preserve their respectability during the indulgence of vice.”33

Probably some readers were shocked by Mary’s declaration of a woman’s right to feel, or to confess, physical satisfaction in coitus.34 But she warned both sexes that “love considered as an animal appetite cannot long feed itself without expiring”;35 indeed, in that sense “it is the most evanescent of all passions.”36 Love as a physical relationship should be gradually replaced by friendship. This requires mutual respect, and respect requires that each mate should find in the other an individual and developing character.37Hence the best beginning of woman’s liberation lies in recognizing her faults, and realizing that her freedom will depend upon her education in mind and conduct.

The Vindication proceeded to list some feminine faults of that time: the affectation of weakness and timidity, which feeds and pleases the male’s assumption of superiority; the addiction to cards, gossip, astrology, sentimentality, and literary trash; the absorption in dress and self-admiration.

Nature, music, poetry, and gallantry all tend to make women the creatures of sensation,… and this overstretched sensibility naturally relaxes the other powers of the mind, and prevents intellect from attaining that sovereignty which it ought to attain;… for the exercise of the understanding, as life advances, is the only method pointed out by Nature to calm the passions.38

Nearly all these faults, Mary felt, were due to inequalities of education, and to man’s success in making women think that (as a lady authoress had told them), “Your best, your sweetest empire is to please.”39

Mary resented these fripperies and artifices, and looked with envy upon those Frenchwomen who insisted on getting an education, and who learned to write letters that are among the fairest products of the French mind. “In France there is understandably a more general diffusion of knowledge than in any other part of the European world, and I attribute it, in part measure, to the social intercourse that has long subsisted between the sexes.”40 A generation before Balzac, Mary Wollstonecraft noted that

the French, who admit more of mind into their notions of beauty, give the preference to women of thirty…. They allow women to be in their most perfect state when vivacity gives place to reason, and to that majestic seriousness of character which marks maturity. … In youth, till twenty, the body shoots out; till thirty the solids are attaining a degree of density, and the flexible muscles [of the face], growing daily more rigid, give character to the countenance—that is, they trace the operation of the mind with the iron pen of fate, and tell us not only what powers are within, but how they have been employed.41

The faults of women, Mary believed, were nearly all due to the denial of educational opportunities, and to the male’s success in getting women to think of themselves as sex toys before marriage, and as decorative ornaments, obedient servants, and maternity machines afterward. To give both sexes an equal chance to develop mind and body, boys and girls—up to the time of technical vocation—should be educated together, with the same curriculum and, when possible, the same or equivalent sports. Every woman should be made sufficiently strong in body and competent in mind to earn her own living if necessary,42 but “whatever tends to incapacitate the maternal character takes woman out of her sphere”;43 sooner or later the biological functions and physiological differences will have their say. Maternal nursing is good for maternal health, and might make families smaller and stronger.44 The ideal of woman’s emancipation should be the educated mother in equal union with an educated male.45

Having seen her book through the press, the brilliant young author crossed the Channel to France, fascinated by the creative years of the Revolution, but just in time for the Massacres and the Terror. She fell in love with an American in Paris, Captain Gilbert Imlay, and agreed to live with him in unsanctioned union. After making her pregnant, Imlay took to absenting himself for months at a time, on business or otherwise. Her letters begging him to come back46 are almost as eloquent, and were as futile, as those of Julie de Lespinasse a generation before. In 1794 she bore her child, but this did not hold the father. He offered to send her a yearly fund for her support; she refused it, and returned to England (1795). She tried to drown herself in the Thames, but was dragged back to life by solicitous watermen.

A year later she met William Godwin and became his common-law wife; neither of them believed in the right of the state to regulate marriage. However, for the sake of their expected child, they decided to submit to a religious ceremony (March 29, 1797). Ashamed of their legality, they concealed from their radical friends the fact that they were no longer living in sin. For a while she shone in the rebel circle that gathered around the publisher Joseph Johnson: Godwin, Thomas Holcroft, Tom Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Blake (who illustrated some of her writings). On August 30, 1797, amid intense suffering, she gave birth to Shelley’s future wife. Ten days later she died.

3. Social Morality

By and large, despite those steady and decent lives that history fails to record, each class of the English population in this period shared in a general moral deterioration. Gambling was universal; the government itself (till 1826) took a hand in it with a national lottery. Drunkenness was endemic, as an escape from cold mists and rains, brutalizing poverty, family warfare, political strains, philosophical despair; Pitt and Fox, otherwise so different, agreed in favoring this anesthesia. Taverns were allowed to remain open through Saturday night till 11 A.M. Sunday,47 for Saturday was pay day, and time had to be allowed the “pub” to get its prime cut of the weekly wage. The middle classes drank more moderately; the upper classes drank heavily, but had learned to carry their liquor steadily, like a leaking tub.

A special indulgence allowed political corruption at every stage of government. In many cases, as already noted, votes, boroughs, nominations, offices—in some cases peerages—were bought and sold as openly as shares on the stock exchange. George III, whose virtues were domestic, saw no wrong in laying out money for the procurement of votes for or in Parliament, or distributing offices for political support. In 1809 seventy-six M.P.s held such sinecures. “A favored few connected by relationship or interest with the rich and the powerful received huge salaries for doing nothing, whilst the men who actually did the work were in many cases grossly underpaid.”48 Judges sold the subordinate posts in their jurisdiction, and exacted from their holders a share of the fees which the public paid for official services.

The government could be cruel as well as venal. We have mentioned the severity of its penal code. The forcible impressment of wayfarers into the Navy was a prelude to low pay, bad food, and merciless discipline.49 On several occasions the crews mutinied; one such strike blockaded the port of London for a month. Nevertheless, the English sailors were the best seamen and naval warriors in history.

Many efforts were made for moral reform. In 1787 George III issued a condemnation of Sabbath-breaking, blasphemy (cursing), drunkenness, obscene literature, and immoral amusements; the effect is not recorded. Jeremy Bentham, with his Parliamentary Reform Catechism (1809), led a dozen able disciples in exposing political venality and incompetence. Methodist and Evangelical preaching had some effect, which was doubled when the Revolution raised fears that a nation so morally unhinged could successfully combat French invasion or internal revolt. A Society for the Suppression of Vice campaigned against dueling, brothels, and pornography. Other reformers attacked child labor, the use of children as chimneysweeps, the horrors of the prisons, the ferocity of the penal code. A wave of humanitarianism, stemming partly from religion, partly from the Enlightenment, spread works of philanthropy and charity.

William Wilberforce was the most tireless of the English reformers. Born in Hull (1759) of a family rich in both land and commerce, and going through Cambridge as a comrade of William Pitt, he had little trouble in getting elected to Parliament (1774) a year after Pitt became prime minister. Feeling the influence of the Evangelical Movement, he helped to establish the Society for the Reformation of Manners (1787). Above all he protested that a nation officially Christian still tolerated the trade in African slaves.

England was now leading in this traffic. In 1790 British vessels transported 38,000 slaves to America, French ships 20,000, Portuguese 10,000, Dutch 4,000, Danish 2,000; each nation contributed according to its ability in what was probably the most criminal action in history. From Liverpool and Bristol the ships carried liquor, firearms, cotton goods, and diverse trinkets to the “Slave Coast” of Africa. There, often with the purchased help of native chieftains, the Christian chieftains exchanged their cargo for Negroes, who were then taken to the West Indies and the Southern colonies in North America. The captives were closely packed in the hulls of the vessels, and in many cases were chained to prevent rebellion or suicide. Food and water were just enough to keep them alive, ventilation was poor, sanitation minimal. To reduce the load in a severe storm, sick slaves might be thrown overboard; sometimes the not sick too, for every slave was insured, and might be worth more dead than alive. It has been calculated that of the approximately twenty million Negroes transported to the British West Indies only twenty percent survived the voyage.50 On the return trip the ships carried molasses; in Britain this was distilled into rum, which was used to purchase slaves for the next run.

The Quakers, on both continents, took the lead in attacking the trade as the first step in the abolition of slavery. A score of writers joined in the English campaign: John Locke, Alexander Pope, James Thomson, Richard Savage, William Cowper, and, not least, Mrs. Aphra Behn, whose novel Oroonoko (1678) had given a revolting description of the West Indian economy. In 1772 the Quaker Granville Sharp secured from the Earl of Mansfield, lord chief justice, a decree forbidding the importation of slaves into Britain; any slave was to become automatically free the moment he set foot on British soil. In 1786 another Quaker, Thomas Clarkson, published an Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, presenting in impressive total the results of almost a lifetime of research. In 1787 Clarkson, Sharp, Wilberforce, Josiah Wedgwood, and Zachary Macaulay (father of the historian) formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. In 1789 Wilberforce offered the Commons a bill to end the evil; it was outvoted by mercantile funds. In 1792 Pitt made one of his greatest speeches to defend a similar measure; this too failed. Wilberforce tried again in 1798, 1802, 1804, 1805, and was repeatedly repulsed. It remained for Charles James Fox, in his brief ministry (1806–07), to press the matter to victory; Parliament yielded, and forbade any participation, by British merchants, in the slave trade. Wilberforce and “the Saints” who supported him knew that this victory was but a beginning; they pressed on with a campaign for the emancipation of all the slaves still on British soil. Wilberforce died in 1833; a month later, August 28, slavery was abolished in all territories under British rule.

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