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Part 3: 1800-1918, Sources from the Bodleian Library, Oxford

Editorial Introduction - John Tosh, University of Surrey, Roehampton

In recent scholarship it has become commonplace to treat masculinity as a key component of the cultural history of earlier centuries. Yet the term only entered the English language during the twentieth century, and it denotes a set of concerns to which no previous term corresponds. ‘Masculinity’ is the nearest we have to a word which embraces all the things which distinguish men from women: it includes both physical and psychological attributes, both appearance and behaviour, both interiority and performance. Masculinity is certainly valued as a social currency which may earn the individual esteem or disparagement. But we take it for granted that these external traits express an inner, largely unconscious state, and it is this internal condition which determines whether an individual is ‘secure’ or ‘insecure’ in his masculinity. This holistic approach was much less in evidence during the nineteenth century. Men and women spoke and wrote, not about masculinity, but about ‘manliness’. Manliness denoted those attributes - both moral and physical – that men were happy to own, which they had often acquired by great effort and self-discipline, and whose absence in other men they deplored. Manliness was largely an ascribed status, determined by the reactions of others. It required inner resources to sustain – hence the crucial emphasis on ‘character’ - but was not generally regarded as an inner state. Manliness, in short, was the idiom in which men defined men during the long nineteenth century.

The overwhelming impression left by the voluminous Victorian and Edwardian didactic literature is that manliness was above all a moral attribute, requiring adherence to a stringent ethical code. It encapsulated the virtues of industry, self-reliance, sobriety, chastity and family affection.1 To place this code in perspective, however, it is important to realize that the authors of these texts were struggling to prevail over an older and more popular tradition of manliness in which physical assertiveness and independence were the critical markers – as in ‘manly vigour’, ‘manly force’ and ‘manly exercises’. ‘Sturdy manliness’ was what enabled a man to place his stamp on those around him, if necessary by imposing on them or compelling them. That kind of behaviour could be taken as a sure sign of ‘independence’. The word had two meanings. In its older sense it referred to autonomy of social status: an independent man was someone who did not owe his position to patronage and who needed to show no undue deference – a requirement which was often more convincingly met by the rising middle class than by the aristocracy. By the Victorian period ‘independence’ was used as much to refer to how an individual carried himself as to his social relationships. The ‘independent’ man was able to stand on his own two feet, to voice his opinions and to court unpopularity if need be – the kind of personal resilience which was most likely to be instilled through peer-group relations in school. If common manliness easily spilled over into aggression, so too it condoned and even encouraged a predatory attitude towards sex. Manliness had long been associated with virility, and this was measured not only in the married man’s quiverful of children but also in the sowing of wild oats by the young. In the eyes of one’s peers, at least, sexual exploits with prostitutes and serving girls were a rite de passage to manhood.

In fact the constant insistence by religious writers on moral manliness reflects the conviction among Evangelical clergymen that they were challenging one of the most resilient aspects of a largely secular – if not downright irreligious - popular culture. Yet in seeking to moralise on manliness, didactic writers were not making bricks without straw. Popular manliness prescribed moral qualities which could be adapted or re-interpreted to express a wider moral vision – notably courage, resolution, straightforwardness and self-discipline. These terms constantly recur in the texts on manliness reproduced here. Courage is generalized to apply to any morally sound action which courts unpopularity or sacrifices a material interest, and it also includes the fortitude shown in facing death or bereavement. Resolution was the quality needed to hold to any course through difficulty and danger. Straightforwardness could readily be glossed as honesty in every word and deed. Self-discipline is invoked as a moral resource in many different contexts, but above all in submitting to a code of sexual restraint.

All these qualities were subsumed in the key Victorian virtue of character. It denoted the inner moral resources of a person as manifest in demeanour and conduct towards others. Despite the appearance of gender neutrality, the term nearly always referred to manly character. Three meanings crop up again and again. First, sincerity: the manly man was someone who paid more attention to the promptings of his inner self than the requirements of reputation. He was frank and truthful – even blunt – in speech. Secondly, character was shown in how a man bridled his baser desires: both reason and concern for others should check his anger and prevent him from becoming a drunkard or libertine. Thirdly, and most important of all to the Victorians, the man of character was able to practise the self-discipline and self-denial needed to see any great purpose through to its end. Strenuous perseverance and courage in the face of adversity were implied in that characteristic phrase, ‘steadiness of character’. Character should determine circumstances, not the other way round.2

One should not make the mistake of assuming that the generality of men reflected the code of manliness as set out by these religious writers. Indeed the constant repetition of the same homilies suggests rather that the message often fell on stony ground and that traditional notions of manliness retained their appeal in many quarters. On the other hand moral manliness clearly made its mark, not only because it appealed to the man of religious conviction, but because it dignified the more secular values of self-help.

In terms of cultural discourse the opposite of moral manliness was the social code of etiquette and fashion.3 Although ostensibly offering the key to polite society, books about fashion only reflected one dimension of life in the upper classes. The Evangelicals had set as much store by reforming the aristocracy as by disciplining the lower orders, and they encountered considerable success. Throughout the nineteenth century there was a vigorous debate about the meaning of the term ‘gentleman’, and the criteria for gentlemanly status more and more conformed to the tenets of moral manliness. While Victorian readers of fiction (from Anne Brontë to Anthony Trollope) continued to enjoy the stereotype of the dissolute and hedonistic aristocrat, the reality was usually more earnest and restrained.4

Education played a key role here. At the top end of society, the public schools were radically reformed according to morally explicit aims, and their number was hugely increased in the course of the century. That the gentry gave unwavering support to these schools in their new incarnation indicates a preoccupation with moral appearances at the very least. More significant perhaps, the moralized public school was able to attract the sons of the professional – and increasingly business – classes in large numbers. For parents of this background the public schools not only offered the benefits of sound education and enhanced social status; they also offered a way out of a worrying area of tension in the prevailing code of manliness. On the one hand, men were expected to be different from women – perhaps more insistently than ever before if contemporary theories of sexual difference are to be believed. On the other hand, the emphasis which writers on manliness placed on domesticity was based on a recognition that boys needed the wholesome and loving care of their mothers. Whereas for an earlier generation the ceremony of breeching, followed by instruction under a tutor or at a day school, had seemed an adequate transition to manhood, middle-class Victorian fathers increasingly resorted to the public school as a crash course in manliness for their sons. Far from the soft allurements of a feminised home, boys would learn manliness in a bracing competitive atmosphere. Given the gender insecurity instilled in childhood, is it to be wondered at that Victorian men lost no opportunity to assert their manliness? Men who had subscribed to the cult of domesticity needed this barrage of gender affirmation to quell their inner doubts and to convince others that they were really men.5
Such concerns did not of course apply to the working class. Indeed it was at the bottom of the social ladder that traditional secular notions of manliness were strongest. For the ‘rough’ working class the core of manliness was sheer physical strength and endurance needed for heavy labour. Enduring these conditions - indeed survival itself - was an affirmation of masculinity. Given the living conditions of the poor, ‘the comforts of home’ was an empty phrase, and domesticity counted for little. Heavy drinking was regarded as a replenishment of depleted energy and a lubricant of men-only leisure. Manliness was strongly imbued with physical force in both the work-place and the neighbourhood.6 But the manliness of the upper reaches of the working class was not so different from their bourgeois superiors, except that ‘skill’ rather than ‘occupation’ was the focus of the artisan’s masculine identity. Skill was acquired through an arduous and long drawn out apprenticeship; it was the ticket of entry to shared homosocial leisure, embodying common values of craft pride; it gave the worker dignity and status vis-à-vis his employer; and it defined men over and against women, since ‘skill’ was a male preserve from which women were jealously debarred. The proper wages due to a skilled man (i.e. the ‘family wage’) were supposed to enable him to support his dependants unaided, without relying on his wife’s efforts or on charity. First articulated by the moderate (‘moral force’) wing of the Chartist movement in the 1830s, these sentiments were commonplace among members of the skilled crafts by the mid-Victorian era.7

During the late Victorian and Edwardian era the components of manliness, while including nothing new, were configured in a different way, with different emphases. The attack on the sexual licence of young men was taken up with much greater vigour by the Evangelicals in the 1880s, partly due to the feminist campaigning against the Contagious Diseases Acts, and partly due to fears about moral corruption at the heart of the Empire.8 The new Puritanism also made much greater play of the threat posed by homosexuality – both the male prostitution of the cities and the schoolboy relationships which were such a common feature of boarding school life. The Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 strengthened the hand of the moralists, and after the trials of Oscar Wilde ten years later vigilance was intensified. Manliness was increasingly seen to be incompatible not only with homosexual relations, but with intimate friendship between men.9

But imperial consciousness amounted to more than a moral panic around same-sex relations. The late Victorian period saw a renewed emphasis on the physical elements of manliness – this time treated as the ideological basis for the state of fitness and alertness needed to defend the empire and to extend its boundaries. Once the French Wars had ended in 1815, there was comparatively little interest in the masculine prerequisites of military readiness. The tide began to turn with the invasion scare of 1859 (again featuring the French), and by the 1860s proponents of manliness were divided between those who wholeheartedly welcomed the rise of athletics and those who believed it undermined both moral and intellectual values. The public schools strongly endorsed the former position, justifying the obsession with games on the grounds of physical fitness, endurance, loyalty and obedience.10

The years before the Great War were a high point in the cultural projection of military heroes. In colonial warfare military reputation was purchased more cheaply than in large-scale European conflicts, and in particular it offered plenty of opportunities for the kind of resourceful irregular operations which were the stuff of adventure yarns. For this reason it was maverick figures like Gordon and Baden-Powell who best caught the national mood, rather than more conventional soldiers like Roberts or Kitchener. In his brilliantly promoted Boy Scouts, Baden-Powell established a romanticized idea of ‘the frontier’ at the heart of the British masculine imagination: physical toughness, resourcefulness, obedience and – a point often overlooked – a partial separation from the feminine atmosphere of home.11

At one level the First World War vindicated the militarized forms of manliness which had been so culturally prominent during the preceding generation. The need to prove oneself with reference to the prevailing norms of masculinity was clearly one factor in accounting for the astonishing scale of voluntary enlistment in the armed forces in 1914. The problem was that military masculinity was associated with an image of war which was completely at variance with the reality about to be faced. Instead of a war of movement and individual initiative, in which the enemy could readily be outwitted or outgunned, the soldiers of 1914 had to come to terms with a static war of attrition, in which the individual usually counted for little – in his life or in the manner of his death. It is small wonder that the First World War spelled the end of manliness as a hegemonic masculine ideal. It survived into the inter-war period only in schools and in boys’ organizations.


1 See for example J A Mangan & James Walvin (eds), Manliness and Morality:
Middle-Class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800-1940, Manchester, 1987.
2 On character, see M Morgan, Manners, morals and class in England, 1774-1858, London, 1994; Stefan Collini, ‘The idea of ‘character’ in Victorian political thought’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 35 (1985), pp 29-50.
3 Michael Curtin, Propriety and Position: a Study of Victorian Manners, New York, 1987.
4 Robin Gilmour, The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel, London, 1981.
5 John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England, London, 1999, Ch 5.
6 Andrew Davies, ‘Youth gangs, masculinity and violence in late Victorian Manchester and Salford’, Journal of Social History, 32 (1998), pp 349-69.
7 Anna Clark, ‘The rhetoric of Chartist domesticity’, Journal of British Studies 31 (1992), pp 62-88;
Sonya Rose, Limited Livelihoods: Gender and Class in Nineteenth-century England, London, 1992.
8 Sue Morgan, A Passion for Purity: Ellice Hopkins and the Politics of Gender in the Late-Victorian Church, Bristol, 1999.
9 Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century, London, 1994.
10 J A Mangan, Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School, Cambridge, 1981.
11 Tim Jeal, Baden-Powell, London, 1989; Robert H MacDonald, Sons of the Empire: the Frontier and the Boy Scout Movement, 1890-1918, Toronto, 1993.

John Tosh, 2002



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