What Is Victorian Morality?

Updated January 2, 2023by ReGain Editorial Team

Victorian England gave birth to many modern amenities we use today, including the telephone and the telegraph. Cities grew and expanded to urban centers, and the burgeoning middle class pushed for social justice, which we can still see today.

Along with these technological and social advancements came a repressive set of moral codes known as Victorian morality. This form of personal ethics was founded on the religious beliefs of the time and featured severe austerity and repression.

This kind of morality was highly controversial at the time and still is today. That’s why we want to help you understand this controversy. That way, you can decide if these ethical views are serving your relationship or not.

Ready to find out how this morality translated to the pages of literature and influenced great thinkers like the infamous Sigmund Freud? Then check out this article because we’re answering those questions and more.

The Most Common Features 

During the lifetime of Queen Victoria of England, the Victorian era took place from 1837 until her death on January 22nd, 1901.

This era has gone down in history as a time of significant growth and progress for the middle class. It was also a time of evangelism, with many churches calling for higher moral principles and standards from their congregations.

Both the middle-class growth and the rise of evangelism are thought to have influenced the ethics of the time. Namely, these two factors affected ethical issues surrounding gender equality, censorship, and sexual repression.

We’re going more in-depth on each of these issues next, so keep reading.

Gender Inequality

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Women were increasingly participating in paid labor during the Victoria era. This period is also viewed as the birthplace of feminism, with the women’s suffrage movement gaining traction at the end of the 1800s.

Despite these facts, though, women experienced extreme restrictions on their financial, social, and political rights.

Women couldn’t vote, own property, or sue in a court of law. This severely restricted class mobility for women in Victorian England. It stemmed from the belief that women were objectively inferior to men.

At the same time, women weren’t considered the owners of their income once married. Wed women couldn’t control their property or finances. Instead, they had to give control of their wealth to their husbands.

A married woman was considered the property of her husband. Typically, this meant her husband “owned” her body as well, allowing him to own both her children and her consent.

In Victorian England, questionable practices regarding consent weren’t the only strange sexual practices around. Women and, to some extent, men had to abide by severely strict rules of sexual conduct.

Sexual Repression

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were on the rise in 1800s England. This was due, in part, to the Regency period that took place before Queen Victoria was crowned. The Regency period was partially inspired by the extravagance and loose morality seen in Louis XIV’s court in France.

Compared to previous years, morality during the Victorian period encouraged sexual repression for both men and women.

Men were encouraged to avoid masturbation in Victorian England. Despite modern advances in science and medicine, religious figures spread rumors that masturbation was the cause of STIs like syphilis and even mental health disorders.

Victorian England was rife with a shadow world, where prostitution and pornography were a closely guarded secret among the male elite.

During the Victorian period, there was a common saying: “Men are polygamous; women are monogamous.” This quote perfectly introduces the idea that men and women were held to different sexual standards.

Women were considered not sexual beings compared to men. So, they were expected to remain “pure” until marriage. A pregnant, unmarried woman would be viewed as a social outcast, which led to many a shotgun wedding.

Some evidence suggests upper-class Victorian era women were expected to participate in prostitution and pornography with their husbands—still, the majority of reports from the time point to a more polarizing view of gendered sexuality.

The one Victorian-era moral that affected men, perhaps more than women were censorship. We’ll discuss that topic next.

Censorship

Mrs. Grundy was a fictional character in the late 1700s playwright Thomas Morton’s work. Grundy herself never appeared on stage. Still, the play’s protagonist continually referred to his nosy neighbor, Mrs. Grundy, and her disapproval for the play’s goings-on.

Mrs. Grundy became a Victorian symbol for the oppressive censorship considered righteous during the time.

The late 1700s saw the introduction of the Treason Act and the Seditious Meetings Act. These laws restricted gatherings and outlawed specific conversations. These laws were mainly applied to the growing middle class, who had just hosted an uprising in nearby France.

Novelists and artists, in particular, received the brunt of censorship. With the newly invented printing press, novel ideas were circulating faster and further than ever before. Some of these ideas, though, weren’t kosher for religious authorities in Victorian England.

For example, authors and artists couldn’t speak out against Christianity. They couldn’t represent overly sexual or otherwise obscene content in their works. According to a famous passage from George Orwell, minority opinions, in general, weren’t tolerated in the years following the end of the Victorian period.

The End Of Victorian-Era Morality

Moral codes and ethics have risen and fallen over the years. Yet, the role artists and authors played in Victorian morality’s downfall is relatively unique.

We’re talking about some of the heroes who saved England from Victorian ethics next. Check it out.

Charlotte Bronte And Feminism

Charlotte Bronte was a writer and poet during the Victorian period. You may also recognize her sister, Emily Bronte, as a famous writer. Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre when Victorian gender inequalities were in full swing.

Within her novels, the eldest Bronte espoused surprisingly progressive views for her time. However, modern scholars now view her ideas as inhibited by the views of women at the time.

In this way, Bronte serves as a perfect representation of women for the time. Her position in society trapped her. Yet, in her novels, she described heroines who could think freely, deeply, and with high moral character.

As if she was prophesying about years to come, Bronte’s image of the Victorian woman prevailed. Only a few decades later, women attained the right to vote.

Oscar Wilde’s Critiques Of Censorship

Oscar Wilde was an Irish poet and writer who published his works during the Victorian period. Unlike Charlotte Bronte, Wilde was celebrated in England for works like The Picture of Dorian Gray.

However, that doesn’t mean his work was without critic. The Picture of Dorian Gray is arguably the most popular of his works. Yet, it almost didn’t exist after the backlash he received for having a gay protagonist, which was decidedly un-Victorian for the time.

Indeed, Wilde was prosecuted in the late 1890s for having illegal affairs with men. Even with Wilde's strides to improve censorship during his time, he could do little to change the public’s mind about repressive sexuality.

It would take a few decades and a psychiatrist named Sigmund Freud to finally free people of their Victorian-age ideologies about sex.

Sigmund Freud On Repressive Victorian Era Sexuality

Sigmund Freud was a psychoanalyst born in the 1850s Austria. Though he practiced in his home country, much of his work responded to the Victorian ethical views of sexual repression.

If you know anything about the infamous Freud, you’ve probably come across his intriguing and sometimes disturbing ideas about sex and child development. Freud believed the buildup of sexual energy contributed to many of life’s problems. He also thought discharging libido (e.g., having sex) was a healthy way to alleviate those problems.

These ideas were in direct contrast to the sexually restrictive views of morality during the Victorian era. So, too, were Freud’s ideas that repressing sexual desires or sexually abusing someone was more likely to lead to mental health problems than, say, masturbation.

Though his views aren’t espoused today, Freud’s work hints at the real reason for the end of Victorian-era morality: rationality.

Rationality focuses less on what religion or society has to say about gender equality, sexuality, and censorship. Instead, it relies on science for truth. Without thinkers like Freud and the rise of rationality, psychology, and even therapy might not be the practices they are today.

Is Victorian-Era Morality Causing Tension In Your Relationship?

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The Victorian era ended over 100 years ago. Still, morality stemming from the Victorian era remains active in some circles in modern-day America.

Did you grow up surrounded by the principles of this morality? You may not realize it, but these beliefs could be affecting the health of your relationship with your partner.

Get in touch with one of the accredited therapists at ReGain to discover how couples counseling can help you learn a more modern way to approach your relationship.

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