Skip to content

Response to Review no. 538

My thanks to Martin Gorsky for a careful and comprehensive survey of the key themes of my book – and for a fair-minded evaluation of my findings. It is, in post-modern times, always a distinct reassurance to find a reader who interprets the text presented in pretty much the way the author intended. Rather than try to find grounds for dispute in a situation where none (or no major ones) exist, perhaps a more productive use of opportunity is to expand on some general issues of approach touched on in the review, and to flag tasks which, in hindsight, I see myself as having left incomplete.

As I pointed out in the Preface to Making English Morals, my driving interest in writing on the subject of ‘moral reform’ was to give myself opportunity to explore how the moral values of a society change – to work out what sort of person becomes anxious or angry about an existing state of ‘morals and manners’ and to trace the ways in which they come to persuade (or fail to persuade) their less sensitive or more self-interested fellow citizens. This exploration, I hoped – I continue to hope – has the potential to engage readers on at least three fronts. First and foremost, it makes a good story, acted out by a diverse range of unusually vivid characters. And, while the different strands of the story are in some cases well-known, this is an attempt to weave them into a systematically developed whole – to present them as a distinctive phenomenon of their times. A further aim is to use the opportunity created by the construction of this overall narrative to achieve two other tasks: to redress a historiographical imbalance by demonstrating the cultural ambivalence of the nineteenth-century ‘English middle classes’ to the coming of a market-organised society; and also to apply the evidence gathered to the testing of a (Habermasian) hypothesis about the construction (and decay) of a ‘public sphere’ of uncoerced, ‘rational-critical’ citizen decision-making through voluntary associational action over the period explored.

As to the strengths and weaknesses of my attempt at an integrated narrative of moral reform causes, campaigns, and campaigners, I am relieved to find that Martin Gorsky finds the category of ‘moral reform’ adequately defined. At various stages of drafting the thought did occur that, maybe the technical task of reconstructing the skeleton of yet another defunct voluntary association from the evidence of its scattered organisational bones was becoming something of a private obsession. (I once claimed to colleagues to have had a ‘Gibbon moment’ of intellectual illumination in the back corridors of Hoare’s Bank in Fleet Street on discovering that the financial records of a century of existence of the Society for the Suppression of Vice lay available for recovery and reconstruction. It hardly compared for scenic splendour with Gibbon’s backdrop of ‘the barefooted friars singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter’ as the setting of inspiration for his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but it no doubt helped to convince colleagues that I was committed to the task, perhaps to a disconcerting degree.) Yet I did manage to persuade myself in the end that there were structural reasons why ‘moral reform’ flourished as a self-identified volunteer project in the hundred years from the 1780s to the 1880s – and that they were reasons connected with forms of economic, political and cultural organization specific to the period. (See pp. 1-3, including note 5.) I’m particularly pleased/relieved to be reassured that my attempt to reconnect political and economic change to cultural change has been accepted as producing a ‘compelling’ line of narrative.

I agree with my reviewer that my coverage is not exhaustive. (He rightly points out the medical and urban recreational aspects of moral reform left incompletely explored.) In moments of utopian idealism I did contemplate what it might involve to achieve in coverage of my segment of the world of voluntary association a comprehensiveness comparable to that achieved by David Owen in his classic work on English philanthropy.(1) But 120,000 words was all I could manage (and all that my commissioning editor thought the reading public could bear). There is, however, an excellent general survey waiting to be written, I would say, on medical charity over the period, its forms, its practitioners and supporters, its shifting moral assumptions about the definition of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ objects of its attention as shaped by mutations in professional viewpoint (and the expectations of interested parties in the wider society).(2)

As to my methodological approach to the subject, perhaps the following points will help to clarify my intention and/or explain the emphases within my analysis of moral reform as a movement. First of all, as my reviewer accurately notes, I am interested above all in elites – middle-class cultural elites responding to the challenge of ‘the tension generated by the market society which was coming into being’. This preoccupation, I hope, will be accepted as a contribution helping historians to expand and ‘nuance’ their understanding of the relationship between economic change, cultural adaptation and political ‘reform’ over a key period in modern English history.(3) But I realise that it is a preoccupation with risks attached. It does, for example, tend to downplay the contribution of rank-and-file supporters of moral reform causes. (This is sometimes because time and space were at a premium, sometimes because I didn’t have enough information, but sometimes also because my reading of the evidence that I did have, suggested to me that the role of grass-roots spontaneity had been overstated.(4)) The focus on elites does also, perhaps, tend to leave an impression that there was no independent role for ‘working-class self-help’ in moral reform voluntarism (though I did do my best to indicate the contours of, and reasons for, the participation of non-middle-class elites in ‘moral reform’, both by case-study of ‘personalities’ and by organisational analysis.) (See, for example, the disarmingly direct remarks of the pioneer teetotaller, Joseph Livesey, on his inability to ‘become a gentleman’ (p. 174); also my discussion of Charity Organisation Society relations with ‘organised labour’ (p. 294).) And – as I can hardly avoid admitting, the approach does tend to swing attention more to dissection of ‘moral reform motive’ than to evaluation of the socio-cultural impact of moral reform activities on the ‘objects’ of its attention. All things considered, however, I don’t know that I would want to change that emphasis. I count myself fortunate in being able to rely on a good range of well-documented case studies of ‘moral reform impacts’ (5), and have taken that as a solid enough foundation for the limited generalisations eventually made about ‘behaviour modification’ among the ‘labouring classes’.

What I continue to think is the key issue, however (and a so far under-explored one), is the effect of moral reform mobilisation on the lives of those who became participants in its activities – that is, on its leaders and active supporters. The issue continues to draw my curiosity because it raises the question of moral legitimacy – the quest to feel worthy of civic influence and responsible for civic leadership.(6) And this requires attention to volunteer elite attempts to purify the behaviour of their own class as well as to curb the indiscipline of those outside it. The aspect of moral reform activity that, looking back, I regret I didn’t treat more systematically is in fact its own vocabulary of class self-presentation – in particular, its use of terms such as ‘sympathy’, ‘neglect’, and ‘community’ in its depictions of reclamatory motive and intention. Above all, I’ve become fascinated by an only implicitly stated theme of my treatment of moral reform agenda evolution – the social construction of victimhood. If someone more persistent than I in tracing the long-term evolution of attitudes towards prostitutes and their customers, for example, were to write a book about it, I would be a willing reader.(7)

Finally, what of my attempt to assess, in the light of my findings, the plausibility of the ‘Habermasian metanarrative’ of the emergence and decay of a ‘bourgeois public sphere of rational-critical debate’? On reflection, two points seem worth making. First, my interest in Habermas and ‘the structural transformation of the public sphere’ is as much an interest in method of approach as it is an interest in possible ‘periodisation’. As I tried to sum it up on p. 15 of my ‘Introduction’, given my driving curiosity about ‘how individual [moral] disposition became transformed into practical collective action’, the Habermasian concept of a ‘public sphere’ provided ‘a useful concept of linkage’. (That is, it nudged me to formulate the vital questions: Who in the arena of public debate and decision-making needed to be convinced if effective action were to be taken, and by what methods of persuasion might that become possible?)

Secondly, and more riskily, Habermas provided a potential narrative plot line, with the bonus of a ‘logical’ conclusion. Metanarratives are like that: they encourage closure. Readers who persevere to my final chapter will find that I have my reservations about a pure Habermasian plot-line, especially as it involves ‘rational-critical debate’. I do, however, end by adopting a chronology of ‘closure’ which is compatible with, perhaps supportive of, a Habermas narrative of the rise and fall of a particular phase of social interaction. (I say ‘perhaps supportive of’ because Habermas seems not very interested in precise chronologies of historical change in particular societies, though he is interested in sequence.) In other words, I remain committed to the view that the 1880s marked the end of an era – particularly in relation to effective public action locally initiated by volunteer association (and I gather that Martin Gorski broadly agrees). If anything is likely to change my mind on this issue it will be the writing of a survey narrative of ‘twentieth-century moral reform’ (including the partial, late-century invocation of ‘market individualism’ on a scale reminding some of nineteenth-century ‘precedents’).(8) In the meantime, in my next project, I shall be going back to have a closer look at that elusive yet critical relationship between ideas and public action, and the agenda-making elites who claim the credit. Clearly, the writing of one book has been insufficient to exorcise this ghost…

July 2006


  1. David Owen, English Philanthropy 1660-1960 (Cambridge MA, 1964). Back to (1).
  2. The prototype for such a general survey might well, in fact, be the reviewer’s own area-specific case study: Martin Gorsky, Patterns of Philanthropy: Charity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Bristol (1999). Back to (2).
  3. For a pioneering study which neatly complements my own approach over the period it covers by tracing specifically intellectual debate about the ethical limits of application of the principles of political economy, see Geoffrey Searle, Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain (Oxford, 1998). Back to (3).
  4. See, e.g., p. 133 note 136, reviewing the literature on the precise nature of the ‘popularity’ of the anti-slavery movement in the 1820s and early 30s. Back to (4).
  5. These include, for temperance work, Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians (London, 1971); for charity organisation, Robert Humphreys, Sin, Organized Charity and the Poor Law in Victorian England (London, 1995); for National Vigilance Association work, Paula Bartley, Prostitution. Prevention and Reform in England, 1860-1914 (London, 2000), and Stefan Petrow, Policing Morals. The Metropolitan Police and the Home Office 1870-1914 (Oxford, 1994). Back to (5).
  6. I agree with my reviewer about the significance of the issues raised by John Garrard in his recent survey, Democratisation in Britain. Elites, Civil Society and Reform since 1800 (Basingstoke, 2002). Back to (6).
  7. For a useful start, see Michael Mason, The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes (Oxford, 1994), and Bartley, Prostitution (note 5 above), but there seems to me room for a longer, wider, and more comparative approach to the subject. Back to (7).
  8. For a starting point, see Nicholas Deakin, In Search of Civil Society (Basingstoke, 2001); Peter A. Hall, ‘Social capital in Britain’, British Journal of Political Science 29(3)(1999), 417-61; Jose Harris, ed., Civil Society in British History. Ideas, Identities, Institutions (Oxford, 2003); Adam Lent, British Social Movements since 1945. Sex, Colour, Peace and Power (Basingstoke, 2001); Frank Prochaska, Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain (Oxford, 2006). Back to (8).