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Moralists vs. Thinkers


A review by Caroline Alexander in Sunday’s New York Times, of a book about a pair of sisters who explored the Holy Land in the 1890s, begins:

Despite its popular characterization as a period of stultifying stuffiness or, as the O.E.D. puts it, of “prudishness and high moral tone,” the Victorian age abounded with adventurers intent on intellectual discovery.

There are several things wrong with this lead. First of all, the fact that the Victorian era was not uniformly “Victorian,” as that word has come to be understood, is hardly news; it has been widely discussed since the 1920s at least. The reviewer might have given her readers credit for being familiar with this commonplace truth (though in any audience, there is an element that secretly enjoys straw men like this because they feel superior about not falling for them). It’s even more puzzling that she felt the need to tell her readers that an age long renowned for geographical exploration, engineering advances, literary achievement, and scientific discoveries “abounded with adventurers intent on intellectual discovery.”

Oddest of all, though, is the contrast she draws between these two unsurprising statements: The Victorians were not a bunch of stuffy, prudish moralists; on the contrary, they were intellectuals! In real life, there’s no such conflict. Plenty of Victorian intellectuals were deeply religious, often in a stuffy or prudish way; plenty of today’s intellectuals are too. But in the Times worldview, moralistic prudes are Them, while adventurous intellectuals are Us, and never the twain shall meet. And what is true today (in Timesworld, at least) evidently must also have been true more than a century ago.


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