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Prose: The Perfect Victorian (Middle Class) Man

December 30, 2012

Hello all! This past week has been a bit of a blur for me, and I apologize for the late post. This short story is something I wrote for the same class the Invalid Victorian Woman post came from, though that was an essay. This story was originally meant as a parody, but…it came out more ‘hey look at this very self-absorbed, arrogant Victorian dude.’ If it makes you giggle, let me know. For those interested in learning more about the referenced Victorian events and issues, there’s a bibliography at the end.

The Perfect Victorian (Middle Class) Man

London,1889

It is a truth universally acknowledged, among my colleagues and I, that the perfect middle class gentleman is hard to find. In fact, we are the only examples living.

It had been a long night at the Club and we were going through our fourth (or fifth) thimblefuls of brandy and smoking like Whitechapel’s chimneys during this discussion. My colleagues and I fit around one table, though it was a bit of a squeeze in the secluded corner booth and cards (not gambling of course, just a playful whist) were going around as we talked. The conversation turned from politics and the Great British Empire (may the sun never set!) to wives and then on to gentleman, when we surprisingly noted our own perfection and thanked God for it. Our presence saved and provided example for the poor wretches elsewhere.

“We are not,” Alfred declared proudly, “part of the upper class hoi polloi. We are, in our own humble manner, [here he took his cigar out of his mouth in order to take a swig of brandy] the rarest of the rare, a middle class gentlemen. Let those snobby societal beings have their extravagant parties and look down their snooty noses on us from their French ballroom chairs!”

“Here, here,” I said, talking around my own cigar.

Alfred gave a watery, shining glance at me. “Yes, indeed. They have houses so full of imports and inbreeding they are not true Englishmen anymore! It is we, my brothers!” Here he formed a fist and pounded against his puffed up chest, his elbow knocking good old Stamford, who had been busy peering at his cards. “It is us, God-fearing, gentle working people whose steady industry run the Empire, and we salute the Queen with our labors, rather than our bank notes or pish posh ceremony.”

“Damn House of Lords,” muttered Thomas, who put his hand down. He had been most unsatisfied with the latest Election, poor chap. In some convoluted manner I was too focused on whist to follow, it was the hereditary House of Lord’s influence that had done the Common House in. Most likely the common man just neglected to vote properly. Probably drunk out of their brains with gin.

“To the Anglo-Saxon!” I caroused, holding up my thimble. “May we all live long!”

There was general cheer around the table and we all took another drink before heading to our respective homes. It was rather later than my usual hour and I unlocked the door myself, thinking Sally (the maid) and my secretarial boy (Bobby) must be asleep. My wife Sarah was awake, however, sitting on the covered drawing room’s sofa. Though it was fully equipped with gas lighting, the gas tended to become troublesome when used too long at night and Sarah had stocked the room with an appropriate number of candles to make up for this deficiency. The drawing room was therefore the brightest and easiest for her to read and do her delicate work in. I knew she had been painting a screen for a charity bazaar whilst embroidering a pillow (or was it a chair back?) for her sister, who was expecting a child. As I squinted at her from the doorway, I discovered she was reading. I approached and bent to see the title, which she dutifully held up to her face so I could look and she could continue to read. Ah, Jane Austen. I hadn’t the stomach for such gentile family melodrama, far too sentimental for my superior scientific mind, but Sarah outright devoured the pages. She’d cracked the spine of her copy of Sense and Sensibility two months past and she’d looked so heartbroken (as if it was a dead child, not mere ink and paper) I had straight away went to the booksellers to fetch her a fresh one and she had practically groveled at my feet in joy. Tonight, however, was Persuasion.

“You were long at the Club, John,” Sarah commented, dryly, seeming as if to not pay attention. “Interesting conversation?”

“Intensely, my dear,” I said. “We were discussing perfection.”

“Oh?” she said, finally removing the book and setting it on the sofa. She had a sideways smile on her face and one of her more modest evening dresses on. Had she gone calling? “And who is perfect?”

“We are,” I said, pressing forward and she mildly accepted a kiss. “Are the children asleep?”

“Put away hours ago.”

“Let’s follow then.”

I offered her my hand like we were young and dancing again and led her up the stairs to our bedroom, the children old enough for their own rooms.

_*_*_*_

Life continued on as usual, but the question of perfection kept turning on and on in my mind and I was forced to conclude that my colleagues and I were perfect: humbleness aside, we were perfect middle class gentlemen, the very stock of Britain.

Consider the example I present to you (myself, as I know all my business, backwards and forwards, with scientific accuracy):

I come from a country family of littler means, but we had used our means to the best advantage. I was the third son but I refused to take the easy path in medicine, to become apprenticed some apothecary claiming cures and really dabbling in pure quackery. I saved for a legitimate university education, taking all the odd jobs here and there, dipping into my inheritance a tad. Coming into London to study was top-notch and marvelous: I achieved my Doctor of Medicine, collecting excellent contacts all the way, making myself known in the London proper, following colleagues on their rounds. I found myself with enough resources to set up my own, higher-class practice, buying a few smaller ones from lesser-known doctors. I married a good woman, one I met at a county Christmas dance on a visit home. Today I have my own office and exam room on the ground floor of my family’s building and my home and family above. We are perfectly respectable, enjoying a wide social circle; in fact, many wide circles.

My typical day is very orderly and precise. I wake at 8:30 on the dot, wash, and dress. Sarah is usually already awake and readying the children. The boys, Theodore, Michael, and George, are all old enough to attend school and our oldest, Molly, stays home to help her mother mind the house.

By 9am I am at breakfast and Sarah and the children are usually present. By 9:25 I meet Bobby in the office and I quickly remind him of the schedule of patients for the day before beginning our morning rounds. Our first appointment is always at 10 o’clock and, if I may say so, all my appointments take me through only the nicest of districts, often crossing Regents and Oxford and Wimpole Streets, near parks and churches and decent folk. The lowest I condescend to go is to cross Great Marlborough Street to attend to Broad Street, Soho, where they had that dreadful cholera back in ’54 and John Snow had all that rubbish about waterborne contagions. It’s the miasma of filth and dirt and city cesspools that cause most short-term disease: if Parliament would stop nattering about what’s in each other’s trousers they would clean up these districts; employ street cleaners, police, engineers, and night-soil men to scrub the rubbish away. That Louis Napoleon, his lineage notwithstanding, had the right idea with rebuilding Paris. But I’ll follow Dr. Snow to the end with anesthesia: Lord knows it helped Sarah with the children, and he is a colleague. Never speak ill of one or it will come back to bite you.

Moving along with my example of perfection. My rounds are for homebound patients, those with sudden illnesses too fragile to travel, or under long-term care. On heavy days I do not return home until 3pm for tea and luncheon, but by 3:30pm without fail I am consulting. Bobby, resplendent in his shell jacket, top hat, and silver buttons (both his and my top hats are of the best quality), delivers medicines to patients as needed. I have a special deal with a legitimate apothecary who sells me my usual medicine or anything unusual I require. Sally the maid conducts patients into the waiting room until Bobby returns. During slow hours I tell Bobby stories of past patients or whatever he requests, or we do paperwork in companionable, respectful silence.

For my actual medicinal ability, I have the highest of recommendations. I can see to most all ailments and have a regular stock of medicine locked up in my office. I have some patients who are beyond my sphere–some who need the very delicate and precise artistry of a hospital surgeon, for example. I am most adept with the woman questions; in fact, most of my patients are female. My bedside manner is frequently flattered as impeccable and many trembling, sweat-soaked new mothers have thanked me for the safe delivery of their child. I always recommend Dr. Chavasse’s study in Advice to Mothers on the Management of Her Offspring. New mothers rarely know what to do with babies, hardly able to tell the top from the bottom of it. If doctors like Chavasse weren’t there to tell the poor souls what to do, the Empire would downright perish.

Lastly, unlike some of my colleagues, I am an impeccable dresser, always neat in a suit with freshly washed hands and gentle smile. My hatband shines. I have silver tipped cane and (English!) leather shoes. I look the part of a middle class doctor in addition to acting like one.

My perfection has consequences: my good work is reflected in my household. We are all the finest English specimens, with near constant good health. At the very moment anyone coughs, a clear sickroom is prepared, empty of all but the necessities and given plenty of ventilation. Sarah regularly cleans, exterminates any vermin, and whitewashes the rooms every spring. I set aside 30% of my income for any emergencies and our retirement. All my children and dependents are doing well in their studies, and speak and act properly as to their age. My wife is loving, obedient, and completely, utterly chaste. Our drawing room is spotless, but dotted with those little feminine details that make it home. Sarah has a much loved fern tank in the windowsill, leftover from her childhood pteridomania.

In sum, the above is the work and rewards of a perfect middle class man. His career is steady, reliable, and meets his family’s needs, and, in reflection and exchange, his family is entirely perfect. The phenomenon is uncommon, let me assure you. There are plenty of middle class doctors who are not perfect, but rather slovenly and undeserving, which is reflected in their poorly managed households. But I do not shirk my duties and the only rest I receive is on holidays and Sundays, which are dedicated solely to prayer and church and quiet contemplation for all the household.

The thing that makes me perfect, as opposed to just upright, is that I am always testing and expanding my mind. Socially and Intellectually. As I have said previous we have the widest of circles. Sarah has her friends in charity and all sorts of other movements for the betterment of the masses, but her meek and sincere manner would never offend or bother any worthwhile folk. I have my Club, which I attend to punctually every week with my old school mates and political friends, rubbing elbows with former professors and the occasional eminent physician, those French ones that sometimes visit to breathe the finer English air. My healed patients (of which there are many) become my connections and more than once Sarah and I have been invited to complete dinner tables at grand manors under the lucky, happy circumstance that a titled person fell ill in the city and I was the closest decent doctor. The titled are the most privileged of patients, easily affording my prescriptions, and I have often observed that they possess the most accurate vocabulary to describe their symptoms. As you may imagine, this is most helpful for making an accurate diagnosis.

Socially, I am the best, using and maintaining every connection, like hedges clipped properly. I equally do not let my mind grow wild, but only cultivate the highest of intelligentsia. For example, I have read Havelock Ellis’s work, The Sexual Inversion, with a critical mind (this required several readings). The subject was brought to my attention at the Club and I have investigated it thoroughly. I’ve searched the streets for these secret meeting places of homosexuals: their supposed “secret order” and dens of murky iniquity, where boys and men alike drown in unbridled lust. My chums accompanied me in my investigations (Sarah thought we were at the Club) and now we cerebrally know more of the disorder and its practices, able to firmly tell patients where they are not to go. We of course did not dirty ourselves in any activities and truly it was a lot of standing on corners or sitting in Turkish bath tubs. Our desires, unlike some of the syphilitic, brothel-populating masses, are as God intended. You know, towards our wives.

We are equally aligned with the Lord against the horrible incidents in Whitechapel people still talk of. Those, of all the streets in London, are the filthiest, rankest, seats of sin that ever existed. It is not proper for a man to even take an omnibus through there. Ladies that should be guarded and cherished are left to walk the streets and sell the most precious parts of themselves. No gentlemen should ever condescend to be seen there or in any way supporting that morbid Jack the Ripper fascination that began last year. And to think that the police entertained the idea that it was gentlemen killer. No colleague of mine (or anyone remotely calling themselves a gentlemen) would murder someone so brutally and rashly, going about willy nilly in the dark with a butcher’s knife. The thought! Any proper surgeon–the only type a gentleman can be–would make far better incisions and, between his work, his family, and his Club, would be far too busy to murder people. To be sure, I have never entertained the notion, but the whole business seems utterly exhausting with escaping public notice and whatnot. And you wouldn’t gain much from it; in fact it would be against your business, since a corpse is one less living person who will become ill and require your services. Jack the Ripper was a fool.

And another thing! As a medical and scientific man, I cannot support this rubbish gypsy spiritualist trash. I know some have come to support it, but I believe it is not to be borne. My friends and I have also been to these rat dens and watched poor teary people gaze longingly at mere charlatans, whose only specialty is conjuring lies. They are tricks only, and if a person is foolish enough to bring one of these public séances into the home, the mediums charge uproariously and then cheat you out of any dead voices you long to hear. Alfred (for scientific investigation only I assure you) once hired such an individual, pretending to want to contact his dead wife, and the medium’s voice was not Abby’s at all, nor could bring in her true form to our worldly rooms. Spiritualism is merely for the bored, lazy lower classes in constant need of entertainment: mere tomfoolery to pass the time from workhouse to pub to grave. I will never again indulge in it, nor suggest it to any grieving patients.

No, no. The true, perfect gentlemen of the middle class finds his reality in bank notes and stethoscopes and four children in bed at night. Besides God, I have the highest faith in opium and its solid, healing reality. Just a drop of the stuff and majority of my patients return to top form, though it is to be noted to not give it to a teething baby, who only really requires a good cry and a teething ring. I myself have often found occasion to use it, a little pick-me-up after a long day. It so expands your mind and softens the unrelenting senses, settles down the brain to allow it to heal the body, opens up the skin pores. Dockside opium dens are not to be trusted, however. Who knows what those Indians or Chinamen have put in to dilute the stuff and I have a most trusted apothecary. I sample most every of his shipments, to make sure of its quality, and send back anything I do not find outstanding.

This is only a sample of life’s little questions that I occupy my mind with. I have attempted to not be very political, because perfection is not limited to one party. I will say a concern for others is expected, of course, but I have given little windows to my regards for the imperfect masses. Perfection itself was one of the occupying intelligent discourses and ever since Alfred brought it up at the Club I have thought about it. Besides my own word, I have others’ accounts for my own middle class perfection. My colleagues, my patients, my wife, and my children, through little signs I have objectively observed and sometimes outright queried, all agree with my assessment. As everyone perceives so, it is therefore true. Everyone I’ve met recognizes my talent and dignity, my worth, and therefore I am perfect.

[Annotated] Bibliography

Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. Print. [does what is says on the tin: going room by room it discusses the purpose of the room and its objects and how the material things intersected with a person’s daily life]

Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. Print. [details the characters and drama surrounding the 1854 cholera epidemic in London’s Soho district]

“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Studies.” Harry Ransom Center: Collections. The University of Texas at Austin, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. <http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/collections/guide/lgtbq/&gt;. [website is open to the public and lists interesting artifacts relating to historical lgtbq persons and/or events in the University’s possession]

McCullough, David. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print. [jolly good read that describes famous nineteenth century American artists, aristocrats, medicos, and politicians’ time in Paris. John’s references to Louis Napoleon and visiting French doctors come from here]

Walkowitz, Judith R. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print. [Surveys the more seedy side of Victorian London. I especially drew from the chapters on Men & Women’s Clubs, spiritualism, and Jack the Ripper]

Woolf, Virgina. Flush: a Biography. San Diego: Harcourt Bruce Company, 1983. Print. [this is actually a biography of poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, Flush. It gives a great sense of gender relations and ideologies for the time period]

 

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