An Unfinshied essay on Victorian Literature
|Victorian literature – exam practice question
Read the following extract carefully. It is a portrait of’ the gentleman’ described by Cardinal John Newman I his essay on university education for Roman Catholics. Newman presents here his Definition of a Gentleman.
How does the writer present his thoughts and feelings about aspects of Victorian life?
How far is the extract similar to and different from your wider reading in Victorian literature? You should consider the writers’ choice of form, structure and language.
Here is the extract ‘Definition of a Gentlemen’ by John Henry Newman
Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman, to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with heir movement rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, thought nature provides both means or rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast all clashing opinions, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defend himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He ahs too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him for the blundering discourtesy of better, though less educated, minds; who like blunt weapon, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point of argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary , and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opionion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive.
Cardinal Newman is very precise and strict about the way in which he feels men should present themselves. Being a man of God, I think that has influenced many aspects of his essay, and has made his view less flexible in taking into account the current issues of the time. Newman seems to still be under the impression that everyone is still highly religious and value the Christian teachings over all else.
‘that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend’
There sees to be an underlying Biblical reference connected to that quote, ‘love thy neighbor as thy self’ or ‘treat other as you would like them to treat you’. This definition of a gentleman suggests that men have been idolized in Newman’s essay, this true gentlemen is almost too perfect to be real. He should not start debates where opinions may clash, he should never talk about himself vainly only if asked by other and should not in any circumstance partake is listening to gossip or slander.
Newman’s opinion is that every man should conduct himself I this manner regardless but Newman’s narrow minded view has restricted the truth, that this idolised male does not exist in the world they currently live in. façade was a big feature of Victorian society though barely did any writers acknowledge it in their work.
Newman’s idolised view of men is a total contrast to what other authors and poets were portraying. Many texts form the Victorian focused on how women and how they should act and present themselves. In Coventry Patmore’s ‘Angel of the House’ it is women rather than men that are idolized as into being saint-like and as angels. It has been women who have be given this incredibly strict code of conduct which they must abide by as otherwise they are seen as not fulfilling their natural duties as a woman and a wife. Just as ‘Definition of a Gentleman’ is severely strict and rigid with no room for the tiniest amount of leeway, ‘Angel of the House’ is extremely similar I that everything said is almost a rule. Generally in this Era women always, as they were supposed to, took the submissive role and would bow down to anything their husbands may demand, but in ‘Definition of the Gentlemen’ the true gentlemen seems to have some of the submissive characteristics women should have in other texts. This gentleman has to always put others before himself; Newman makes a point in saying that when insulted the gentlemen should ignore and not be enraged by it.
‘He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice’
The true gentlemen should always forgive and forget. A quality I believe most Victorian women have to use countless times towards their husbands.
The irony of Newman’s piece is that in the Victorian age, no such saint-like gentlemen actually existed. In Oscar Wilde’s well known drama ‘A Woman of no Importance’, the main male character Lord Illingworth could not be any further from Newman’s representation. Newman mentioned men getting themselves into controversy would not be tasteful and would make a mess of a potential risky situation.
‘If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better…’
This is not the case with Wilde’s character, Lord Illingworth, if something controversial was happening it would only be right to correctly presume that he was the root of it. Throughout Wilde’s drama Illingworth partakes in a many number of ‘risky’ situations, from ‘kissing the Puritan’ in a childish dare, to conceiving an illegitimate son and then cruelly abandoning both mother and child, as to not damage his reputation. I believe one of the female characters referred to Illingworth as ‘wicked’, a view I imagine Newman would have shared. Illingworth in many respects could also be seen as a ‘sinner’, in that he shows no moral qualities towards society or religion. Illingworth and Newman’s true gentleman could be interpreted as the old and modern ways of life embodied in human form- completely opposite.
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