Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant 1789-1837

Written by Ben Wilson
Review by Ann Oughton

The generation that grew up during the Napoleonic Wars was notorious for its boisterous character, plain-speaking, hard drinking, cherishing of freedom, the right to behave almost as they pleased. With the dawn of Queen Victoria’s reign attitudes had begun to change. A new generation espousing ‘Victorian values’ came to the fore: it might be counterproductive to provide financial assistance for the poor as it could encouraging idleness: wayward youth was the result of lack of respect for the parent, schoolmaster and employer: providing a programme of rehabilitation for prostitutes might actually encourage prostitution as poor girls would be tempted to seek this government aid instead of honest work. The British could not give up their loutish behaviour without protest and accused the new thinkers as indulging in cant and they were seen not as becoming more moral, as rather more censorious and hypocritical. The parallels with today are obvious: anti-social behaviour and the rise of religious bigotry.

This is an outstanding work of social history, and perhaps it is pertinent that the last, not very hopeful word, is given to the German philosopher, Kant: ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever fashioned.’