The Victorians were proud of their welfare, of their good manners and of their middle-class values, and tended to ignore the problems which still afflicted England. There was, in fact, a part of society mainly the working class, among which misery and distress were still widespread. The new urban conditions, made worse by growth of slums, had created a lot of health problems. Whole families were often crowded in single rooms, where lack of hygiene occasionally led to cholera. The New Poor Law of 1834 had not been a solution for the still extant problems, and the creation of the much hated workhouse (so well described and denounced by Dickens) had often made life a hell for the poor. Poverty, whether the result of bad luck or thoughtless behaviour, was considered a crime and penalized as such. Debtors, for example, were still punished with jail, and life in prison was appalling. Education, too, had its problems. Teachers were often incompetent and corporal punishment was still regularly applied to maintain discipline.


The particular situation, which saw prosperity and progress on the one hand, and poverty, ugliness and injustice on the other, which opposed ethical conformism to corruption, moralism and philanthropy to money and capitalistic greediness, and which separated private life from public behaviour, is usually referred to as the "Victorian Compromise". However, it also aroused the concern of more and more theorists and reformers who tried to improve living conditions at all levels, including hospitals, schools and prisons.

The word Victorian has come to be used to describe a set of moral and sexual values. The Victorians were great moraliser, probably because they faced numerous problems on such a scale that they felt obliged to advocate certain values which offered solution or escape. As a rule the values they promoted reflected not the world as they saw it the harsh social reality around them, but the world as they would have like it to be.


The idea of respectability distinguished the middle from the lower class. Respectability was a mixture of both morality and hypocrisy, severity and conformity to social standards. Manners underwent a deep change in this period. Under the influence of Queen Victoria herself, the age turned excessively puritanical. Sex became a taboo subject, and all the words with vaguely sexual or "indelicate" connotation were driven out of every day language, or replaced by euphemisms. Manners and speech were to be retrained and sober, so that "respectability" became the key word of Victorianism.


The somewhat conventional morality the time found its best expression inside the family, where the father proved even more authoritarian than before and the mother was to be submissive and fruitful. Victorian families were usually very big and the Queen herself proved a very prolific mother, with nine children. Middle-class women in general were to adhere to a strict code of behaviour, which expected them to be frail, innocence and pure, confined within the family walls. Rules sand restrictions involved men too, who were forbidden to gamble, swear or drink. Appearance being very important, middle-class people's clothes tended to be very formal even in the privacy of family life.