A Sense of Their Duty: Middle-Class Formation in Victorian Ontario Towns.

HOLMAN, Andrew C. A Sense of Their Duty: Middle-Class Formation in Victorian Ontario Towns. McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal & Kingston, 2000. 265p. Resenha de: WILLIE, Richard A. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.2, p., 2004.

This is an important book about an elusive and neglected subject in Canadian social history. The Victorian middle class, everyone acknowledges, emerged at a time of rapid economic change in Canada and did so alongside various calls for significant political and moral reform. There is much more, however, to this story than the lingering characterization of the middle class as an amorphous, even shadowy, collection of overbearing respectables (p. ix), writes Holman. In his examination of the Ontario towns of Galt and Goderich between the 1850’s and 1890’s, he sets out to uncover this elusive group and finds them located in well-integrated and identifiable occupational roles, each exhibiting a sense of collective identity and a set of developing ideals. By focusing on businessmen, professionals and other white-collar workers who did not work with their hands, Holman reveals the processes by which each occupational group became aware of themselves as a distinct stratum in society and how the more public roles they played in defining an approach to volunteerism and in reinforcing the dictates of moral order, a role which they played along with their wives in Victorian Ontario, further assisted in securing their special place in society.

Holman rejects static structural analysis and conflict group approaches and instead adopts Anthony Giddens’ concept of ‘structuralism’ which is more directional than formulaic. This affords him, he argues, the necessary latitude to allow this social category the middle class to define itself against the distinctive characteristics of Canada’s unfolding demographic make-up and against the values of its unique political economy. By examining the workplace as an arena of stratification and as an incubator of attitudes towards types of work, he is able to suggest that while up to the 1850s and 1860s all kinds of work were equally laudatory and moral (p. 22), already subtle changes were underway. By the 1870’s a new perspective had arrived which drew perceptible lines between manual and non-manual labour (p. 26).

The most representative of this new perspective were the businessmen, local merchants, manufacturers and artisans, of small-town Ontario. In the case of Galt, success as a regional service and market centre combined with the positive character of the town’s businessmen in a Creightonesque sort of way, and provided them with the ability to claim an elevated authority for the commercial members of their occupational group. In Goderich, on the other hand, situational problems, chronic economic challenges and low credit ratings saw an insular and protective attitude develop among this business group. Relations with labour were also quite different in the two centres. In Galt, Holman found that constant labour strife and strong labour organizations actually contributed to strengthening the agendas and identity of middle class businessmen and their Board of Trade. Labour relations were less of a factor in Goderich. Galt businessmen, in particular, had come to believe that their special place in society arose from their being champions of community economic success.

A second and important element in Holman’s study were the brain workers whose main claim to special status and authority derived from their learnedness and occupational independence. Lawyers, doctors and clergymen each developed their own patterns of professionalism in Ontario which included educational institutions, professional associations, codes of ethics, and informal networks of fraternal value sharing. In this professionalization project, Holman again found that experiences differed in Galt and Goderich, but that lawyers in both towns enjoyed the greatest social prestige of all the professions. While their association with a legal culture that included the sanctity of courts and the rule of law made lawyers respected intellectual and moral arbiters in society, the emergence of industrial capitalism gave legal work and law offices greater utility. Interestingly, the locations of the county court houses powerfully influenced the local collective identity of lawyers. Lawyers in Goderich, which had a courthouse, were more prominent in community life than those in Galt, which had no courthouse. In the case of medicine, this period witnessed a medical practitioners’ monopoly organizing to exclude alternate methods (homoeopathy) while at the same time gaining greater control of education, innovation, and hospitals. Medical practitioners competed for control in both towns. In Galt the battle was much more prolonged and pronounced simply because of the pressure, created from the start, of having a wider variety of practitioners and methods available. In Goderich, Holman found that the greatest challenge to medical practitioners came from itinerant physicians. Differences between Galt and Goderich similarly resulted in the clergy in each centre having to meet various professional challenges with non-uniform patterns of response.

Holman is perhaps at his best when he identifies this nascent middle class project among white-collar workers. As commercial, government, and professional clerks these employees aspired to become middle class on the basis of their non-manual work. They received salaries rather than wages and their proximity at work to their employers, who were established middle class claimants in the community, allowed them to indulge their often-youthful anticipation of temporarily occupying a stepping stone on the way to greater prominence. Holman notes regrettably, that the entry of women into this segment of the workplace resulted in white-collar work losing its value for many young men. A generalized anxiety or fear of never rising also hampered the project for many of these in-between men and motivated many, according to Holman, to seek opportunities of advancement elsewhere.

Having obtained a measure of authority in their respective communities by virtue of the work they performed, members of this emerging middle class began to broadcast their values regarding personal deportment and social responsibility primarily through the agency of voluntary organizations devoted to charity, fraternalism and self- improvement. That these associations were visible, gendered, exclusive, and adhered to rules of order in their meetings, allowed members to reflect and to model the ideals of social order that the towns’ growing middle class valued. In both towns, work of benevolence, Holman argues, was mainly overseen by women while fraternal orders restricted membership to men, thus ensuring that proper spheres were maintained. Self-improvement societies had fewer gender boundaries and general social aims. The YMCA, for instance, sought especially to direct young men away from immoral temptations towards purposeful pastimes and to provide training grounds for cultivating the appropriate behaviours the middle class expected.

According to Holman, by the 1870s middle class interest in the cause of temperance reform in Ontario had shifted as this emerging class latched on to the cause as a means to powerfully effect societal change. Earlier in the century, those concerned over alcohol abuse had defined the problem as one of individual character deficiency. Increasingly, however, reformers from this class saw the problem as society’s moral failing and they therefore championed change as a collective response to both the danger it imposed and the negative impact it had on persons and families; they especially supported legislative remedies required to curb it. Holman is quite correct about the shift in thinking he describes, however, his view that this change was largely due to the influence of the middle class is not as developed or persuasive as it might have been since his conclusion is more asserted than systematically proved. His study also begs, but does not answer, the question of whether genuine advocacy of reform in this area was perhaps more gendered than he might suggest.

Class identity was also formed and reproduced inside the home. The ideal middle-class male was expected to be a public beacon of proper deportment in his personal conduct as well as a family man; his wife was thought of as the jewel of the home. In private as in public, the middle class cultivated an ideal image of belonging to a class set apart by its prescribed behaviours from the vulgar rich above them and barren poor below. Manners, grooming, dress, speech, carriage, and respectable recreations were all included as aspects of the self-control that the progeny of middle class parents were expected to mirror and exhibit.

In A Sense of Their Duty, Holman accurately describes an important time of class formation in Victorian Ontario and explains some of the structural and ideological mechanisms involved in the change. His book will be a necessary addition to all post-secondary libraries containing sections on Canadian studies or history.

Richard A. Willie – Concordia University College of Alberta. Edmonton, Alberta.

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