Most writers on the Victorian Era make the point that Victorians were often earnest and serious people. Certainly one has the impression that they attacked life, including their recreations, both earnestly and seriously. One did not simply enjoy one's self, one had a "higher" reason which justified support for an activity. I would suggest that this may well have been a class view, rather than something that was true of Victorians generally.
I've been re-reading Jerome K. Jerome's wonderful book, Three Men in a Boat; a book characterized by the undercurrent of Victorians laughing at this particular view. Perhaps Kenneth Grahame spoke for Jerome K. Jerome when he had Ratty tell Mole, “there is nothing -- absolute nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Of course, for the most outstanding send-up of Victorian earnestness, one need only turn to George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody.
If the middle-classes could enjoy themselves without seeing a higher purpose, it seems unlikely that the lower and labouring classes would have, or could have, sought to find a higher meaning in activities such as cock-fighting, ratting, dog-fighting and bull-baiting which, although outlawed early in Victoria's reign continued for many years after her ascension to the throne.
Nonetheless, it is clear that some activities were seen as being particularly ennobling. Mountain-climbing was often viewed as a spiritual activity; prize-fighting became “the manly art of self-defence”; public hangings, it was suggested, were a deterrent to crime; and even prostitution was justified as a way of letting men satisfy their animal lusts without offending “decent” women.
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