Public morality, but private depravity – a time when keeping up appearances on the outside was very much the order of the day. You have to wonder if Brexit has turned this Victorian attitude decisively on its head.
No one watching the daily media scrum on College Green could argue that today’s national conversation is an attempt to show the best of ourselves.
But what’s left when the cameras turn off? Does the whirlwind continue, or is it replaced by calmer private considerations and a steadier sense of self?
On the face of it, this is a furious Britain. Angry and aggressive, we’re in a new age, the age of rage.
See a TV interview happening in your vicinity? Scream over the top of it. Demonstrating in the streets? You’re not set unless you and your partner are walking hand-in-hand in the springtime sun with life-size effigies of the Prime Minister and the mayor of London being dragged, face down, on a leash.
“Abuse has grown since the Brexit debate has intensified,” were the words of Independent Group MP, Heidi Allen.
So much so that Sky News’ Faisal Islam had an on-air confrontation with a demonstrator who was screaming “traitor” and “treason”, saying: “It’s become quite normal using that kind of language.”
For many, this is a country that has taken leave of its senses. And that view is spreading far from our shores.
A friend in Los Angeles said California was gripped because Brexit was the best reality TV you can get: a 24/7 national nervous breakdown played out scene-by-scene.
His take was reinforced by Thomas Friedman, whose recent New York Times article sat under the headline “Britain has gone Mad”.
Meanwhile, Westminster struggles to cope.
Education select committee chair Robert Halfon spoke of his colleagues struggling with “Brexit Madness… a cross between Lord of the Flies and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
Big business is chiming the bells of despair too. Both Siemens and Ford spent much of last week using their weight and influence to say that they couldn’t make the case for Britain as an investment location.
So if this is a health check on the sense and sensibilities of the UK, we could be heading to intensive care. But, don’t turn off the life support just yet.
For beneath the surface, there is much to suggest that the pulse of the nation is sturdier than the froth of debate might suggest.
This positive prognosis is backed up by the recent steady performance of the pound.
Currencies are often cited as the heartbeat of a nation, and – in this instance – the beat certainly goes on. Steady, stable and one of the best performing major currencies since its low at the end of last this year.
True enough, Siemens chief Juergen Maier did issue an apocalyptic vision of the investment case for the UK. It sounded like the script for straight-to-streaming sequel, Terminator: The Trade Wars.
On the face of it, the message was “hasta la vista, baby”. But there was also the promise of “I’ll be back”.
Indeed, Maier acknowledged that once Britain had sorted its future, he was “100 per cent sure” that investment in the country would follow.
Despite the chaos and the doomsday prophesies, capital continues to seek out the UK as a major home for inward investment.
The United Nations trade and development agency recently ranked the UK third in terms of foreign direct investment inflows, with a 20 per cent jump to $122bn last year, while the value of M&A deals tripled over the same period.
Unemployment continues its record-breaking reduction, and weekly average earnings have recently risen to their highest since March 2011. All of which points to a nation with much in the way of underlying strengths.
But quietly spoken truths are struggling badly to stand up to a louder story.
Rage. Resentment. Rancour. And whatever the initial justification for these feelings, they have become the corrosive projection and prevailing story of our nation.
It robs us of badly needed self-belief and creates self-fulfilling realities. Because confidence is the Cinderella asset. You never know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it.
If the only thing you look for is the negative. Guess what? You’re going to find failings to fit the feeling. And right now the prevailing feeling is of failure and bad blood.
So, if you want a stronger future, and don’t like what’s being said, use your voice to change the conversation.