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Inventing the Victorians [Paperback]

Matthew Sweet
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 Nov 2002

Suppose that everything we think we know about 'The Victorians' is wrong? That we have persistently misrepresented their culture, perhaps to make ourselves feel more satisfyingly liberal and sophisticated? What if they were much more fun than we ever suspected?

As Matthew Sweet shows us in this brilliant study, many of the concepts that strike us as terrifically new - political spin-doctoring, extravagant publicity stunts, hardcore pornography, anxieties about the impact of popular culture upon children - are Victorian inventions. Most of the pleasures that we imagine to be our own, the Victorians enjoyed first: the theme park, the shopping mall, the movies, the amusement arcade, the crime novel and the sensational newspaper report. They were engaged in a well-nigh continuous search for bigger and better thrills. If Queen Victoria wasn't amused, then she was in a very small minority . . .

Matthew Sweet's book is an attempt to re-imagine the Victorians; to suggest new ways of looking at received ideas about their culture; to distinguish myth from reality; to generate the possibility of a new relationship between the lives of 19th-century people and our own.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; New Ed edition (4 Nov 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571206638
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571206636
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 84,117 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Matthew Sweet is a writer and broadcaster with a doctorate in Wilkie Collins. He presents Night Waves and Free Thinking on BBC Radio 3 and The Philosopher's Arms and The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4.

He is the author of Inventing the Victorians and Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema - which he adapted as a film for BBC Four ("the best documentary I've seen all year" - Daily Telegraph). He's also edited and introduced the work of Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Thackeray, George Eliot and Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

His TV films and series include Silent Britain (BBC Four) Checking into History (Channel Four), British Cinema Forever (BBC2) and A Brief History of Fun (Channel Four).

Product Description

Amazon Review

Matthew Sweet's Inventing the Victorians sets out to rescue the Victorians from their prudish and stuffy reputation. A century after Queen Victoria's death there is a scramble to re-evaluate and explode many of the myths attached to Victorian Britain which started with Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1913) and have been cultivated ever since by assorted Freudian analysts, feminists, strait-laced historians, political spin-doctors (remember Margaret Thatcher's "Victorian values") and lazy media types. Through a 13-chapter tour of the wilder side of 19th-century Britain--theatrical spectacle, contact ads, WT Stead's investigative journalism, opium dens, etiquette and cookery books, freak shows, boys' adventure stories and the amusing tale of what Prince Albert kept in his pants--Sweet argues the case for the Victorians being more sexually liberated, more obsessed with sensational events and public lives and for being greater consumers of narcotics, pornography and the bizarre than they have ever been given credit. They were, in other words, more like us than we realise. What a depressing thought. This book is a fun read: it is clever, informative and provocative, although too often the journalist inside the author leaps from a suggestive idea to a monstrous exaggeration. Matthew Sweet is not of course the first to unveil the Victorians. Some readers may wonder whether yet another account is really required of the Rugeley murders, the "Elephant Man", Walter's Secret Life, and the Victorian dependence on opium. And as for Prince Albert--his nether regions have long been the subject of scholarly discussion-lists on North American Victorian Studies Web sites. But the time is right to relocate the Victorians and Sweet's book does just that. --Miles Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

'This is a profoundly stimulating and entertaining book'. D. J. Taylor, Sunday Times; 'Matthew Sweet has opened a blast of fresh air into the hothouse of Victorian studies. His book is packed with weird and wonderful information'. Spectator; 'He tells his revisionist version exceedingly well, describing a lurid thrill-seeking populace avid for sensation. Colourful characters parade through chapters that demonstrate how innovative, fast-paced, diverse and radical the era was. Sweet has turned his scholarly research through the detritus of high and low 19th-century culture into a page-turning piece of pop-culture history... A darned good read, and no mistake,' Big Issue

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
The thesis of 'Inventing the Victorians' is that they were a much more lively bunch than we would imagine. They were attracted to spectacle, sex, and advertising and do not deserve their reputation as staid and repressed. The book argues this theme in an entertaining way and is full of well researched examples. One criticism is that it might rely too much on anecdotal evidence, but scientific evidence on cultural issues is elusive.
The book is a great read for anyone interested in nineteenth century culture, and would probably prove frustrating to anyone looking for a text book or treating this as the key source book for an essay. In an academic context it would provide an alternative view and a few good examples. I would also suggest that the points the book makes are best understood against a background of knowledge of what was going on in England at that time.
None of the above should be read as criticism, but is rather an explanation of the type of book it is. Compared to more traditional history books it is an easy and interesting read - closer to a novel or a newspaper report than something to be studied.
Overall I recommend this book highly to anyone with an interest in what it was like to live in Victorian times.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This book is an amazing treasure box of strange and wonderful stories. Which other histories of the nineteenth century tell you about Ernest Keen the transvestite boy detective, the Educated Talking Oyster, the Baby-Killer of Kentish Town, or the Bipenis Boy?
Matthew Sweet tells all their stories with wit and style, and convinces you that the Victorian era was much more pleasurable and wild than we've all been led to believe. Did you know, for instance, that the old story about covering up piano legs is a joke that the Victorians told about the Americans? Or that William Gladstone was an opium user? All is revealed in this book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What the Victorian world was *really* like 2 Mar 2004
Format:Hardcover
I consider myself something of a minor student of the Victorian era, and when I hear pundits and commentators disparaging the Victorians, they often seemed to me to be talking in terms of stereotypes, rather than reality. Apparently, this same observation has aroused Matthew Sweet to write this monograph, to set the record straight. Herein, Mr. Sweet looks at what the Victorians were really like, and how they lived lives surprisingly similar to modern Britons. The book contains chapters on such things as Victorian freak shows, pornography, morals, and so much more.
I found this book to be a quite fascinating history, one that covers subjects rarely found in other history books. The author left very few stones unturned, covering subjects with a surprising frankness. My one complaint against this book is that I did find the chapters a little too long, with the author dragging out the subject to near exhaustion. However, I must say that that is a matter of taste, and another reader might quite enjoy the depth of detail.
So, if you are interested in the Victorians, and what the Victorian world was *really* like, then I highly recommend that you get this book!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Martin Turner HALL OF FAME TOP 100 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Inventing the Victorians is a journalist's reappraisal of Victorian life and culture, following a century of modernism which tried to separate itself from the Victorian world as much as possible. Sweet's conclusion -- which is well argued with strong examples -- is that our passions, interests and concerns, far from being a contrast to those of the Victorians, are a continuation of what they did and thought. On the way he explodes a number of myths, including the infamous table-leg story.

The Victorians are famous for being prudish, hypocritical, and without much of a sense of humour. Much of this, argues Matthew Sweet, follows from Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians which, written as part manifesto for the Bloomsbury set, demonstrated how they were the opposite of the values espoused by Woolf and co.

The most famous example of Victorian prudery -- and the author explores it in depth -- is the alleged practise of covering the table legs in upholstery because they looked too much like a woman's legs and thereby caused problems in the male libido. In reality, there are no actual examples of this happening. Sweet traces the story of it back to the English satirically accusing the Americans of such prurience, and later examples of the Americans returning the compliment by making the same allegation about the UK.

From here, Matthew Sweet makes a tour-de-force of comparisons between contemporary and Victorian attitudes, culminating in the parallels between Harold Shipman and the 19th century Rugely Poisoner.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good and informative read 22 May 2007
Format:Paperback
I've always had something of an interest in the Victorian era, but I suspect Mr Sweet has helped to turn it into an obsession. I picked the book up on a whim recently, and enjoyed it so much I recommended it to friends - those who've read it also tell me they enjoyed it greatly.

It destroys the image we've built up of clothed table legs and fainting heroines, and instead paints a picture of a vibrant people who were more like us than we might have thought - from their choices of entertainment, to their traffic problems.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Debunking Victorian Myths
A highly entertaining book about the Victorian age that can be used as a companion to A.N. Wilsons study The Victorians. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Seoulprovider
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and readable
This is an interesting and readable overturning of the hoary old chestnuts and cliches that non-specialists resort to when wanting to denigrate Victorian society as stuffy and... Read more
Published on 17 Jun 2012 by SJR
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent reassessment of the Victorian Age
Matthew Sweet's "Inventing the Victorians" was first published in 2001 and argued for a thorough reassessment of the Victorian Age by providing a wealth of material drawn from... Read more
Published on 8 Feb 2011 by Hywel James
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read
This book is invaluable to anyone who wants to get past the stereotypes about the Victorians. Even a reasonably dedicated amateur historians or educated laymen will often be bogged... Read more
Published on 30 Jan 2007 by Norse Victorian
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant read
This ia a history of nineteenth century culture that overturns all the cliches. I think every student of the period ought to take a look at it: it bulldozes through all the... Read more
Published on 27 May 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars Execellently researched heavyweight.
Mathew Sweet has produced an extraordinay thesis which is a must for those with more than a passing interest in one of the most exciting chapters in history. Read more
Published on 2 Jan 2002 by "jstuart41"
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