Most helpful positive review
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The Victorians made our world, and this is a wonderful overview
on 6 September 2009
Over the course of Queen Victoria's reign, much of what we today regard as the very pillars of western society emerged in a form recognisable to our age - the middle classes, the two-party parliamentary system, the widespread education of children, an early form of welfare, systematic taxes and doubt about God. Also during this period, the stage was set for the world wars. Toward the end of Victoria's long reign, motor vehicles, incandescent light bulbs and telephony appeared. It truly was a period of extraordinary change, dominanted by some wonderfully eccentric and conflicted individuals (Darwin, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Disraeli, Gladstone, the list goes on). The Victorians are therefore worthy of our interest.
How about this particular book? Well, much has been made of the emphasis Wilson gives to his own strongly-held opinions and religious interests. I must say, I think these criticisms have been overdone. Certainly Wilson knows the period and the characters (and his mind) well enough to have opinions, but I didn't get the sense that this crowded out the facts; it simply made it a more lively read.
Most people buying this book will probably be British (English, more particularly). For the non-English, be warned that in this story Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the foreign "possessions" of empire are mere staging posts. Having said that, Wilson is no apologist for the English of the period. He gives a fair and honest account of their flaws and barbarisms - from the Irish famine to the "war crimes and genocide" (Wilson's words) of Kitchener. As an example, the best that Wilson seems to make of Queen Victoria herself is to say that she became so reclusive and constitutionally pointless after Albert's death that she "helped to lead the monarchy into a position where it was not worth abolishing." Indeed.
I was fortunate enough to read the Folio Society re-print. Nice clear print on lovely thick paper. Having flicked the paperback in a bookshop, I can imagine it becoming a bit trying after 500 pages or so. Maybe try the illustrated re-issue [ASIN:0091796229 The Victorians]. If not, Jeremy Paxman's much lighter book (also called "The Victorians" [ASIN:1846077435 The Victorians]) is a nice companion, as is supplies pictures of many of the paintings to which Wilson refers.