The Victorians Hardcover – 5 Sep 2002
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AN Wilsons The Victorians is the longest and liveliest of the books which have appeared in the wake of the centenary of Victorias death. As one might expect, Wilson, Evening Standard columnist, novelist, and polemical biographer, has an eye for colourful detail, cannot resist gossip about the great and good, and smells out cant and hypocrisy at 10 paces. Familiar tales are told about the sexual proclivities, religious hypocrisies and gargantuan economic and imperial appetites of the Victorians. But the book is more than an exercise in debunking. Wilson sees 19th century Britons as the harbingers of modernity: the first society to grapple with and agonise over the Darwinian struggle of social mobility and industrial growth. He documents in detail the relentless drive for getting on, sympathises with its victims--in the English towns, the Irish bogs and on the Indian plains and warms to the critical commentary of the chief sages and seers of the era: Carlyle, Dickens, and Manning. The intellectual set-pieces of the time--the Gothic revival, religion versus science, Anglo-Catholicism--are particularly well-handled.
As well as being its strengths, the authors prejudices are at times the books weaknesses. Apart from Victorias Prime Ministers and the Irish nationalist leader, Parnell, Wilson doesnt much like the politicians of the period (or the political economists), and these aspects of Victorian history get rather short shrift. And the narrative occasionally jumps and jars as he tries to include everything and anything (Dostoyevsky and Wagner wander in at one stage). But there is much to amuse and instruct throughout, and, just as important, not a little to argue with as well.--Miles Taylor
'... The Victorians is a magnificent achievement: plucky, engaged and full of awe at the way we continue to live out its inheritance today.' -- Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian, August 31, 2002
'... hugely enjoyable, and you will undoubtedly learn something interesting about your own relationship to the past while regarding it.' -- The Independent on Sunday, September 1, 2002
'I can't recall a history book furnishing so many laughs en route... The Victorians is a work of scholarship, a labour of love, a persusasive polemic.' -- John Sutherland, Mail on Sunday, September 8, 2002
'Wilson has produced a judicious, knowledgeable and very full portrait of the epoch.' -- David Gilmour, Daily Mail, September 6, 2002
'You really must read THE VICTORIANS by A.N. Wilson: a doorstopping study, engagingly conveyed by an enthusiast.' -- Sunday Times, September 1, 2002
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Top Customer Reviews
"To call the Boer forces an army was to add unwarranted elasticity to the word......[they] fought with guns and gunpowder but had no discipline, no drills, no forms, no standards and not even a roll call". Wilson adds that
'when one field cornet of the Kroonstad commando insisted on holding a morning roll call and rifle inspection, the men complained to a higher authority and he was told to stop harassing them'.
However, for my own taste there was far too much emphasis on politics and the political wrangling of the Church (or churches - High, Low, Broad, Puseyites etc) to the detriment of the social history, although given Wilson's fascination with the Church and his previous novels I suppose this is not surprising. I could also have done with detailed footnotes rather than just reference numbers to the bibliography, although I appreciate this would have made the book even longer.
Although more like a collection of essays in which Wilson rambles with many sidetracks and deviations over his huge subject, overall I enjoyed it and will doubtless re-read it in time.
The Corn Laws are undefined; the Crimean War is handled without giving its causes or delineating the sequence of events; there is insufficient context of British rule in India given for the account of the 1857 Indian mutiny and the term "sepoy" is not defined.
Yet the range of material is tempting - Marx, pre-Raphaelites, Darwin, Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, etc.), Peel, Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli (but without identifying who stood for what). What a shame that Wilson did not infuse his learning with a touch of popular writing so that more readers could understand and benefit from it.
In a book awash with detail and minute political analysis, Wilson occasionally pulls out some surprises, as in the lovely couple of paragraphs about early photography. He also draws some interesting connections, e.g., that Local Government in England occurred simultaneously with the Siege of Paris (1871). But without a firmly mapped foundation these nuggets do not hold the book together.
A worthy book for those in the know, but not an accessible one for people seeking to increase their knowledge of the Victorians.
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.Read more ›
But the best part of this book is its accompanying illustrations - again they are displayed chronologically and make a wonderful companion to the text. Great book.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Excellent illustrations and
expert insight on 1800 England.
I recall that the condition of the book was given as very good, but it qualifies as rather poor. I should not complain too much in the that price including postage was £2.81. Read morePublished 4 months ago by P. M. Jones
I found this a difficult book to engage fully with, at times the prose had little flow and like another on here, I had to stop and re-read it on numerous occasions. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Thespionic
History is always told in the eyes of the beholder. In this case one gets a very Wilsoneque view of the Victorians. Read morePublished 9 months ago by Mark Wellesley-Wood