on 14 December 2002
A hefty book (620 pp), densely and fluently written and eminently readable. I liked the fact that Wilson's own opinions come through strongly. There are some fascinating nuggets here, some which make you laugh aloud, as in this gem from an American correspondent on the Boer War:
"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.
on 22 April 2009
Coming to this book wishing to learn more about the 19th century, I leave it with a sense of bewilderment. For all the sweeping scope of the book, ranging from the 1834 burning of the Palace of Westminster through the Boer War, there is little cohesion, with many important milestones going unexplained.
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.
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.
on 14 August 2009
This is the illustrated edition and, to my knowledge, it has an abridged text as a result. But don't let this put you off - the text still brings you chronogically through the Victorian era in wonderful and sufficient detail. There is no jingoism here, the author is open and honest with a warts and all approach.
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.
on 2 June 2003
Not only was Victoria's reign long but it was also chock-full of events, making the era quite a dense one to get to grips with. This is what makes Wilson's text such an enjoyable read: he organises the period both chronologically and thematically so that it can be dealt with in manageable sections, compartmentalising the era while ensuring there are cohesive links to show the development of issues and ideas as the period progressed. Furthermore, his use of biography to illustrate his analysis of the Victorians and Victorianism means that his theories, as well as the concerns of the era, are personalised and made much more vivid for it. I would have given five stars but I found all the explorations of military history a little dry and felt that Wilson was rather obsessed with Cardinal Manning and that, interesting though the man was, this used up valuable space in a text that is very long and meaty. I am sure that even people who have studied the period inside out will find something new in this book and there are lots of engaging and amusing tidbits, including some fantastic gossip-mongering, too.
on 19 January 2006
I enjoyed this book, although I thought the choice of material for such a huge subject was odd.
The book was very readable, but Wilson is subjective and too free with his own opinions. I don't think he actually likes the Victorians very much, which is fair enough, but he makes too much of the power of Benthamite values behind the laisser-faire economy of Britain in the 19th century.
The editing was very poor. There were many sentences without verbs, the use of the subordinate clause was eclectic to say the least, and there were too few commas for readability. I often had to read a paragraph twice to make it clear.
As a general study of the Victorian era this is however a well thought out book.
It's quite difficult to know how to describe this book. It's non-fiction, it's history, of course it's history, but somehow...not quite history as one might expect it. And yet if you asked me to put my finger on why this isn't a typical history book I think I would struggle. It's about a particular time and place; it's written in a chronological fashion; the usual suspects of Victorian history make an appearance; it focuses on politics, the monarchy, war, culture, literature, fashion, commerce. And yet somehow there is definitely something about this book that differs from a 'normal' history book.
I think perhaps it's the author. This is very much A.N. Wilson's personal take on the Victorians, history from one individual's perspective. By and large, with most history books, the author is all but invisible. He (or she) presents their version of history without interfering in the narrative: their presence is only really visible in the elements they choose to focus on, the things they include and the things they omit. Whilst that is just as much the case here, the author's presence is that much more tangible. I think that, added to Wilson's occasionally whimsical tone and authorial asides, somehow makes this history book feel less like history and more like one individual's musings on history.
It's an unexpected approach, but not an entirely unsuccessful one. It makes this book very much a mixed bag, an often enjoyable but occasionally rambling read, one that almost feels like it's stuffed just that little bit too full with anecdotes and snapshots and asides and marginalia. One could argue a little bit more structure and rigidity, a tightening of the focus, a trimming of some of the fat, might have improved it, but then it would probably have been just like every other book on the Victorians out there, and there's definitely something to be said for a novel approach.
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.
I’ve read ‘The Decline & Fall of the British Empire,’ by Piers Brendon, which covers many of the same subjects. I feel that Piers book is a far better book to read and understand and gets to grip with the subject matter far better too.
For me too many of the chapters actually tell you very little, too much titivation with little real substance. Sometimes he covers too many subjects instead of expanding on one or two. It is mildly interesting without making you want to get onto the next subject without delay’
I’ve read the best part of it; the rest will be read as a coffee table book as it is a good book for picking off the odd chapter without the need to read it hours on end, which I wasn’t particularly enjoying. For such a thick book I can member surprisingly little? Many subjects are woefully under - recorded – India & Africa for instance. There are some interesting stories of course but in the main I found it a very average read. I think you’d need to be a die-hard ‘Victorian freak ‘to truly encompass this book. I ran out of patience well before the end and knew I have to endure it rather than fully enjoy it.
on 13 November 2007
A.N Wilson, industrious polymath, has delivered a detailed history of the Victorian era. The scope is huge: we have chapters on the rise of the private school, spiritualism, the Pre-Raphaelites and the potato famine, to name a few. As a bonus, Wilson's prose remains lively, engaging and conversational throughout.
At his best, Wilson erects welcome barriers to simplistic interpretations of Victorian ways and events always stressing that people and policies are best and most fairly assessed when viewed within their proper historical context and not from a more `enlightened' modern standpoint.
At his worst, his book often reduces to a lifeless list of minor characters brought to the stage too briefly to provide a broad enough picture of the age - we are regularly overwhelmed with minor biographical details to the detriment of constructive analysis of the topic discussed. This is in stark contrast to the highly successful `Empire' by Niall Ferguson which covers some of the same themes in a more scholarly and consistent manner.
So Wilson's foray into Victorian history is rather like the fabled egg; good in parts but flawed in others.
on 8 April 2016
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. But if I saw this in a charity shop I would not have bought it for much less than that. The book is creased and a child has spoiled some inside pages with a biro pen, which could have either been described or, the condition of the book amended to be a bit more realistic. Still,when I have done with it, off to the charity shop it will go.