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on 29 November 2001
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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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. Not only were the crimes in almost every respect identical -- a GP who prescribed deadly medicines in order to obtain the inheritances of old ladies -- but the media and public response was pretty much the same as well.

Ultimately, this is a book of journalism written to prove a point, rather than a nuanced history weighing of the various positions. That said, Sweet does make a very compelling case, and it is hard to see the Victorians in quite the same light as well. The underlying picture of the age which he presents tallies with the latest social history view, for example presented in Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain.

If you're a fan of the Victorians and have spent a lot of time on Victorian social history, there is probably little in this book which will be new for you, and you probably already came to the same conclusions yourself. If you're a more general reader, though, this will be a real eye-opener to a century which is often disparaged and seldom understood.
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on 7 December 2001
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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on 2 March 2004
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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on 30 January 2007
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 down with misconceptions and outright falsehoods. This book serves to strip away away a lot of the nonsense that's said about the Victorians, and show us a different view of Queen Victorias day.

Provocative in the good sense of the word, it makes you think.

It may not be a formal history book, as an earlier reviewer said, but there are quite a few references and footnotes in the back. If you take a more than passing interesting in the period read the book, and then look up some of the works mentioned in the notes.

I should add something about the writing. The style is somewhat informal, the grammar is correct, it's easy to understand what is meant. A pleasant and informative read.
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on 22 May 2007
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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on 17 June 2012
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 static.

However, as previous reviewers have said, if you are knowledgeable about Victorian history, then you will already be aware that piano legs were not swathed in muslin for modesty's sake, and that Victorian society and the Victorian novel were quite as full of sex as any other, but even so, I still found this an interesting read, although I would take issue with Sweet's lack of nuance in his assessment of the position of women. Not to be unfair on him, though, I think such lack of subtlety in the arguments in this area is partly due to the constraints of a short book surveying a wide field, and attempting to counter received popular wisdom and unreflective opinion by vividly highlighting instances of where the opposite is true.

Although Sweet is academically qualified, this is not an academic book, but one for the general reader, written persuasively and entertainingly to advance his opinions (which are not unsound). As another reviewer pointed out, it is not an academic book, in the sense of evenhandedly balancing a range of detailed sources or focusing in detail on a specific area, but all the same it would be an interesting overview for a new student to read, in that he introduces a range of ideas and does indicate his sources, both primary and secondary. From the academic point of view, though, it is important to remember that the book is over ten years old at the time of writing, and many secondary sources even older, so there have been developments in academic thinking since then.

But this is neither here nor there for the general reader - if you have any sort of interest in Victorian history, this book is certainly worth reading, and if you are not well versed in the subject you will find the overturning of the cliched version of nineteenth-century history you have read over the years both entertaining and amusing by turns. And if you consider yourself an expert, Sweet has uncovered all sorts of interesting obscurities which ensure that there is something new for everyone!
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Perhaps no other era in British history is subject to quite as much stereotyping and myth-making as that of the Victorians. We acknowledge the contribution they made to our lives, the legacy they have bequeathed in the forms of bridges, buildings, roads, museums and theatres, the Empire, but to a very large extent we still dismiss what they represented to themselves.

As Matthew Sweet ably points out,,the Victorians are what we define ourselves against. It is in rebelling against Victorian strictures that we have created our supposedly more free, more permissive, more relaxed, modern society. After all, that's how we see the Victorians, isn't it? Stodgy. Uptight. Repressed. Hypocritical. Humourless. Patriarchal. Straight-laced. Everything we aspire not to be be.

But Sweet explodes a lot of these myths, highlighting exhaustively just how wrong much of this actually is. He chronicles Victorian attitudes to sex, crime, drugs, pornography, the family, children, sensational journalism, publicity stunts, homosexuality - much of which appears surprisingly 'modern' to our eyes. When one ventures off the beaten path of historical research, there is an astonishing wealth of material still housed in libraries, museums and archives that demonstrate how often the Victorians were there ahead of us in the search for the new and modern. Perhaps we owe more to the Victorians than just our architecture and infrastructure...
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on 2 January 2002
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. It is reseached brilliantly with fascinating detail covering a broad spectrum of Victorian culture and values without being overbearing and completely without prejudice.
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VINE VOICEon 8 February 2011
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 contemporary sources, that is, Nineteenth century sources, and exposing the layers of subsequent accusations of hypocrisy and cant placed on our ancestors by later commentators. The Victorians didn't drape piano legs through a misplaced sense of decency; the Queen did not say "Lie back and think of England"; Ruskin wasn't appalled into impotency by discovering that his wife had pubic hair! These, mostly hilarious, calumnies and many others are the result of speculation and sheer invention on the part of generally Twentieth century writers, beginning with Lytton Strachey.

Matthew Sweet writes with wit and passion, and his final chapter is a plea to all of us to think again about what we owe to the Victorians. Thankfully since the book was published a number of other writers and television programme makers have started to reassess the period.

One final observation about this excellent book - it is hugely entertaining and full of great stories.
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