We commonly approach the past with a selfie stick. We insert ourselves into it. We crash the party that we haven’t been invited to, get drunk and vomit on the host’s carpet. We exaggerate the importance of outliers, if the positions of those odd men or women out happen to accord with our own views. If we are in favor of a reform, we telescope it and pretend it was adopted faster than it was and that it enjoyed more support and popularity than it really had. And we’re likely to look the other way if we see something that contradicts our assumptions.
After reading the biography of twentieth century writer Penelope Fitzgerald by Hermione Lee, I wanted to follow up and read more about an era that that was formative to her sensibility and that of her family. So I picked up The Victorians by A. N. Wilson which is said to be the best book on the subject.
Having some informed understanding of the Victorians is tough for Americans. Oh, we think we understand but we don’t. We are too far removed from the social and cultural context. It’s not our background except remotely and by long distance. This book is written principally with a British reader in mind and takes a certain basal knowledge of British traditions and politics for granted that an American would not have.
But it’s not impossible to scramble and keep up, especially if you’re an anglophile. Although I was less of one after completing the book. And I shook my head in wonder, this was the funniest part of my reading experience, when Wilson assumed I had read Kingsley’s Water Babies. I think it’s too late for that now.
There are forty-three chapters in The Victorians arranged in six parts. The first part contains the early background and each subsequent part covers a decade, from the 1850’s to the 1890’s and the conclusion of the era. Some of the chapters, like ‘Famine in Ireland’ or ‘India 1857-9’ would stand as outstanding independent essays on their subjects. Other chapters have a more complex branching function and cover more disparate ground. I was never less than entertained and impressed by the quality of the content. Occasionally, Wilson goes off the beam, or what could be considered such for so disciplined a performer, and interjects more personal remarks. I would have been happy for more of these. But I was glad for what I got.
I remember having been introduced to the subject of the Irish Famine in a grammar school history class. We were told that the Irish had starved because of a potato blight and because they had relied on that one crop for their subsistence. My teacher wouldn’t have mentioned, as Wilson does, that corn was exported out of Ireland while people were starving and that there had been riots at the docks to prevent the exports. Nor would my teacher have mentioned that the system of tenancy impoverished many of the Irish and left them more vulnerable to hunger. We don’t go in for moral ambiguity when we teach kids history. It’s quite a problem, however, when as adults we retain the same attitude.
So what I learned in my young school days was to blame the victim. As for moral ambiguity, there’s little else in Wilson’s account of the Victorians. If as an adult you entertain what’s basically an immense sentimentality towards the Victorians, you’ll receive from Wilson a corrective that you need to have on how messy and contradictory human motives and politics can be. The Victorians is history without the smiley faces.
For example, you probably know that children worked in factories and mines for a portion of the Victorian era. And it’s impossible not to call it class war when you understand, of course, that middle class children didn’t work in factories or mines. Middle class children had “childhood” which I put in quotes because the Victorians rightly get credit for laying the foundation of our concept of childhood. This is the culture that gave us Peter Pan, Lewis Carroll and yes, the infamous Water Babies.
Child labor was eventually outlawed. But here’s where the simplification of history leads us to moral evasion. It wasn’t outlawed all at once. The first reform efforts with respect to child labor sought to limit children’s work hours, not eliminate the practice. And those limits were easy for managers to evade. From our perspective, there’s little difference in cutting a child’s work hours in a mine or factory. The child is still in place in the work environment. But many, probably most Victorians, didn’t see it that way. A common opinion was that it was unjust to deprive a child and his family of the freedom to put the child to work. And since the majority of middle class Victorians, as the prime beneficiaries, were laissez faire on economics…if the market wanted children to work, then they should work.
On the subject of women’s rights, you probably know that the Victorian era was a man’s world. When a woman married, any property she owned became the property of her husband. I didn’t realize that the custody of the children also devolved to the father. A husband, if he wished, could legally bar a mother from seeing her children…and this happened in cases where the marriage was rocky. Wilson gives a touching example of it.
Reforms were gradual and controversial. Universal suffrage…and I mean for men…wasn’t achieved until early in the twentieth century. Throughout the 19th century, reforms gradually extended the franchise. But it took time for Britain to actually become a democracy. It was a common and very respectable opinion to consider it a bad idea to let a lot of people vote.
It often seemed to me in reading The Victorians that the people I admired the most, who seemed like shining stars in the Victorian firmament, were in many ways outsiders or held opinions that were at a considerable variance with the bulk of the population.
Gladstone seemed to me such a stick in the mud. But Disraeli glitters like the incongruous star he was. What a privilege it must have been to vote for that consummate politician! Wilson quotes him as considering Britain an Asian rather than a European power, a canny observation. And I would love to read a Disraeli novel sometime. I think of him as a conservative Gore Vidal, only more practical and electable.
The modesty of Charles Darwin’s demeanor must have made it even more likely that you would have been gobsmacked by his theories. Wilson considers, I believe, that the theory of natural selection is still the most decisive scientific theory of our time. Imagine venturing that theory upon the Victorians! I greatly admire the Victorian capacity to allow independent thinkers to question their most basic assumptions.
General Gordon, who held out as long as he could in Khartoum, seems like a dinosaur to me, a man in the wrong place attempting to affirm an outmoded imperial ideology. But no man in Victorian England was more admired, or even as admired.
In some respects I consider Victoria, who had the age named after her, as something of a rebel. Wilson tells a story of how an aristocratic woman said she had nearly fainted at the sight of an African child. The Victorians on the domestic front didn’t experience or want any degree of diversity. Victoria thought the incident with the black child was funny. She was always more respectful and tolerant of the cultural and ethnic differences of her colonial subjects than the overwhelming majority of her own people.
When considering atrocities committed under the Raj, Wilson has a fine discussion which seems to boil down to who committed inhumane acts first in India, the British or the native population. Pausing for a moment to state the obvious, he notes that the British had interposed themselves there in the first place.
Some rationale of their colonial presence we can understand, like territorial and personal ambition, empire building, the pursuit of wealth, and the sheer surplus of energy and force that I want to call Victorian, which had to express itself until it was spent. The bedrock conviction of the Victorians, that they were spiritually, culturally and racially superior to the world they administered, was never seriously questioned to my knowledge. White man’s burden, that unbelieveable doctrine, unbelievable, unacceptable and offensive to most of us.
On the cultural front, it’s interesting that Wilson points out how mean-spirited Gilbert and Sullivan operettas could be. So the Brits had Gilbert and Sullivan but the Germans had Wagner. Wilson tells the story of Wagner’s visit to London. In contrast to the later antagonism, German culture, science and ideas were highly regarded by the Victorians.
The Pre-Raphaelites seem like an attractive bore when you compare them with the dynamism of what was going on in Paris in the arts. And I know the art, craft and ideas of William Morris were important but it’s hard for me to get into it. I know those artistic and intellectual currents were of vital interest for generations in England. They were important to writer Penelope Fitzgerald and her family, which was the original reason I wanted to read The Victorians. For me they seem expressions of a provincial imagination, but maybe provincial in the best sense. Perhaps I’ll change my mind someday. I hope so. Liking rather than loving art is not my style.
On the other hand, Wilson made me angry when he expressed less than total enthusiasm for Dickens, a writer I revere…or the writer I revere. I guess I don’t mind when A. N. Wilson challenges someone else’s sentimentality but object when he challenges my own.
Wilson’s section on Oscar Wilde is absorbing. The Victorians excelled at looking the other way. The ultimate crime was not staying in the closet. What you were doing while inside the closet wasn’t as important. The Victorians invented the newspaper age. They invented public opinion. Or at least they permanently established the importance of such things.
I finally gained some understanding of the Crimean and Boer wars, those wasteful and tragic Victorian adventures. Of course, the Victorians didn’t take them that way. To most contemporaries they were heroic and patriotic quests. The twin motives for the conflicts seemed to be a fatal combination of national paranoia and greed.
The Victorian industrial age gave an unprecedented number of people material adequacy or outright affluence. Great Britain was amazingly wealthy in this period. The landed aristocracy compromised and allowed newly anointed industrial magnates into their circle, helping to stave off revolution and excessive ressentiment with this demonstration of social flexibility.
Then this aggregate middle and upper class locked their gates, prominent squares were fenced off, and most everybody who was comfy tried to ignore everyone who wasn’t. But if reforms were necessary for the society to survive, then there were reforms.
Look, it’s a brilliant book. Everybody says so. It’s complex and dazzling. You’re given the freedom by A. N. Wilson to have your own opinion, and I haven’t spared you my own. A. N. Wilson is a gentle writer. “Gentle” in the sense of civilized, forbearing and fair. I purchased my copy of his tome, first published in the U.S. by W. W. Norton. I always like to give the publisher due credit. It’s now available in trade paper. I’d like to read it again.