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Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet

Inventing the Victorians (2001)

by Matthew Sweet

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199392,925 (3.58)2
"In 1918, Lytton Strachey declared that 'the history of the Victorian age will never be written. We know too much about it.' But he wasn't quite right. The real problem is this: we have systematically forgotten many of the most interesting and distinctive aspects of the period, and much of what we think we know about it is utterly false, fabricated in the twentieth century and lazily accepted as truth ever since." "Spot the deliberate fiction on this list: Queen Victoria had a Nigerian god-daughter; William Gladstone once knocked back so much laudanum that he had to go to Baden Baden to recuperate; the flourishing Victorian porn industry was founded by a group of Chartists who wanted to use sexually explicit material to hasten the British Revolution; Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, negotiated a fifty-fifty box office split with his management team; Britain's first black professional footballer was Arthur Wharton, who played in goal for Preston North End and Rotherham in the 1880s and 90s; Sarah Grand, the author of the phenomenal 1890s bestseller The Heavenly Twins, fronted a publicity campaign for Sanatogen; sexually, Oscar Wilde was a pretty regular Victorian guy." "As this radical myth-busting reassessment of the Victorians and their world demonstrates, the answer is: none of the above."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)



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If you believe that the Victorians were so prudish that they covered up their table and piano legs with chintz, that Queen Victoria refused to believe that lesbians existed or that Prince Albert had a ring through his penis, then you need to read this book to put you straight. Matthew Sweet not only debunks these myths but also shows how many aspects (particularly the worst ones) of modern day society had their foundations in the Victorian era. Things such as the worst excesses of advertising and cold calling, the cult of celebrity, the fascination with serial killers and violent crime, the prevalence of paedophilia.
This is well-written popular history with a wealth of fascinating anecdotes many of which will be new even to readers who already have some knowledge of the period. Ultimately, the book is a bit too populist to make a thorough enough case for its main premise - that historians often often promulgate the worst and most basic stereotypes of the previous era to make people of the present day feel better about themselves. He entertainingly shows how this will be done for our present new Elizabethan era in the final chapter. ( )
  stephengoldenberg | Apr 6, 2016 |
Sweet sets out to prove that the Victorians were not so different from us. He has a point: they were the beginning of the current industrialized, urban-oriented society we live in today. To this day many of the phrases, assumptions, and phenomena (sex scandals as news, professional sports teams, advertising techniques) from that era remain.
Unfortunately, Sweet is good at research but bad and piecing it together. He lards the text with heaps of anecdotes and snide asides, makes wild assumptions, then contradicts himself only paragraphs later. His logic is faulty at best, and laughably insane at worst. One chapter he maintained that prostitution was not as common as historians think; the very next chapter he talks about how very prevelent prostitution was, and how this proves that Victorians were open minded about sex. He also spends at least 20% of the book talking about current events in a very hack-journalist sort of way: half the chapter on Victoria journalists' use of sex to sell newspapers is actually about Sweet's momentary glimpse of Monica Lewinsky. The chapter closes with a cigar joke. God I hate him.

"Although Virginia Woolf claimed to have found her visit to the movies in January 1915 'very boring,' it is doubtful whether she would have found the freedom to cut and splice the chronology of her narratives without the example of the cinematograph." wtf? don't mess with the Woolf. Almost every chapter contains an attempt to chip away at the Bloomsbury group--luckily Sweet sucks, so it's hard to take his nuggets of cruelety and poor logic seriously.
Note: According to the British Board of Film Censors, in 1912, the list of 22 reasons for which a film might be cut or censored included "medical operations," indecorous dancing," "native customs in foreign lands abhorrent to British ideas," staggering drunkards," or "funerals."
( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
Thoroughly enjoyable read on a wide cross section of Victorian era myths and facts. ( )
  J.v.d.A. | Jul 3, 2007 |
Showing 3 of 3
From Library Journal
This fun, iconoclastic read from a British journalist and recent Ph.D. shows that stereotypes of Victorian society don't bear scrutiny. Sweet uses Victorian books, periodicals, memoirs, and advice manuals to counter the myths of a strait-laced, repressed, patriarchal, and gloomy culture. Through an analysis of historical pop culture, Victorians are uncovered as progressive, sexually confused, high-tech, sensation-seeking media junkies. Sweet concludes that the Victorians invented "modernity" and reveals various oft-quoted "facts" to be false. Piano legs, for example, were not modestly hidden, nor legs called limbs; and Queen Victoria had no connection with drafting the amendment criminalizing male "indecent acts" the sponsor merely hoped to reduce buggery's penalty. Sweet points out that mainstream pornography at that time depicted men having same-sex couplings as preludes to male-female sex and that one-third of women were in the formal workforce (favored in the then technologically advanced areas of telegraphy and typing). This book can be enjoyed by a wide audience and is essential reading for 19th-century history buffs and professionals. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
added by TheoClarke | editLibrary Journal, Nigel Tappin
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