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The Victorians by A. N. Wilson

The Victorians (2003)

by A. N. Wilson

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Comes highly recommended...I'm told not to be intimidated by its length, as it moves quickly, and it ties Victorian novels in a lot, which I love.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
Andrew Norman Wilson wrote a book Eminent Victorians and so did Lytton Strachey, but in the early 1900s, thereby confirming Strachey as an Eminent Victorian himself. However Wilson’s prose makes for an eminently more readable work, and in this panoramic study of the Victorian period he describes practically every single Victorian and historical event of the period worthy of note. The hundred-odd pages of references and source notes attest to the depth and breadth of his research, and it is obvious in reading the work that the author has spent years studying this period of history and he shows that he clearly knows the Victorian period.

It is his almost seemingly personal knowledge of these Victorian figures of history, invention, literature and politics – impossible of course as Wilson was not born until 1950 – that brings the book alive with insights. He brings a very human dimension to events as differing as the Irish Famine and the Zulu War and adds characteristics to the personalities that determined not only the British Victorian experience, but those of the whole Victorian Empire. The author explains how religion or atheism formed and distorted public and political values and how the literature of Dickens, Marx, and Tolstoy and even the fiction of the time eventually moved the poor into the conscience of the politicians and rulers.

Wilson shows how the Victorians were immensely successful in generating wealth and in inventions that removed labour from manufacturing, thereby adding to the working class poor and how, by their trading across the world, they ensured emigration and famine. Marx was always confounded that the riots and starvation of 1840 to 1850 never led to a British revolution while Europe was so deeply engrossed in so many. Wilson’s explanations on both the character of the British Victorians, their recent history and the emergence of valued and respected political leaders and (perhaps tardy) solutions staved off the revolt that many foretold.

This, the book jacket blurb says, was the book that Wilson was born to write. I have however enjoyed others he has written and look forward to adding more to my reading. This is a writer that you can respect, for his invested work on researching his subjects, and for his honesty and wit. This book is enjoyable historical writing in great depth.
  John_Vaughan | Jul 26, 2011 |
AN Wilson’s The Victorians is the longest and liveliest of the books which have appeared in the wake of the centenary of Victoria’s 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 author’s prejudices are at times the book’s weaknesses. Apart from Victoria’s Prime Ministers and the Irish nationalist leader, Parnell, Wilson doesn’t 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 ( )
1 vote | Alinea | May 16, 2011 |
Although I am not usually a great history reader, this book is easily the best of the genre I have ever read. Not only is it superbly written but it covers a huge range of the aspects of the era. Every important happening and person seems to be included from the arts, politics, science etc., etc. Definitely a masterpiece of the genre. ( )
  Mouldywarp | Jun 19, 2009 |
A miracle or mesmerism, empiricism or an existentialist crisis, crushing capitalist Darwinism or moral benevolence; A. N. Wilson takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the period in which our concept of the modern world was founded.

Beginning in the early years of the period as Victoria takes her throne, we travel through the atrocities of the Irish potato famine and the Chartist uprisings, encounter politicians and policemen of varying temperament and morality, and ponder the opposing contemporary attitudes of survival of the fittest and moral kindness towards humanity. We strive to imagine a world undergoing such intense economic growth in the face of grinding poverty, a period in which to be capitalist very often meant being liberal.

Wilson’s tour de force encompasses the popular practice of mesmerism, the religion doubt generated by scientific advancement, the preoccupation with zoos and the interest generated by the Great Exhibition. Always present is the sense of middle class ambition, the desire to advance both socially and economically, to push the boundaries of technological advancement. Yet every progression, every great leap, is underpinned by the colonial expansion of the Empire and the economic benefits of slavery loom large like a cloud of guilt over the age. Scientific theories such as phrenology are submitted as proof to endorse the concept of racial superiority and thus securing belief in the fallacy of imperialism as a positive benefit for native societies.

An age of terrific achievement and advancement underpinned by civil unrest and the atrocities of colonialism and war, the Victorians strove constantly onwards marching towards an idealised version of the progressive society. Sentiments like these cannot always be in accordance with our own view of the world, but they must at times be admired. Wilson’s text perfectly captures this Victorian paradox. ( )
  mrsradcliffe | May 29, 2008 |
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This high seriousness, though, is worn with a light touch, just as it was by many of the Victorians themselves (Disraeli is another of the book's unofficial heroes). Wilson has a sharp eye for the funny detail - the fact, for instance, that Prince Albert was tiny or that Engels had a broad Lancashire accent when he spoke English.
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Average: (3.73)
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