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The Victorians.

The Victorians. By A. N. Wilson. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Pp. xii, 724. $17.50.)

This highly imaginative survey of nineteenth-century Britons and their empire has crossed the Atlantic at a bargain price bearing high critical praise (by biographer Andrew Roberts) as "the best single-volume work on the Victorian age yet written." Before we engrave such words on a pedestal, we had best keep in mind that relatively few authors have sought to encompass the era while basing their works directly on both primary and the most authoritative secondary works. A. N. Wilson, a prolific novelist as well as the literary biographer of (among others) Sir Walter Scott, John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, Hilaire Belloc, and C. S. Lewis, appears scarcely daunted by the Herculean task. In consequence, he speeds through the decades in forty-three chapters, tackling with equal relish both familiar topics (such as the Chartists, the Great Exhibition, the Crimean War, the rise of Charles Stuart Parnell, Rudyard Kipling's India, and the Boer War) and topics less familiar, such as "The Victorians in Italy," "Mesmerism," and a truly remarkable juxtaposition, "The Devils-Wagner-Dostoyevsky-Gilbert and Sullivan."

The author is aware that on matters such as racial and gender equality it may be desirable to seek to understand the attitudes of his ancestors as well as to condemn them, but he is at his happiest when able to concur with Victorian critics of their own society--especially Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. He therefore presents us with a "Great Britain growing richer and more powerful by the decade, [but] coarsening in the process, and leaving the historian with a sense that only in its dissentient voices is redemption found" (120).

If Wilson's story boasts its share of heroes (they include so diverse a group as Prince Albert, Lord Shaftesbury, Benjamin Disraeli, Josephine Butler, Thomas Hardy, Cardinal Manning, and Charles Stewart Parnell), it includes a yet larger number of villains (or at least villainous doctrines). He dislikes, for example, Jeremy Bentham, Richard Cobden, Lord Palmerston, Cardinal Newman, Lord Randolph Churchill, Oscar Wilde, and Lord Kitchener. We are reminded repeatedly that the free market and the factory system "would in fact enslave," and even required "an army of near-slaves" (132, 148). Capitalist practices also "hugely increased the opportunities for adultery and heightened its dangers," and by the 1880s, they had helped turn the nineteenth century into "a mad ghost-train out of control" (235, 440). The author barely concedes in passing that in Great Britain proper there were over twice as many Victorians in 1900 as there had been in 1837 and that by then most were better-fed, better-clothed, better-housed, and far more mobile than they had been when the queen's reign began. He prefers to remind us that sharp distinctions in wealth and social status persisted and that a "people who built workhouses at the beginning of an era [in which to house Poor Law recipients] and concentration camps at the end [in which temporarily to house Boer War family members] might have gained the whole world, but they had lost honour, and soul" (613).

Most readers will acquire many an illuminating nugget of information from The Victorians--especially about the lives of authors and painters. At the same time, careful readers may be troubled by the unresolved contradictions and the numerous factual errors to be found in the work. Wilson strongly suggests, for example, that Queen Victoria was the illegitimate product of a liaison between Sir John Conroy, the equerry of Victoria's father, and Victoria's pious Lutheran mother and that the latter committed adultery within three months of having married the Duke of Kent specifically for the purpose of providing Britain's throne with a legitimate heir. Supporting evidence is not only completely absent, but the thesis also fails to account for the fact that, in all her pictures, Queen Victoria closely resembled her short and plump father and his brothers rather than the tall and angular Sir John.

Analogously, Sir Robert Peel's police force may not at once have reduced the property crime rate in metropolitan London, but did that crime rate not decline markedly in the course of the century? For that matter, was the domestic England of 1848, with its minuscule army, its four thousand policemen, and its numerous but highly temporary special constables truly "armed to the teeth" (119)? A deliberate paradox such as "Liberalism ... sharply reduced personal liberty" merits far more justification than Wilson ever supplies (38). One of the contemporaries who Wilson often cites is Karl Marx, who presumably would not have found refuge from Germany in Victorian London for well over three decades had his personal liberty been curbed unduly. The volume is filled with comparable obiter dicta that require far more detailed justification than Wilson appears able to provide [e.g., Having "enthroned Money, ... it was not surprising that they [the Victorians] lost their sense of God" (162)]. Must one simply ignore the results of the Religious Census of 1851 and numerous other testimonies to religious revival during the early and mid-Victorian eras? The fundamental "Irish Question" of 1886, Wilson proclaims, was "whether grotesquely few landlords should be allowed to go on squeezing the very life out of millions of Irish men, women, and children ..." (460). Did a distinct sense of Irish nationalism contribute not at all? And what of the role of the large-scale American grain farmers whose successful competition undermined markets for both Irish landlords and their tenants?

Finally, the book is replete with factual errors--especially on the (to Wilson mysterious) subject of Victorian parliamentary politics. Thus he is under numerous misapprehensions: that William Ewart Gladstone served as Palmerston's Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1855 and 1858--he did so for precisely three weeks; that Earl Derby defeated Earl Russell in a general election in 1866--there was none; that Disraeli transformed Victoria into Empress of India merely by adding a sentence to a speech--he was compelled to pilot the Royal Tides Bill through both Houses of Parliament; that the atheist Charles Bradlaugh ultimately gained entry into parliament by reciting an affirmation rather than by taking the oath--he took the oath; that Lord Rosebery, who succeeded Gladstone as prime minister in 1894, was a member of the Liberal Unionist Party--he was not (234, 331, 391, 449, 595).

Wilson has evoked the Victorian era in a lively and often provocative manner that may attract the attention of many a reader who comes fresh to that world. Had Wilson devoted a few months more to his ambitious project, he might have left his text with fewer obvious contradictions and blatant errors. His book might have become reliable as well as infectiously readable.

Walter L. Arnstein

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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Author:Arnstein, Walter L.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Words:1112
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