History Books

 A N Wilson's Victorians

It would not be hard to imagine a book of the same length and title as A. N. Wilson's The Victorians (Norton: 2003) that contained significantly different material. No single volume, of course, could do real justice to the social, political, and technological developments that transformed the predominantly rural and emphatically small-government England of 1837, the year in which Victoria became Queen, and the teeming dominions as whose Empress she died in 1901, and Mr Wilson has not attempted anything so encyclopedic. On the surface, his book is a somewhat irregular buffet of long and short chapters, and the long ones abound in extended tangents. Even more artificial is the bundling of these chapters into six groups, one for each decade of the reign. While Mr Wilson does claim to locate the spirit or feeling that distinguished each decade from the others, and is certainly interested in change,  his organizational scheme is so ad hoc that he might have dispensed with it altogether, and perhaps he might have done so were it not for the terror that an undemarcated text of over six hundred pages would strike in the hearts of most contemporary readers. In short, this is a Victorian book, one man's omnium gatherum of interesting personages and their scandals, movements, and campaigns. Not surprisingly, in view of Mr Wilson's earlier output, religious matters, especially those of a high-church character, receive a great deal of attention - this is the book to consult if you want to brush up on the Tractarians, the Puseyites, and the differences between Cardinals Newman and Manning - while the era's prodigious technological advances (as I think we can still call them) are somewhat taken for granted. The Literature and the arts rarely come up except to illustrate philosophical or political issues, and even then the personalities of the artists occlude discussion of their work. (The drawings of Aubrey Beardsley and the novels of Benjamin Disraeli make interesting exceptions.) I don't mean any of this dismissively; I don't wish that The Victorians were a different book. Someone else can always write that different book, although it's unlikely that anyone could grasp as firmly and as simultaneously as Mr Wilson does both the period under review and the period in which he is living.

The 1860s witnessed the crystallization of the two-party system, with the former Tory Gladstone at the head of the Liberals and the farsighted Disraeli piloting the Conservatives - and piloting them away from their traditional base among the landed gentry and toward the suburban middle class. From the vantage of 2003, the differences between the two parties seem almost infinitesimal, perhaps entirely factitious. As Mr Wilson never lets us forget, Victorian politics was an overwhelmingly upper-class affair. Possibly the most frustrated politician of the period was the Lord Hartington of the day, known as 'Harty-Tarty.' A humorless but earnest Liberal, Hartington fully expected to take over the leadership of the Liberal Party after Gladstone's defeat and apparent retirement in 1874, only to be disappointed when Gladstone's grandstanding about the ' Bulgarian atrocities' - don't ask - engineered his return to power by acclamation. In the end, Hartington was driven into the Conservative fold by Gladstone's stand on Irish Home Rule. As the Conservatives were already commanded by another grandee, the Marquess of Salisbury, descendant of Elizabeth's right-hand man, William Cecil, Harty-Tarty never got the top job. He did, however, become the 8th Duke of Devonshire, when the seventh duke died in 1891. It was only in the following year that actual working men, John Burns and Keir Hardie, won seats in the Lower House. One is not surprised, then, when Mr Wilson concludes that, despite four franchise-extending Reform Bills, the Victorian Parliament was an essentially conservative body, inclined by nature to resist change.

Those who believe that Parliament is an institution with a serious political function might be surprised that the first woman member to take her seat did not do so until 1919 and that the proportion of men to women in Parliament is still in the twenty-first century overwhelming. But this is one of the many issues where the real agents of change were extra-parliamentary. Women's colleges, trade unions, the churches, the cells of non-parliamentary political groups and - in time of war - the meeting-together of people in ships, squadrons and regiments were all far more effective agents of change in Britain than any political party pre-1945 - arguably beyond. The function of Parliament was to preserve the power of the political classes, and this in effect meant the Rich. 481

While the elite that runs Parliament today is no longer aristocratic in composition, not very much else has changed since Hartington's day.

If The Victorians has a single overarching theme, it is the gradual abandonment, heartily approved by the author, of the simplicities of Benthamite utilitarianism that promised, at the beginning of Victoria's reign, to produce a shiny new world of prosperous contentment for most, but not all, of England's people.

Bentham ... may be seen as the father of Victorian realpolitik. The 'greatest happiness of greatest numbers' theory was based on the callous but realistic view that pleasing everyone is impossible. The secret of a stable society is to isolate and emasculate the miserable.38

Utilitarianism had its laissez-faire face - the one that it turned toward the regulation of business - but the face that it turned toward common people was mightily interfering. By 1860, the Merrie England of loose social control (backed up by the harshest criminal code in Europe, with two hundred capital crimes) had been replaced by a busybody government bent on 'improving' the lower orders whether they wanted improvement or not. Most of that structure remains in place: our extensive criminal justice system (ranging from police to prisons), our equally confining system of public education, and the periodic prohibition of exciting substances and pastimes are all part of the Victorian legacy, and they are still regarded by many as progressive in nature. Mr Wilson thinks differently, although he is sly about expressing this. 

[Industrial era] poverty - so the governing classes of the 1830s and 1840s uneasily began to feel - was their responsibility, in the sense of being both their creation and their duty. The virtuous parliamentarians, journalists, civil servants, wiseacres surveyed the condition of the poor and felt duty-bound to do something; to clean up the poor, to tidy them away, to improve them. These were profoundly un-Tory sentiments and the poor resented them.36

As the century wore on, the heartlessness of utilitarianism became clearer to more and more people, and the brunt of regulation gradually swung the other way, toward the limitation of unbridled business.  But the pace was glacial. 

One of the late chapters,  a thirty-page survey of decadence, mysticism, and idealism that ranges from Annie Besant to Bertrand Russell, with a thoughtful consideration of Oscar Wilde's self-inflicted downfall,  is entitled 'Appearance and Reality.' The contrast between appearances - particularly the impression that the Victorians have made on subsequent eras - and reality is another theme of The Victorians. The Victorian period is widely remembered as a time of hypocrisy. Mr Wilson makes a good case, cumulatively, for regarding the discrepancy between what Victorians said and what they did, between what they thought their actions meant and the actual consequences of those actions, as a tension between a manic commitment to positive thinking and the muffled awareness of inevitable lapses. Having inherited the compulsion to improve ourselves and everything around us, we ought to be less censorious of Victorian shortcomings. Surely the worst disaster of the Victorian period, moreover, involved no hypocrisy whatsoever. This was the Irish famine of the late 1840s, the subject of another of Mr Wilson's rich considerations. While arguing that no conceivable government of the day could have done much to alleviate the catastrophe, Mr Wilson is far less sparing of individual Englishmen, who smugly looked down on the Irish as having brought the blight upon themselves. 

The economic structure of a society in which [most Irish] could afford a quarter or half an acre on which to grow a spud while the Duke of Devonshire owned Lismore, Bolton (and half of Yorkshire), Chatsworth (and ditto Derbyshire), the whole of Eastbourne and a huge palace in London was not of the Irish peasant's making.83

One Victorian who could certainly not be charged with hypocrisy was the Queen herself. Erratic and overexcited Victoria might often be, but pretence of any kind was utterly foreign to her. This is not to say that she failed to insist on the punctilio attending royals. But one senses that she forced herself to insist. Indeed, she complained of being unable to resign, like her prime ministers. Strewn throughout The Victorians is a cool assessment of the woman whom the author claims to have been a bastard, the child of her mother's Irish lover. Equally interesting is Mr Wilson's argument against Prince Albert's legitimacy. Prince Albert is one of the real heroes of this book, and if the author does not lament his passing quite as much as his widow did - that would not be possible - he certainly regrets it. Albert was unquestionably Victoria's better half, and after his death she simply shirked as many of her responsibilities as she could, while squirreling away her Civil List grants. She probably would have tut-tutted the impropriety of her relations with John Brown and, later, the Indian servant known as 'the Munshi' - not that there was really anything to hide - had some other member of her family indulged in them, but it is clear that she honestly didn't see the harm in what she was doing, and, after all, she was the Queen. 

Are we the hypocrites? 

It is easy for those who come in after time to say what is wrong with a society, or a country, not their own. Those who have lived through a twentieth century whose wars slew and displaced tens of millions can easily, for some reason, turn a blind eye to the faults of their own generation and excoriate the Victorians, whose wars killed thousands.617

Although a truly colossal amount of erudition went into this book, its tone is personal rather than objective. Mr Wilson never talks about himself, but the character of his intelligence is stamped on every page. The Victorians is more travelogue than history; what it most resembles is an album of intriguing photographs magnificently assembled in loose chronological order. I do not mean to suggest that The Victorians is a light book. Like Simon Schama's An Embarrassment of Riches, The Victorians presupposes a passing acquaintance with the bare bones of nineteenth-century English history. For all its lightness of touch, it remains a deeply shadowed book, and I suspect that several readings will be required to tease out Mr Wilson's judgments - even though they may turn out to be somewhat too complex to be called judgments. That would be because he has dealt not with issues or trends or movements but with actual Victorians, all whom he brings to life in this aptly crowded volume. (July 2003)

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