EMINENT VICTORIANS is the second of three new books by the prolific young British writer A.N. Wilson to be published in the United States in 1990, the other two being C.S. LEWIS: A BIOGRAPHY, the best available life of Lewis, and the novel A BOTTLE IN THE SMOKE, the second installment of a projected trilogy. Despite this extraordinarily productive pace, EMINENT VICTORIANS shows no sign of strain.
Wilson takes his title from Lytton Strachey’s famous book published in 1918. The original EMINENT VICTORIANS presented wickedly satirical portraits of Dr. Thomas Arnold, Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, and General Charles George Gordon (best known as Chinese Gordon). Enormously influential not only in its treatment of the Victorian age but also in its approach to biography, Strachey’s EMINENT VICTORIANS is, in the 1990’s, a book more often cited than read, particularly in the United States, where it is unlikely that one of a hundred English majors has actually read Strachey’s book.
Wilson’s EMINENT VICTORIANS is intended as a corrective to Strachey’s condescension, though it is an homage to Strachey as well. Wilson’s real target is not Strachey but rather the stereotypical and self-serving use of the label “Victorian,” whether pejorative or honorific. For his subjects Wilson has assembled a deliberately eclectic group of three men and three women: Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria; Charlotte Bronte, the author of JANE EYRE; William Ewart Gladstone, the outstanding British prime minister of the nineteenth century; John Henry Newman, one of the leading religious and social thinkers of the period; Josephine Butler, feminist and Evangelical reformer whose work on behalf of prostitutes and young children procured and abused for sexual purposes anticipated revelations of pervasive child abuse a century later; and Julia Margaret Cameron, pioneering photographer whose legacy includes many of our most vivid images of the Victorian era.
Rather than forcing the evidence to make these six figures fit some grand thesis, Wilson suggests by the very diversity of his examples that we still have much to learn about, and from, the Victorians.