As a writer, A. N. Wilson is no stranger to monumental tasks. His magisterial biographies of Leo Tolstoy and C. S. Lewis, Jesus Christ and Saint Paul suggest he is undaunted by the challenge of traversing vast tracts of history and personality and undeterred by the fact that others may have been over his territory rather thoroughly before. To take on the better part of a century, to organize the tumultuous history of Victorian England—its sprawling events and richly complicated personalities—into a single coherent and readable volume requires a heroic grasp. Happily, in Wilson’s rewarding text he shows himself to be fully up to the job. His steady, wide-ranging vision, confidence, and boldness of conviction might even be characterized as “Victorian.”
The Victorians is an appropriately grand and lively affair, a triumphant collage of information on science and religion, economics and politics, popular culture and the arts. The narrative teems with piquant details but does not lack the broad shaping outlines which give the particulars real point. Wilson’s book is, as he says, a “portrait of the age,” a treatment reminiscent of earlier efforts to capture this protean era—the most famous of which is surely G. M. Young’s Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (1936). Like Young’s study—though on a much bigger scale—Wilson’s is an attempt to give a personal reading which traces the defining features of these eventful years, identifying common characteristics while still honoring the period’s insistent diversity, and to do this without nailing it all too tidily to a dominating thesis.
Wilson does have a thesis, of course, though it is not original and is largely unexceptionable: At the heart of the Victorian age there is a dichotomy, a fundamental two-mindedness. Look out at any point on the nineteenth century landscape and, he suggests, one will find coexistent oppositions: confidence and uncertainty, scientific clarity and moral bewilderment, smug optimism about progress and a paralyzing fear about its consequences, the headlong pull of the future and the nostalgic tug of the past. Whether it is the gothic excesses that drape new technologies (the first railway stations are vivid examples here) or the polarities that mark, say, John Ruskin as the father of socialism and the bluest of old Tories—the competing dualities (and the visible fissures they create) are there, putting a distinctive stamp on the period and its players.
As a result, Wilson proposes that a unique sort of doubt was the cultural experience from the 1840’s onward, from the assault on orthodoxy launched by Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) through the temblors caused by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) right up to the fin de siècleinstabilities precipitated by aesthetic revolutions, Irish Home Rule debates, and Boer War skirmishes. The carefully assembled and artfully delivered details of Wilson’s comprehensive chronicle amply support this claim of spiritual malaise going hand in hand with economic success and industrial progress. As the century unfolds, there is, in his view, a growing sense of something having gone alarmingly awry.
Wilson’s history is a series of riveting stories, vignettes that place unlikely events and characters into revealing juxtapositions to convey this dizzying sense of the continuities and disruptions that were the very texture of Victorian life. He makes much, for example, of the death of Thomas Malthus, the fires in the Houses of Parliament, and the voyage of the Beagle, all occurring in 1834, to highlight the crisis of population and what government and science will be doing about it. In 1837, it is the erection of Euston Station and the enthusiastic reception of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) that he pulls together to suggest the passing of the stagecoach, the emergence of the steam engine, and the instant (and persistent) nostalgia these developments triggered in the Victorian public.
This interweaving of incident and character, the locating of abstract issues in the lives of real people, is one of Wilson’s rhetorical signatures. The pathetic East End death of Ellen Green, age seven, in the first of the dreaded cholera epidemics launches his investigation of the links between poverty, trade, disease, and capital. The terrifying spread of cholera provides a memorable metaphor for the contagion of mammon. The Irish famine of...
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