'"It is a privilege to live in this age of brilliant and rapid events. What an error to consider it a utilitarian age! It is one of infinite romance! Thrones tumble down, and crowns are offered, like a fairy tale, and the most powerful people in the world male and female were, a few years past, but adventurers, exiles and demireps [prostitutes]..."'
My non-fiction reading has gone very well thus far - three fat tomes in two months: the Pepys book, Juliet Nicholson's A Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911 and The Victorians by A.N. Wilson. The latter has kept me busy for nigh on four weeks though - a very long time in my reading calender - and despite Wilson's 619 excellently packed pages of vignette and historical hyperbole, I've felt an inevitable eagerness to be done. A few days ago Dorothy bemoaned her impatience to finish one book and 'get on' to the next one, and I can sympathise entirely. How many Victorians can one absorb in a month? I think, perhaps, a dozen; Wilson offers literally hundreds. He manages his monstrous scope - the social, cultural and political history of a 60 year period - with aplomb, but has left me struggling to digest such a glut.
In October 1834 the Palace of Westminster, in which the English/British Parliament - Commons and Lords - had sat since the late middle ages, burnt down. A fire had been set by workman in the stove in the House of Lords; its purpose had been to destroy the abundence of wooden tallies, used to calculate tax since the 12th century, which were cluttering up the crypt. The sticks set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords, the House of the Lords to the Commons and, before long, the buildings were reduced to ashes.* What was not destroyed was wantonly pulled down and a competition announced to design and rebuild it. The winners were Sir Charles Barry and the delightfully named Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who set about constructing the Gothic chambers that we know today.
Wilson uses this progression of events - destruction, creation and reincarnation - to characterise the changes beginning to take place in 'Victorian' Britain, several years before the death of William IV and the accession of the eponymous Queen in 1837. For him the new Houses of Parliament symbolised something essential about the Victorian age, its ideologies and principles - the late Gothic aesthetic, mingled alarmingly with Tudor design and Victorian lines suggests the collision (and collusion) of old and new worlds:
'These buildings say, on the one hand, we are as new as paint. We are so self-confidently new that we are prepared to pull down some of the historic old rooms which survived the fire. On the other hand they say that, like the lineage of Sir Leicester Dedlock, we are old as the hills and infinitely more respectable.'
Victorian Britain, he suggests, was characterised and shaped by such duologies: the rural and the urban, the agricultual and the industrial, the Catholic and the Anglican, the baroque and the repressed.
Wilson goes on to introduce the two men that, more than any others, he considers the cultural prophets of this dichotomous age: Charles Dickens, whose first serialised novel The Pickwick Papers was finished in 1837, and Thomas Carlyle, who published his enormously influential history of the French Revolution in the same year. Both wrote about the state of relationships and the balance of power between the working class, the industrial bourgeosie and the aristocratic wardens of the ancien regime. Both considered their era to be one of enormous social and political upheaval - both were disturbed and thrilled by its implications.
The passing of the Reform Act in 1832 had changed the electoral landscape of the country, not only by increasing the franchise by some half a million men but by raising political awareness. At the same time the urban population was burgeoning; the Union movement was establishing itself in the industrial heartlands; working men's education schemes were picking up pace; and factory reformers and hygenists were highlighting the plight of Britain's poor. By the 1850s and 60s power was beginning the filter down the social ladder. Successive reform bills extended the vote further, and further, and by 1892, when the first working class Labour MP, Keir Hardie, took his seat in the Commons wearing his tweed suit and cloth cap, the political landscape of Britain had changed irrevocably. The Liberal and Conservative parties, previously dominated by aristocrats and members of the land-owning gentry, were losing ground to the progressives: the socialists, Fabians, suffragists and the growing Labour party. It was a long, slow revolution, certainly, but a revolution nevertheless.
Wilson is fascinated by the nature of these gradual changes to British political life. He points out that, while the rest of Europe convulsed in violent revolution in the 1840s, Britain avoided internal conflict. It kept its monarchy and its state of union; it kept its cool and it remained ideologically aloof. It chose to distance itself from its closest neighbours - vaguely supporting Italian and then German unification; watching the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and the machinations surrounding the Spanish succession without flinching. Instead it set its sights further afield, providing the second key narrative of The Victorians: Imperialism.
In this regard Wilson agrees with Disraeli: 'Britain is less a European power than an Asiatic one'. All of its major 19th century conflicts occured at a distance - most famously and disastrously in the Crimea (1854-56) but also in Afghanistan - once, and then twice - in India, in Sudan and in South Africa. It is one of the most discomforting facts of history that such a little island should turn so much of the world map red, in such a short period of time, with both blood and conquest. Much more disturbing though is the zeal with which it set about doing so - the colonial lust for wealth, power and converts was matched only by an unwavering belief in the superiority of the British race and its duty to bring 'civilisation' to the world.
At home the Empire, as it grew, was extroadinarily popular and fast became the bedrock of Victorian identity; dozens of boys' adventure stories were written on its back with the colonial officer transformed into a figure of bravery, honour and daring-do. Still, unrest closer to home somewhat spoiled the image of Britain as a Master of the World - the perennial troubles in Ireland were exacerbated by terrible famine in the 1850s and, fanned by political activism later in the century, caused major schism amongst Liberals and Conservatives alike. The question of Irish independence ('Home Rule') was troubled by issues of pride and power that were centuries old, and Wilson does a good job at untangling the skein of history surrounding it.
It is a pity then that he does less well at describing the Victorian political scene more generally. His book's strength is in vignette - snapshots of events, ideals, individuals, cultural instances - but this often leaves the reader chronologically adrift. Throughout the period power shifted frequently between a small number of vitally important men, Disraeli and Gladstone chief amongst them. But while Wilson does a masterful job with portraits of these figures he fails to provide context. I had little sense of when Gladstone was and was not PM, or when Disraeli or Salisbury were in the ascendent; I had no clear understanding of authority changing hands, or of the country's trajectory. The Victorians is not the place to go for such pedestrian narrative: its grand schema is built on individuals and not chronology. No doubt this suits the form and purpose popular history well enough, but perhaps a timeline would have helped with the disorientation - particularly since I knew very little about the broad sweep of events before I started reading. A focus on this event or that scene is terribly entertaining but runs the risk of alienating an historical novice.
Wilson is also an incorrigable sentimentalist, and very fond of definite pronouncements. He introduces his actors with great hyperbolic statements, like 'She was a genius', or 'he was amongst the greatest political minds of his generation', or, on at least one occasion, 'he was an idiot.' Often such pronouncements stand alone, unsubstantiated but repeated. I admit that this concretisation of Wilson's judgement is exciting - it transports you into the presence of a whole host of super-extroadinary people - but it is so frequently employed that doubt creeps in. Why be so emphatic? Shouldn't the evidence stand for itself? In my experience, historians only make definite pronouncements when they're either a) unconvinced by their own arguement, or b) overconvinced by it. Wilson falls into the latter category. He identifies so strongly with his period, and has immersed himself so thoroughly, that his awe is palpable. His understanding and analysis is ambitious; his research is exhaustive and his style is compelling; but he is more of a storyteller than a historian. There is always a hint of nostalgic fantasy to his project. Toward the end of the book he gives over several pages to a meditation on his Victorian yearnings:
'It is difficult for me to conceive of any more agreeable way of life than that of the Victorian country parson. If I had to chose my ideal span of life, I should chose to be born in the 1830s, the son of a parson with the genetic inheritance of strong teeth. I should avoid a public school education through being 'delicate', and arrive at Balliol with a good knowledge of Greek taught by Benjamin Jowett. After a short spell - say, five years - teaching undergraduates at the Varsity, one of them would introduce me to his pretty, bookish sister, and we should be married. I should resign my fellowship and be presented with a college living, preferably a medieval church, a large draughty Georgian rectory and glebe enough to provide the family with subsistence.'
And so it goes on for several pages, laying down how he and his wife would converse, how many children they would have and the kinds of sermons he would preach. This is strange kind of soliloquy - honest and disturbing at the same time. It shows quite clearly how Wilson envisages Victorian Britain, how he fictionalises and narrativises its history - he views it though the prism of Dickens, Gaskell, the Brontes, even Austen. He has a great affection for the social romanticism of Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris. In short, there is something very Victorian about him.
And the more I think about it, the more I think he would quite like my saying so. Although The Victorians works very hard to balance the cultural and ideological highlights of the 19th century with its attendants hardships and horrors, it can't help being a paean to an 'extroadinary age'. Wilson is vitally fascinated by his subject and thus lively, affectionate and wistful - he is rarely, if ever, objective, but he writes eagerly and passionately. That must be a recommendation in itself.
*Incidentally, as a Jewish historian I have more reason to lament the burning of the tallies than the Palace itself - amongst them were the records and calculations of the 'tallages' paid by medieval Jews and also, more than likely, notices of the many fines they made for various privileges and offences. It could have been an extroadinary and rich source for Anglo-Jewish history.