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Thursday, August 22, 2013

"The Victorians", by A.N. Wilson

752 pages, Arrow Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-0099451860
Despite his not being a trained historian or academic, Wilson has pulled off an impressive compendium of Victorian history stretching from the 1830s to the 1900s. The book is organised in chronological sections, which greatly facilitates the reader's understanding of the ins and outs of that exceptional era by examining events separately and then weaving them together. Wilson not only deals with political aspects of the age: the Crimean War (1853-56), the struggle to repeal the Corn Laws and the aggressive liberalism of Lord Palmerston, but also tackles literature, painting (the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which he depicts with painstaking accuracy), the birth of new ideas (whether it be Marxism or John Stuart Mill's rejection of intuitionism, or Kingsley's Christian socialism or theories of evolution), religion, etc. Aspects of Queen Victoria's personal rule and life are also given due consideration, although Wilson's account sketches over many elements: the bedchamber crisis, the Kensington system, and so forth.

The style is refreshing, flamboyant and high-colored. This is history in a grand fashion, history as it is seldom produced in this sad age of the sophisters and calculators, to borrow Edmund Burke's words. Wilson frequently takes sides, his erstwhile rejection of Christianity shines through the whole work, also he sometimes toys with religion in an ambivalent way. Since then, he seems to have converted to Christianity for the second time and would probably like to amend some of the views he presents in this book. His acerbic, ironic way of writing is vaguely reminiscent of Charles Dickens' exertions, especially with regards to his ruthless coverage of the police and various Victorian institutions (e.g. the Metropolitan Police Force created to contain the tide of Chartism). Wilson also questions the way tremendous events such as the Great Indian Mutiny (1857-9) have been dealt with in historiography (the apotheosis of the participants in the Lucknow siege, the fierce repression of the uprisings, the very fact historians branded it a "mutiny", etc.). You may sometimes disagree with some of his statements or think he is being a bit unfair, but this a piece which has a soul and a mind of its own. It does not stick to conventional neutrality (it is abundantly clear Wilson profoundly dislikes Disraeli and Palmerston, on the other hand, his admiration for Peel admits of no boundaries).

If you are looking for a bit more than just a history of Victorian politics and diplomacy, then you will probably find this book fits your needs. It stretches across many fields, and is therefore especially relevant to the student of Victorian history (as a compendium to brush up and an accurate summary, although it is a bit weak on the footnote side), as well as to the layman who takes an interest in the topic. It is written as a novel would be, which makes it highly readable and enjoyable.

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