The Victorians by A N Wilson

A one-volume history of Victorian Britain, which looks at it through people and personalities as much as through a narrative of events. A humorous book, graced with an intelligence and humanity. I really enjoyed it.

Some might, slightly snobbishly or with a desire to damn with faint praise, call this a ‘popular history’. It is that, but is much the better for it. The reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, was a time of unbelievably rapid social change, throughout the world as well as in the industrializing West. Some of this change was brought about by colonialism, the cruel and demeaning aspects of which Wilson does not shy away from. Indeed, he mixes the historial events of the age brilliantly with vignettes about individuals.

These vignettes contain so much of interest it is pointless to try and summarize them. Examples would include facts such as: Lord Kitchener, the great soldier, was a sexual predator with particular tastes. When he stayed at country houses, other guests, of both sexes, asked servants to sleep against their bedroom doors, to prevent him from forcing entry (to the room, in the first instance). Arthur Balfour, a future Prime Minister, believed in spiritualism. The upper classes regularly dressed up in historical costumes, a bit like a modern fancy dress party but taken much more seriously. Laws supposedly aimed at preventing venereal disease actually allowed all women to be arrested and imprisoned, at any time.

The book moves along quickly. I heartily recommend it.

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