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The Victorians Hardcover – January, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"There will always be an England" ran one of the New Yorker's fabled lines. And there will always be writers-and readers-besotted with the Victorians. Wilson, biographer of John Milton and C.S. Lewis and author of many other works, provides a pastiche of the Victorian age. The 43 chapters are notably brief; the five parts move chronologically through the decades from the 1830s to the 1890s. Individual topics cover the spectrum of life in 19th-century Britain, including high politics and astounding economic progress. Wilson offers vivid sketches of John Ruskin, Robert Browning and many other cultural luminaries. Yet Wilson is, thankfully, not pollyannaish: he depicts the wrenching conditions that industrialization foisted upon the common people and marshals an array of stories that shatter the image of a benign, civilizing colonialism. The many anecdotes about Victorians famous and obscure will delight many readers, but Wilson's book is long on stories and short on explanation. Those with little background in British history will be confused by the parade of people who come and go, and by events that are mentioned but not described. Specialists, on the other hand, will be annoyed by many of the author's judgments, such as the strange comparison of Marx and Hitler and the claim that "there is an inexorability about events and their consequences." Wilson's book has its enjoyable moments, but readers will be better off opening any one of the volumes in Peter Gay's magisterial series, The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud. 32 pages of illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Wilson will need all his skills as a biographer and novelist to encompass an era that included Darwin, Marx, and George Eliot.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393049744
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393049749
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #169,884 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

60 of 70 people found the following review helpful By MartinP on December 31, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This book tries to be so many things at once that it ends up being none of them at all. Maybe it is simply impossible to write a coherent book about an entire century if you want to encompass all of its essentials. Every chapter here contains at least two or three themes that in themselves would warrant a book of this size (724 pages). Not to mention the characters: their number is staggering. Wilson never tires of giving us mini-biographies, but there are simply too many of them, so that it becomes impossible to keep up with them (for this reader at least). All in all the final impression is that of a vast collection of snapshots with no organizing principle to string them together other than simple chronology - and not even that is completely consistent. Coherence is not helped by Wilson's way of linking subjects, which struck me as peculiarly associative. Maybe the novelist inside got the better of him. However, it is his novelistic style of writing that makes this book pleasant to read even if it is ultimately unsatisfying. Wilson has clear opinions about the characters he describes and the events they participate in, and doesn't keep them to himself. He is not afraid to unmask the saccharine hypocrisies we still carry with us regarding the Victorians. Florence Nightingale, it turns out for instance, may have been an admirable woman, she was also as racially prejudiced as most of her contemporaries and did not allow a very well qualified black woman named Mary Seacole to work in her hospital. In the end it was Seacole though who did the really tough work at the Crimean front, while Nightingale worked at a safe distance.Read more ›
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on December 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed this book tremendously and consider it one of the treasures of my ever-growing Victorian history shelves. The only complaint (if my statement can be considered a 'true' complaint) is that the book presupposes a deeper knowledge of British history and its historical figures than most Americans (shamefully points to herself) have. I might suggest to those thinking of reading this book that they begin with a more basic overview of the times and then proceed to this volume.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Thomas M. Sullivan on September 7, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As a committed contrarian and one who thought he had read enough about Victorian England to skip "The Victorians", I went directly to "After the Victorians" and having it enjoyed it tremendously, had to re-double and get back to the beginning, if you will. And it was worth it. As demonstrated by other reviews, it is somewhat difficult to categorize Wilson's approach to this ever-fascinating period. It's too opinionated to be "History" and too historical to be merely opinion. He calls each of these volumes a "portrait of an age", and I think that's close enough. As always, the important question is whether this or any other tome (and this IS a tome) justifies the time and effort necessary to digest it. To me, the answer is an unqualified yes. I believe what makes the book (and its successor) so enjoyable is Wilson's thorough command of his subject which in turn enables him to recount events and the lives and relationships of various personages with a sure, and frequently offbeat, hand. He knows what he's talking about and thus feels free to tell the story in his own way rather than as might be expected from a more traditional historian. And at least this reader thoroughly enjoyed "his own way".

And, by the way, if you're looking for a book on the everyday lives of the Victorians, try Judith Flanders' "Inside the Victorian Home"; terrifically well-told story by a marvelous writer.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on July 16, 2005
Format: Paperback
A. N. Wilson's career and writing have earned him, according to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, the "reputation as an acerbic and provocatively conservative critic and [as] an oft-quoted example of 'fogeydom' because of his traditional values and his High Church sympathies." (Indeed, the word 'fogey' appears so often in the British press alongside Wilson's name that they have nearly become synonyms.) In one sense, then, rarely has a topic found a more apt chronicler. Conversely, I approached this book with more than a little trepidation, concerned that, in the manner of Jacques Barzun, Wilson would reflect on the nineteenth century and approvingly and longingly recount the "good old days."

I needn't have worried. While Wilson's history is certainly traditional in its telling, his tone is persistently skeptical, his judgment is stern, and his sensibilities--on race, on sex, on religion, on class--are firmly entrenched in the 21st century. (So much so that Gertrude Himmelfarb, the closest thing we Americans have to a fogey, panned the book in the pages of the Atlantic.) He remains enamored of its successes and legacy, yet he is clearly repulsed by its excesses and chauvinism.

"The Victorians" isn't an introductory survey. Wilson assumes his (British) audience has heard of Gladstone and Parnell, read a little of John Ruskin, and knows when and where the Boer War occurred. If the name of Sir Robert Peel means nothing to you, then you will be lost from the opening pages.

Instead, Wilson has crafted a review of his studies of the century, filled with delightful (and often humorous) anecdotes laced with opinionated assessments and revisionist implications.
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