Books: The Victorians

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The Victorians

AN Wilson

Hutchinson, 25

WHO were the Victorians? According to AN Wilson they were a ragtag collection of artists, aesthetes, autocrats, pederasts, egotists, hypocrites, humbugs and do-gooders - all surrounded by a swarm of the destitute and hungry.

They were not industrialists, plantation owners, entrepreneurs, civil servants or anyone remotely ordinary. Nor were they Scottish. The Victorian era, apparently, happened only in England. This, in other words, is a very strange book. It’s Victorian life, but not as we know it. Wilson claims that "people, not abstract ideas, make history". That is a bold statement, and a worthy line to pursue in analysing the Victorian age.

But such an approach has its pitfalls. Ideas, movements and trends provide structure to history - a framework on which analysis can be hung. If a history book is exclusively people-driven it is difficult, but not impossible, to maintain a sense of direction.

That is where Wilson fails - mainly because the people he chooses to examine are not a representative sample of their age. What results is a rather skewed and at times surreal picture. The book is not really a history of an age but more like a family album which, on examination, seems to be missing half its photos.

It seems astonishing that Wilson should attempt a portrait of the Victorian age while leaving out the Scots. This isn’t some nit-picking nationalist complaint. Leaving aside the fact that Queen Victoria was rather fond of Scotland, how is it possible to understand the age of progress without getting a grip on Glasgow? What about all those Scottish tea planters and jute traders who populated the far corners of the Empire - or, for that matter, what about the ordinary Scots who left the homeland in search of a better life in Canada, Australia, and South Africa? Theirs are the photos which have fallen out of Wilson’s album.

Some time ago, in Key West, Florida, I came across a little brass plaque mounted on a wall that read "On this spot in 1898 nothing happened". The person who put up the plaque was obviously making a simple joke - possibly poking fun at his pretentious town and its contrived history. But perhaps, unconsciously, he also made a very profound point about the past.

There is a big difference between history and the past. The past is what actually happened - not just the big events but also the way ordinary people lived their often mundane lives. History, on the other hand, too often focuses on the extraordinary - bizarre events and strange people. What results is a high-octane view of yesterday.

So it goes with Wilson. His book is populated with scoundrels, megalomaniacs, psychopaths, manipulators and sadists - people he happens to find interesting. He ignores the boring folk who made up the bulk of Victorian society. Yet it is the mundane that makes for stability in society, and the Victorian period was nothing if not stable. Like it or not, most of the time "nothing happened". The renegades and misfits of yesteryear might make good copy, but they did not alone shape the Victorian age.

The flaws in Wilson’s approach are most evident when he examines 1848, the year of revolutions. He persists in asking why a revolution did not occur in Britain. Indeed, he almost argues one did. But that is a stupid question - the result of imposing an imagined scenario on what actually happened.

The past, in effect, is a tautology; it is true by virtue of its logical form alone. To ask why something did not happen distorts that logical form by imposing upon it a subjective expectation. In other words, the historian should simply analyse why Britain was stable; to ask why the British did not behave like the French, Austrians or Italians - all of whom lived under very different conditions - is futile fantasy.

The Victorians is at times a bizarre book. What, for instance, is one to make of Wilson’s analysis of the Irish famine? He rightly argues that peasant agriculture was dangerously dependent on a single crop - the potato. But, he continues: "The potato needed next to no maintenance as a crop. You simply planted it, watched it grow, harvested it and ate it. In the intervening months of the year you could play your fiddle and sing your songs."

In other words, the Irish were not feckless by nature - the potato made them that way.

In his chapter on the Boer War, which actually deals very little with the war, Wilson can not resist retelling all the stale rumours about the supposedly homosexual tendencies of Herbert Kitchener and Cecil Rhodes. That kind of sordid fascination with sex seems more suited to a tabloid newspaper. But it is when Wilson tries to give this trivial matter some ersatz import that things really get weird. He argues: "Empires are male phenomena. They presumably come about in conjunction with an excess of testosterone."

This, according to the author, apparently explains why male imperialists - witness the Greeks and Ottoman Turks, not to mention the English - have an unusual fondness for buggery. And then: "Nor need it be seen as accidental, at the time when the United States of America knows no rival as a global superpower, that it has witnessed the phenomenon of gay politics."

If writing history was like driving a car, that kind of erratic logic would get Wilson banned. Within academia, historians engage in far too much "salami-slicing" - cutting up the past into ever-thinner slices. Wilson deserves praise for having the courage to dissect the whole sausage, even though what results is a mangled mess.

In places, the book is interesting and written with considerable verve. But the further one progresses, the more annoying it becomes. There is too much missing, and the lack of direction and strange focus eventually get tedious. For instance, there is an entire chapter on mesmerism, but hardly a paragraph on steel. Likewise, in the chapter on the Great Exhibition, Wilson’s stream of consciousness runs for 28 pages - yet he manages only a few short sentences on his intended subject.

There is nothing new in this book, except perhaps for Wilson’s idiosyncratic observations. Granted, good history need not always be based on groundbreaking research. There is room within the discipline for the author able to synthesise, and for the person who seeks to view the past in wide angle. But much of this book is mere intellectual masturbation. One chapter begins with the sentence: "Many in the process of observing the Lilliputian antics of the Tractarian controversialists and weighing the awful metaphysical implications of Vestiges had lost faith, partially or totally."

This kind of self-indulgent wordplay will probably delight those readers who equate inscrutability with intelligence, but it will deeply annoy those who simply want to understand. The historian must not impose his ego on his subject.

When Wilson is at his best he manages to take the odd bit of dry data provided by the salami slicers and turn it into a refreshing insight. But for most of this book the subject is merely a vehicle for abstract self-expression. Sadly, it reveals a great deal more about AN Wilson than it does about the Victorians.

Gerard DeGroot is professor of modern history at St Andrews University