A brilliant evocation of a generation that, at least for the English, is both very much alive and has “vanished totally.”
Over the course of just a few decades in the 19th century, England grew from regional force to global power as it was remade from “a primarily rural community governed at local level paternalistically, at a national level aristocratically” to “an industrial country governed nationally by plutocrats, locally by bureaucrats.” A noted novelist (Dream Children, 1998), biographer (Jesus: A Life, 1992), and historian of ideas (God’s Funeral, 1999), Wilson ably crosses genres to give readers a portrait of the Victorian era that blends eminent lives with big events and ideas, all delivered in a fluent narrative. Born in 1950, he writes, he belonged to the last English generation that could know this bygone world as “an almost remembered oral tradition” through the anecdotes of elderly compatriots who had been alive during Victoria’s reign. Where those tales conflict with received history, Wilson rolls up his sleeves and hits the archives to correct either the anecdote or the historical record. His cast of characters numbers in the hundreds: Dickens, Darwin, Dodgson, and Disraeli are but a few of the Ds, and even Dostoyevsky makes an appearance, though perhaps to be indexed under another Wilsonian theme, the Death of God. Settings range from the high streets of London and England’s provincial capitals to slums, wharves, crofts, and factories. Wilson links all these stories, scenes, and players together with some well-defended generalizations, including a few that would do Marx proud: he doesn’t just state the obvious fact that “the fortunes of the Victorian millionaires, the mill-owners, the mine-owners, the engineers and the speculative builders were founded on the suffering of others,” he immediately adds, “nor was this suffering accidental.”
An altogether excellent look at the Victorian era, with all its flaws and glories.