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Spirited feminist hagiography, but the allusion to Strachey is totally misleading. Longford does eleven sketches (three are of the marginally Victorian Bronte sisters) versus Strachey's four. She views her heroines not as typical products of their era (eccentric, hypocritical, demon-ridden, etc.), but as counter-cultural crusaders (e.g., George Eliot, Josephine Butler, Annie Besant), often mocked and vilified by their contemporaries. Longford's Victorians are not faintly ludicrous Oedipal fathers but splendid, exemplary mothers--even though most of them were in fact childless, just as most of Strachey's subjects were celibate. Longford's list of notable women includes some inevitable choices (Florence Nightingale), one or two inspired ones (the African explorer Mary Kingsley), and ends with a colorful conundrum, James Barry (ca. 1795-1865)--who despite her name and her male attire was almost certainly a woman and had a brilliant, controversial career in Cape Colony, Mauritius, and elsewhere in the Empire. Longford has nothing new to add to older biographies of her Victorians, and in the piece on Harriet Beecher Stowe she makes several factual errors. Beyond that her dislike for religion leads her to avoid pious women like Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Christina Rossetti, and to downplay or disparage the religious factor in her subjects' lives (Annie Besant's ""regrettable"" lapse from Bradlaugh's atheism into quasi-worship of Krishnamurti)--as if Queen Victoria's England were as secular a realm as Mrs. Thatcher's. But, these strictures aside, Longford's richly-illustrated gallery of grandes dames is an artful collocation of some extremely interesting people.

Pub Date: Sept. 17th, 1981
ISBN: 0750948876
Publisher: Knopf