Sparkling conversational history: six well-researched, amusing, even lightweight biographical portraits of British Victorians that add up to a portrait of the age itself. Lytton Strachey's elegant sneer of 1918, Eminent Victorians, effectively relegated Victorian culture to a knicknack shelf, dismissed by any self-respecting intellectual. Now English man-of-letters Wilson, author of the fine Tolstoy (1988) and Hilaire Belloc (1984) biographies, etc., counteracts Strachey's "sniggering" by presenting six different Victorians who turned society's ideas upside down. Among the six are three whose otherwise vivid portraits Wilson mars by easy psychologizing: Charlotte Bronte, whose enduring success he attributes to her sad life; Josephine Butler, who campaigned successfully against a law that encouraged police to force the examination of any woman for veneral disease, and whose passion for social reform Wilson attributes to the death of her young daughter; and John Henry Newman, whose conversion to Roman Catholicism inflamed the English intellectual world, and who tempts Wilson into speculation on Newman's homoerotic inner life. Each biography, though, is also informative and places its subject firmly within the age: e.g., that of William Gladstone, who liberalized politics; Prince Albert, who gave us the "traditional" Victorian Christmas and the educated monarch; and pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (Wilson at his most lively and witty), a great-aunt of Virginia Woolf's who always traveled with coffins for her entire family. Quixotic, religious, reforming, eccentric--typically Victorian and immensely readable in Wilson's light, discursive takes.