A skewering of the popular view that Victorians were the uptight and stern figures we know and love to make fun of.
In fact, British academic Sweet argues, our modern culture is directly descended from their love of spectacle, sex and true crime stories. Most people today, according to Sweet, view the Victorian era as one of strict moral codes, cruelty to children, and repressed sexuality. Nothing could be further from the truth. There was more drug use, more sex, more innovation in journalism and public spectacles than the hypercorrect picture of the Victorians most people are familiar with would suggest. In terms of spectacle, the author makes a convincing argument that the Victorians had a higher threshold for danger and excitement. Tightrope walker Blondin grew to fame in a series of daring trips across Niagara Falls on a two-inch rope. This was not the choreographed violence of the World Wrestling Federation, but real mortal danger. Blondin spawned many copycats, and the popularity of this perilous sport waned only after several deaths. Sweet labors to make comparisons between Victorian and modern phenomena—serial killers then were often celebrated figures, on display at Madame Tussaud’s wax works, but he says it’s hard to imagine William Shipman or Jeffery Dahlmer getting such attention. But yet, perhaps it is 24-hour cable news coverage that has taken the place of the waxy tableaux in our time, and not a diminishment of bloodthirstiness. The desire to see Victorians as more upright, and therefore better than us, stems from the age-old human desire to look back on a comforting past, to be able to say, “things were better then.” Now that the 20th century is over, Sweet argues, the nostalgia and puzzlement will be over its customs, wars, and fashions, allowing the Victorians to rest in a more accurate peace.
Sweet shines a light in some dark corners of the Victorian Era—but, ultimately, over-argues his point. (16 pages b&w photos)