Altick (English, Ohio State) conceived this book as a companion and guide for the modern reader of Victorian literature -- a bit of social and intellectual history to be contemplated as a backdrop to Dickens, Tennyson, Carlyle, Arnold and George Meredith. Thus presumably the deaths of Little Nell and Paul Dombey which reduced thousands of Victorians to uncontrollable sobs will mean more if they are seen as examples of the ""lachrymose indulgence"" of this vulgarly sentimental age; Disraeli's Sybil can better be understood with reference to the new industrial poverty of the Manchester factories; and Arnold's Culture and Anarchy must be seen as the upper-class response to the Second Reform Bill -- dread of the newly enfranchised workers. Altick tries valiantly to refute or modify most of the stereotypes of Victorian society underscoring its ""multitudinousness,"" its penchant for self-criticism, its devout but precarious belief in ""Progress,"" its smugness, materialism and complacency -- the underside of Victorian moralism. He stresses the overwhelmingly middle-class orientation of Victorian fiction confirmed by the social origins of Browning, Ruskin, Hardy, et al. None of these observations is original and many of the insights are borrowed from the works of Asa Briggs, G.M. Young, W.L. Bums, Raymond Williams and other specialists. But Altick writes felicitously and between the descriptions of the Crystal Palace, Chartism and the declining squirearchy, students will get a fair sense of the structure, internal movement and moral atmosphere which produced Mr. Podsnap, The Lady of Shalott, Kipling's Recessional and even Jude the Obscure.