BOOKS APRIL 21, 2003
(W.W. Norton, 544 pp., $35)
A.N. Wilson is a clever and versatile man. He is the author of a dozen novels, variable in quality, the best of which are amusing and skillfully constructed, but with an undertone of moral seriousness, lightly camp but oddly touching. He is a prolific newspaper columnist in Britain. Capable of abrupt changes of opinion, he has written both a book of Christian apologetics and a fierce attack on Christianity—an inconsistency that some may take to show independence of mind and others may regard as a sign of a fundamental lack of seriousness. An example of his mutability, on a smaller scale, occurs in his new book, in his assessment of the two converts from Anglicanism who became cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church in the later Victorian age: in the past he has expressed a warm devotion to John Henry Newman, but now he declares himself unable to understand how anyone could put Newman above Henry Manning. He has written several biographies, his subjects including Walter Scott, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, and Hilaire Belloc. One of his novels is set in Victorian England, and another revolves around the efforts of a group of enthusiasts to rescue a Victorian church from demolition.
He seems the ideal author, in sum, for a book called The Victorians, and I looked forward to it eagerly. It did not match my expectations, though there is a good deal in it to appreciate. Wilson has a novelist's feel for the symbolic or ironic scene: he ends, for example, with the warships that attended the passage of Queen Victoria's body from the Isle of Wight, where she died, to the mainland not only British vessels but ships from France, Portugal, Japan, "and four grey-masted ironclads flying the red, white and black German ensign, vastly overshadowing the others in strength and size." He has a novelist's eye for eccentrics, such as the peer who avoided sitting down because of his conviction that "an honourable part of his person was made of glass," or William Gifford Palgrave, twice converted from his ancestral Judaism to Roman Catholicism, who lived for some years in the Arabian desert dressed as a sheik in the hope of converting the natives to Christianity and ended his life as British ambassador to Uruguay. By far the longest quotation of anything that Wilson supplies is an account of a dinner given by the British commanders in the Crimea for their Russian counterparts during a term of truce, with the menu complete. But this quirkiness sits awkwardly with the parts of his book that aspire to earnestness.
Wilson seems to have two purposes: to present a chronological survey of the Victorian age, with the emphasis on social, military, and political history; and to offer a personal and selective picture of the culture of the time, through a kaleidoscopic display of people and events, some well known, some surprising and out-of-the-way. The obvious danger in such a project is of falling between two stools, and it has not been avoided. In his preface Wilson describes his book as a "portrait of an age," consciously comparing his work to that of G.M. Young. It is an odd comparison. Young's Portrait of an Age, which appeared in 1936, is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century history- writing; and it may still be the best thing to hand for someone who wants a quick route to understanding early- and mid-Victorian Britain. It is short—essentially an extended essay and the distillation of long thought and deep learning. Wilson's book, by contrast, is sprawling and diffuse; it gives the impression of rapid assimilation, of an author whose reading has been remarkably wide but sometimes careless. His political history is unlikely to satisfy anybody: it is too fitful and incomplete for the reader unfamiliar with the period, too superficial for those who know it well.
Any writer who takes as broad a subject as the Victorians is bound to leave a lot out, but some of Wilson's gaps are much too large. He says nothing about the railways and next to nothing about industrialization of any kind. There is an excellent chapter on Darwin, but otherwise Victorian science is effectively absent; Faraday is not even mentioned. Even if you believe, with P.G. Wodehouse, that the Victorians were not to be trusted with a trowel and a pile of bricks, it seems strange to say nothing about Victorian architecture (except for the Houses of Parliament, which is anyway half a pre-Victorian building). But the real problem is that Wilson's omissions distort the age that he is describing.
A big surprise, from a writer of Wilson's sardonic bent, is that his book should be so persistently priggish and politically correct. He constantly scolds the Victorians for failing to live up to the required standards of racial sensitivity, feminist awareness, economic justice, and the rest. And, of course, if we seek in the Victorians that humane and liberal enlightenment that we find so deeply pleasing as we contemplate it in ourselves, we are destined to disappointment. His emphasis is on the brutalities, the miseries, and the failures of the age. So we get full coverage of the cruelty with which the poor were treated in the early Victorian workhouse, of the Irish famine, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Boer War, the slums. And Wilson describes these dark matters well. But surely we need to judge the Victorians by the standards of their time: how did Britain compare with other nations, for example? Oddly enough, Wilson recognizes this in his last chapter, in a couple of hasty paragraphs; but the rest of the book has been so unrelentingly censorious that this peroration reads like an embarrassed attempt at a quick fix.
Queen Victoria has been as successful as anyone in history in stamping her name upon an epoch: she is up there with Augustus, Charlemagne, and Elizabeth I. Yet the Victorian age is an odd concept, when one stops to think about it: why should a period be defined by the death of one old man, William IV in 1837, and the death of one old woman sixty-three years later? All periodization is artificial, but one could well imagine another rhythm. The period from Waterloo to 1850 might be thought of as a "long Regency"the age of Pickwick and factory acts, the birth agony of the industrial age. From the 1850s to the late 1870s was the high noon of Victorian self-confidence and belief in progress; and from the 1880s to World War I Britain lived through a "long Edwardian age," a period in which imperial swagger, growing military and economic insecurity, and the development of democratic institutions oddly mingled. Yet it is impossible for us now to get the idea of a Victorian age out of our heads, and indeed we need not try, provided that we treat the Victorian age as a story rather than a state; a dynamic conception, not a static one.
Wilson's mistake is to underestimate the scale of this transformation. A rather mysterious achievement of Victorian Britain, for example, was to evolve without violence from an aristocratic oligarchy to a kind of mass democracy. Hardly any country on the continent of Europe made the transition to the twentieth century without armed conflict or revolution, while in the United States half a million people died in a civil war. Wilson hardly seems to notice this vast, peaceful evolution of the British state. Indeed, he appears to think that nothing much changed, claiming that Britain is still an oligarchy today and always has been. This is the kind of glib cynicism that might pass muster in a newspaper column, but it should not have survived a serious writer's second thoughts.
Time and again, Wilson sees the ugly aspects of Victorian life and experience but neglects the historical process of which they were a part. The fact is that many ancient oppressions become visible to us in the Victorian age because they scandalized the Victorians themselves. Yes, women were denied many rights and freedoms (Wilson declares that they had no more rights than American slaves, another of those silly statements that a moment's reflection would dispel.) But so they had been always and everywhere. The significant fact in the Victorian age is that women started to protest and to get themselves heard: the slow process of emancipation began. Yes, the workhouses were harsh and brutal, but Victorian reforms got rid of them. Yes, the birthpangs of the industrial age brought about new kinds of exploitation, but these shocked the consciences of many people, and social legislation, beginning with the factory acts a few years before Victoria came to the throne, gradually removed at least the worst abuses. Drainage is not a romantic subject, but the heroic sewer- building of the 1850s transformed the health and the life expectancy of millions.
Wilson depicts Victorian Britain as pretty hellish for most of its population, and this presents him with a problem: if the place was so horrible and the people were so oppressed, why was there no specter of revolution in the nineteenth century, or at least none in the second half of it? (In the first decade of Victoria's reign there were still fears of serious civil disturbance, as there had been for twenty years before, but thereafter British society seemed immensely stable.) Wilson sees the difficulty, and his answer lies in the ruthlessness that he attributes to the ruling class: the wretched in the London slums, in his view, were cowed by the knowledge that if they tried to storm the West End, they would be put down by force of arms. This is simply bizarre, and it reminds one, again, of how much Wilson leaves out. For the really curious thing about The Victorians is that most of the Victorians are absent from it.
Wilson focuses on two classes of people: the very grand, right at the top of the heap, and the downtrodden, right at the bottom. By far his most prominent personage is the queen herself, and he gives a splendidly vivid portrait of her personality, an odd yet entirely coherent mixture of sense and silliness, propriety and passion, moralism and selfishness. Prince Albert is one of Wilson's heroes, and this leads him to a wild exaggeration of his importance. Wilson comes close to saying that if Albert had lived longer, World War I might not have occurred, and then, changing tack, he suggests that Albert's influence would have grown so great that it might have driven the British to abolish their monarchy. Meanwhile he neglects two immense classes, perhaps the most important of all in Victorian society: the bourgeoisie and what their superiors called the respectable working class.
British history combines a great deal of class conflict with a strong national cohesion. This is not easy to explain, but a part of the explanation is surely that the bourgeoisie and so much of the working class shared the value of respectability. That does not mean that the working class was passive: the later nineteenth century sees the development of the trades unions, which were to play so dominant a part in British life until Margaret Thatcher tamed them in the 1980s. Victorian working people could take satisfaction from being citizens of the world's greatest power; and, however cramped their existences, they mostly shared an expectation that their lives and the lives of their children would get steadily better. In these ways, they were perhaps closer to modern America than to modern Britain.
Very properly, Wilson's excursions into popular culture take him to the music hall, even though its great period spilled over into the Edwardian age and beyond. Marie Lloyd was the most popular of all music-hall performers—what was the secret of her success? "Apart from the release of risqu humour," Wilson writes, "she provided the audience with a reflection, an embodiment of their own hideous lives." Well, no doubt some of her audience lived hideous lives, but I think that most of them would have considered Wilson's comment insulting. He takes perhaps her most famous song, "My old man said follow the van," and points out that it is "about being evicted, piling one's few pathetic belongings on to a cart and getting drunk." This is true as a matter of strict fact, but it is misleading in terms of tone. Wilson quotes the chorus, ending thus:
I dillied, I dallied, I dallied and
Lost me way and don't know where
Who's going to put up the old iron
If I can't find my way home?
In fact, the second to last line changes each time the chorus is sung, and Wilson has quoted the second verse. In the first verse the line is "I stopped off on the way to have the old half quartern" (that is, a pint of beer), and the last is "You can't trust the specials like the old time coppers"in other words, they are about boozing and having a bit of hanky-panky. The wonder of Marie Lloyd was her immense vulgar vitality, her irrepressible appetite for life. The limitation of the British music hall, in fact, was its constant cheeriness; when one compares it with the blues or with Edith Piaf, say, it can seem two-dimensional. But it does suggest how robust the British working class was, and, in spite of everything, how stable and secure.
Whereas the music hall was wholly a working-class creation, the development of competitive sports involved all the classes. Wilson gives less than half a page to this topic, but there are few areas in which the Victorians did more to make our modern world. The most widely played and watched sports in the world today—soccer, cricket, tennis, golf, and rugby football were all established and codified on their present basis in Victorian Britain. It is hard for us to realize how strange the British passion for playing sport seemed to foreign observers; they often compared it to ancient Greece. Hippolyte Taine reported that he had even heard of a team of Englishmen traveling to Australia to play cricket, as athletes had once traveled the length of the Mediterranean to compete at Olympia. He implies that the story must be merely ben trovato, but of course it was true. Cricket matches between England and Australia remain the oldest rivalry in international sport; the first international sporting contest of any kind seems also to have been a cricket game, but it was, surprisingly, between the United States and Canada.
The United States was subsequently excluded from international cricket on the grounds that it was not a part of the Empire. If, as seems likely, this obscure decision killed off cricket in North America and permitted the rise of baseball, it had momentous consequences for modern American life. (It is a literary curiosity, by the way, that the first recorded reference to baseball comes in Northanger Abbey, whereas cricket is the game played by the young people in Little Women.) Equally, the Victorians who set up the Football Association (the governing body of English soccer) can have had no inkling of what they were starting. They were gentlemen (the universities of Oxford and Cambridge still have representation on the F.A., and the Old Etonians were recurrently among the early winners of the F.A. Cup), but they had inadvertently created what soon became a national institution, and essentially a working-class institution.
Modern governments are well aware of the use of sport for strengthening national solidarity, but the Victorians had something else: they had the Empire. Wilson is vivid on the crimes and the blunders of empire, but he misses the quieter part of the story. After discussing unrest in the Caribbean in the 1830s, he observes that "Jamaica, as far as history is concerned, can be forgotten for another quartercentury"until, that is, an incipient rebellion was harshly suppressed. But that is to "forget" precisely what is most important. It is not surprising that an empire should be subject to rebellions and colonial wars; what is surprising is that they were not more frequent. Like a number of historians, Wilson says that the British could not govern its Indian Empire except by consent, and in some sense this must be true, but it raises the complex question of how that consent was gained.
Wilson devotes a whole chapter to the Indian Mutiny, but he shows little interest in India thereafter (a chapter on "Kipling's India" has Kipling rather than India for its subject). The Victorian experience was the reverse of this: British governments had paid too little attention to India before the Mutiny broke out in 1857, but they were intensely involved thereafter. Empire requires commitment. It may also require the readiness to suffer defeats and humiliations (as the British in these years to the Afghans, the Russians, the Zulus, the Boers) and to press on regardless. A large amount of idealism, as well as commerce and plunder, went into making and sustaining the British Empire. Some may want to argue that the ideology of empire was self-serving and self-deluding, but what cannot be denied is that their empire required the British to give as well as to take. Even empires a great deal more exploitative than the British have demanded engagement by the ruling power and even, in a sense, sacrifice. The cemeteries of India bear witness to how many British died young in a distant exile, sometimes in battle, more often from disease and the exigencies of the climate. At one point in the later nineteenth century, as many as one-quarter of the graduates of Balliol, the leading college at Oxford, were going into the Indian Civil Service. And after the Boer War some of the most brilliant young minds in Britain went out to South Africa to join Lord Milner's staff. "Milner's kindergarten," they were called.
These considerations bear upon our present anxieties. Despite what many commentators say, the United States is happily not now an imperial power, because it has no inclination toward the sort of engagement that empire entails. One has only to try and imagine today's best and brightest flocking into post- Saddam Iraq from Wall Street and think tanks and schools of government to see how different from Queen Victoria's empire is the present American hegemony. It is a paradox of the Victorians that they were both insular and, through their empire, cosmopolitan. Wilson condescends too far to his subjects, but he does seem to recognize another paradox: that, remote as many of their values and assumptions now seem to us, they still have a good deal to teach us.