THE VICTORIANS

A. N. Wilson, Author . Norton $30 (544p) ISBN 978-0-393-04974-9

"There will always be an England" ran one of the New Yorker's fabled lines. And there will always be writers—and readers—besotted with the Victorians. Wilson, biographer of John Milton and C.S. Lewis and author of many other works, provides a pastiche of the Victorian age. The 43 chapters are notably brief; the five parts move chronologically through the decades from the 1830s to the 1890s. Individual topics cover the spectrum of life in 19th-century Britain, including high politics and astounding economic progress. Wilson offers vivid sketches of John Ruskin, Robert Browning and many other cultural luminaries. Yet Wilson is, thankfully, not pollyannaish: he depicts the wrenching conditions that industrialization foisted upon the common people and marshals an array of stories that shatter the image of a benign, civilizing colonialism. The many anecdotes about Victorians famous and obscure will delight many readers, but Wilson's book is long on stories and short on explanation. Those with little background in British history will be confused by the parade of people who come and go, and by events that are mentioned but not described. Specialists, on the other hand, will be annoyed by many of the author's judgments, such as the strange comparison of Marx and Hitler and the claim that "there is an inexorability about events and their consequences." Wilson's book has its enjoyable moments, but readers will be better off opening any one of the volumes in Peter Gay's magisterial series, The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud. 32 pages of illus. not seen by PW. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 11/11/2002
Release date: 01/01/2003
Genre: Nonfiction
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