Victoria Lives and Is in the Stacks

Coaching Days of England

edited by Paul Elek, edited by Elizabeth Elek, with a Commentary by Anthony Burgess
Time-Life Books, 144 pp., $32.95

The Victorians

by Joan Evans
Cambridge, 254 pp., $10.00

Victorian England: Portrait of an Age

by G.M. Young
Oxford, 228 pp., $1.50 (paper)

The Triumph of Time: A Study of the Victorian Concepts of Time, History, Progress, Decadence

by Jerome Buckley
Harvard, 187 pp., $4.50

Evolution & Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory

by John W. Burrow
Cambridge, 295 pp., $8.50

In Victorian times a book was a book: a standard form of conveying whatever the author had in mind and, if the publisher so wished, he illustrated it. The publisher catered to something called the reading public. The reading public varied vastly in income, education, and intelligence, but it was assumed to be a unity. Today, as with the division of labor, the reading public has fragmented, and various kinds of books are produced for various groups of people. How, for instance, do we purvey history? In books written for scholars, in books written for the intelligent layman, in paperbacks for students and travelers, in countless new formats to satisfy different kinds of readers. We have even invented a form of book for those who can’t read.

This is the coffee-table book; and Coaching Days of England is surely a coffee-table book to end all coffee-table books. It should not have come to us straight from the printer and bindery. It should have been sent to an automobile plant to have wheels put on it. An elegant coffee table would buckle beneath the weight. Hold it you cannot: you can only put it on casters and trundle it around. One person cannot read it—it would be an indecent act of ostentation like eating a banquet alone; half-a-dozen people might simultaneously read it and arrange for the pages to be turned so long as a winch and tackle were handy. Read it? Impossible. You might—remembering Sydney Smith’s injunction about the fat widow—take a walk round it before breakfast always provided that you were in rude health and there were several stopping places for rest and refreshment on the way round. I doubt if adults can find a comfortable position to look at the pages. Only children have a chance of working their way through a page or two, kneeling on the floor, head down and bottom up.

It consists of many splendid engravings and prints on this Dickensian theme with accompanying explanatory statements covering every conceivable aspect of coaching. There are prints of every size and hue, a good number of them admirably reproduced in color. To fill up the pages there are reams of extracts from novels or publications by famous contemporary authors, Smollett, Surtees, Woodforde, Boswell, Mirabeau, Washington Irving, and others—but not, alas, the enchanting description of Tom Brown’s journey to Rugby which ends with the Rugby boys timing themselves by the coach running a measured mile. There is also an historical commentary by Anthony Burgess, spirited and informative. He is no sentimentalist: he points out how brutally the horses were treated, what blackguards the great coachmen usually were, how you froze on the outside of the coach or were nauseated inside by the smell of stale vomit, how the last great days of coaching were made possible by the science of road building introduced by Telford and Macadam, and the coaching inns decayed when the words “carriage,” “guard,” “booking-office,” and “coach” were associated with travel by railway. Veblen…

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