For Queen and Country: Britain in the Victorian Age
The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture
The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After
There is something to be said for history that is not written by historians. One of the most original short histories of England ever written was by G.K. Chesterton. Margaret Drabble, who was once a moving amateur actress in her brilliant career as a student at Cambridge, and later made her name as a novelist, has not only the talents to reflect about the Victorian age but fewer inhibitions than professionals. In fact it is refreshing to read a piece of good old-fashioned Whig history written as if Namier and Butterfield had never anathematized it. She wants to tell her readers—she teaches at an adult education college in London—how the past became the present; how much we owe to the Victorians our notions of family life, tolerance, education—and advertising. Then it was that chairs became comfy. Then it was that many of the objects we use today, such as typewriters, were invented, then it was that the familiar tunnels and bridges were built, the houses we live in, the monuments we pass were erected. Then it was that the people gradually got the vote, and the movement for women’s rights began.
Moreover she wastes no time as professional historians would in pointing out that there was not one Victorian age but at least three; or that the true heart of the age beat in the cities of the provinces and not in London; or that for every generalization made at least three or four reservations have to be made. There is a sound chapter on the Queen herself, the epitome of the middle-class virtues of decency, loyalty, simple and rigid respectability, common sense, and hard work. There is one on that middle class itself and another on the second of Disraeli’s Two Nations, the poor—and the infernal cities in which they lived. The Great Exhibition gives her the chance to survey Victorian technology and taste, and she rightly spends space on Victorian achievements in the arts, which in the end matter more to future generations than anything else: for it is largely by their buildings, pictures, music, and books that we judge our ancestors. (She thinks not all that much of the poetry and does not perhaps praise quite highly enough the novel, an art form in which the Victorians excelled, their greatest artistic legacy, as important as Elizabethan tragedy and surpassed in achievement only by the Russians.) She ends with Darwin and maintains that the mood of dignified resignation in which Matthew Arnold surveyed the crumbling of belief in Christianity—at any rate as it had for centuries been popularly conceived—is the clue to the spirit of the age.
It is all eminently sensible, and written without a trace of condescension toward the kind of reader who either knows nothing of the Victorians or has forgotten what he once learned about them. You nod away pleased to see how many topics she manages to introduce—until suddenly on page 62 you …