by A.N. Wilson
Norton, 724 pp., $35.00
Inventing the Victorians
by Matthew Sweet
St. Martin’s, 264 pp., $23.95
A.N. Wilson thinks big and writes prolifically. Among his twenty-eight novels and biographies is a controversial life of Jesus. He is also something of a disaster buff. The Victorians opens with the ancient Houses of Parliament burning in a spectacular conflagration on the night of October 16, 1834, a flaming emblem, Wilson writes, “of the old world being done away with, purged and destroyed.” His book ends, nearly seven hundred pages later, with the aged, disease-wasted Queen Victoria being lowered into a casket crowded with memorabilia—bracelets, rings, lockets, plaster casts of the hands of those she loved, the dressing gown of her long-mourned Albert—a coffin as cluttered as the mantelpieces of her subjects, whose compulsion to collect expressed their need to grasp at stability in a world in radical transformation.
Wilson’s opening pages recall those vast historical panoramas of which Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic were so fond. This is history on a grand scale, at once panoramic and minutely observed, crowded with a novelist’s eye for detail. Wilson captures much of the sheer energy and plenitude of the Victorians, never more themselves than when inventing, building, exploring, colonizing, parading, preaching, debating, and fathering large families, while managing to compose their many shelves of Collected Works. Wilson’s dense nexus of interconnected lives and events often lends The Victorians the quality of lived experience.
The Houses of Parliament burned in the same year that saw enacted the grim, Malthusian New Poor Law of 1834, which in effect criminalized poverty and established the punitive workhouses that Dickens satirizes in Oliver Twist and Carlyle portrays as “Poor Law Bastilles” in Past and Present. On the page facing Wilson’s description of Turner’s apocalyptic Burning of the Houses of Parliament, the young Darwin is seen sailing aboard HMS Beagle toward Tierra del Fuego on the voyage of discovery that was to produce, a quarter of a century later, The Origin of Species (1859). The key to Darwin’s epic deconstruction of Genesis came to him in 1838 on reading Malthus’s Essay on Population, the substructure on which the dreaded workhouses were erected. The fierce “struggle for existence” depicted in Malthus gave Darwin the key to evolution: “favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed…. I had at last got a theory by which to work.”
The Victorians is cultural, political, intellectual, economic, literary, and social history of a high order, all rolled into one. At times Wilson’s reader feels like a dazed witness to a skilled juggling act. The coronation of Victoria is here, the opening of the Crystal Palace, the Crimean and Boer Wars. But narrative history as Wilson writes it is less a series of marquee “events” than portraits of the interrelated lives of those who shaped or witnessed them. Palmerston and Peel, Gladstone and Disraeli figure prominently, but we also encounter entertainers, charlatans, murderers and poets, cooks, Pre-Raphaelite painters and their models. We meet …