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 apocalyptic1 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 the turn-of-the-century music hall artiste Marie Lloyd (much admired by T.S. Eliot), who performs a Cockney ballad on page 523.

The Victorians conveys all the rich varieties of regional speech, as befits a people whose appetite for talk was as voracious as that of the ancient Athenians. Wilson’s ear is as acute as his eye. Midway through The Victorians, we see Carlyle wearing an Inverness cape and sporting a broad-brimmed felt hat as depicted in Ford Madox Brown’s painting Work (illustrated in color). Some two hundred pages later, the aged, frugal Carlyle, very likely wearing the same cape and hat, is seen strolling along Cheyne Walk by the boy John Burns, later the leader of the London dock strike. A gust of wind blows the hat off Carlyle’s head and the boy retrieves it: “Thank you verra much, my little monnie,” says Carlyle. We hear vestiges of Sir Robert Peel’s Lancashire accent and Engels’s (when speaking English) still broader Midlands accent. Most memorably, we hear the broad, hollow vowels of Tennyson reading from “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the Laureate’s thunderous tribute to a celebrated cavalry charge during the Crimean War:

Dahn the hill, dahn the hill, thahsunds uv Rooshians…

Wilson here phonetically transcribes an early Edison recording made shortly before Tennyson’s death in 1892. BBC English and the democratizing of university admissions have muted the gorgeous, clamorous profusion of regional English speech. The Victorians celebrates that speech in all its richness and variety.

Marie Lloyd’s (in proper Cockney, Máhr-ee) comic ballad figures in a chapter on London’s seedy East End, site of gas-lit music halls but also of Jack the Ripper’s ghoulish murders of five prostitutes (his last two victims were eviscerated). Yet at the end of his Grand Guignol account, Wilson gives us a gratuitous, humanizing detail: the Ripper’s victims “between them…had twenty-one children.” This last fact jolts us out of the world of tabloid journalism. The faintly fictive element that clings to all narrative history here vanishes before our redundant astonishment that whatever happened in those murky back alleys did indeed happen, that, as Carlyle puts it, the grandest of fictions fades before “the smallest historical fact.”


Like Dickens, George Eliot, and a host of Victorians, Wilson has learned much from Carlyle’s The French Revolution, “the most exciting and readable work of history…in the English language.” Never shy of an opinion, Wilson is often most illuminating when most contrarian, and the now neglected Carlyle shines through his pages, never more brightly than in those startling juxtapositions of high and low, central and peripheral, tragic and absurd that crowd Wilson’s historical stage. Wilson is a connoisseur of funerals and processions—of Victoria’s coronation and burial, of Chartist marches and the London dock strike of 1889, above all of that most dazzling of Victorian self-celebrations, the Great Exhibition of 1851. The exhibition was housed in Joseph Paxton’s gargantuan, yet airily graceful, palace of cast-iron ribs and plate glass. The prefabricated structure enclosed a ground area four times that of St. Peter’s in Rome but was erected in less than six months. This literally dazzling advertisement for international free trade and herald of globalization displayed the machinery on which Victorian England built its prosperity and exhibited arts and crafts from all corners of the empire.

The opening was witnessed by half a million people who strained to watch the liftoff of the aeronaut Charles Spencer in a balloon, followed by fanfares heralding the arrival of the Queen and Prince Albert, the organizing intelligence behind the exhibition. The Prince chose a scriptural motto for the event that nicely combines the Victorian reverence for Scripture and aspiration for dominion: “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” But the scale of the mammoth celebration comes most richly to life in the journals of the plump but diminutive Queen:

The glimpse of the transept through the iron gates, the waving palms, flowers, statues, myriads of people filling the galleries and seats around, with the flourish of trumpets as we entered, gave us a sensation which I can never forget…. The beautiful crystal fountain…was magical—so vast, so glorious, so touching. One felt… filled with devotion, more so than by any service I have ever heard. The tremendous cheers, the joy expressed in every face, the immensity of the building, the mixture of palms, flowers, trees, statues, fountains, the organ (with 200 instruments and 500 voices; which sounded like nothing) and my beloved husband, the author of this “peace Festival” which united the industry of all nations of the earth—all this…is a day to live for ever.

Yet Victoria’s religious awe at the spectacle registered as revulsion in the eyes of the prophet-critics of the age. England had become a nation of “Mammon Worshippers,” roared Carlyle, and Ruskin noted that England erected its latter-day cathedrals of commerce not to the Virgin but to “the Goddess of Getting-on,” an engorged and rapacious “Britannia of the Marketplace.”

Wilson’s keen social conscience enables him to see the cardinal contradiction underlying the Victorian achievement: unprecedented prosperity in the midst of appalling poverty. Within a short carriage ride from the Crystal Palace, a half-starved urban populace scavenged through the refuse dropped by the classes above them and collected dung from animals who were better housed and fed than they. Conditions were still worse in the factories and mines. The coal that fired your cozy grate, Wilson writes, “was dragged through underground tunnels too small for a grown man by child workers as young as six.” Wilson spares us the testimony of a woman “drawer,” cited in Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844). Crawling on hands and knees, the drawers were fastened by a chain which passed between the women’s legs and was attached to a harness around their waists. A woman drawer testified before a parliamentary commission that “the belt and chain are worse when we are in a family way.”

Three interrelated modes of enslavement kept order at home and abroad: of blacks in the colonies, of the urban and industrial proletariat in England, and of women in every English home. Over their own bodies, their children, and their property, the legal rights of married women were the same as those of a black slave: nil. The slow, painstaking lifting of this bondage over a period of half a century (the black slave trade was the first to be abolished, in 1834) is perhaps the greatest achievement of the Victorians, as the need to eradicate it in the first place is their greatest shame.


Curiously, the very keenness of Wilson’s social conscience blinds him to the achievements of three of the most gifted and influential of the Victorians: the architect and advocate of Gothic A.W.N. Pugin, John Henry Newman, and the most radically innovative of Victorian poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins. All three were converts from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. Wilson himself in his early twenties was a seminarian studying for the Anglican priesthood. But unlike the three converts, he moved from greater certainties to lesser. Of Newman, Wilson writes that “becoming a Roman Catholic…often marginalizes and narrows an English imagination.” He much admires the social activism of Cardinal Manning but dismisses Newman’s spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864–1865)—the subtlest and most moving anatomy of the organs of belief in our literature—in a single word: “mellifluous.” True, Newman’s egotism is off-putting. From earliest childhood he believed in the reality of “two and two only absolute and luminously self evident beings, myself and my Creator.” This is an egotism so pure, so radical and unabashed that, like Milton’s, it approaches sublimity. Catholicism did not narrow Newman’s imagination but gave it the ample suck it craved from birth.

Although Wilson writes brilliantly of the religious poetry of the Anglican Christina Rossetti, he says not a word about Hopkins. And he is much too quick to dismiss A.W.N. Pugin, the great apologist and architect of the Gothic Revival, as the talented interior decorator of the new Houses of Parliament. Pugin’s Contrasts (1836) is one of the most important works of the period, an illustrated argument for reviving not only a style but the Catholic values which that style articulated in stone. Carlyle’s Past and Present is indebted to Pugin, and Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture would burn less brightly were it not for Pugin’s unacknowledged influence. And, for better or worse, we would have far fewer Gothic Revival campuses in America had Pugin never lived.

Wilson is an ironist in the great tradition of Gibbon and Carlyle. Historians of empire are inevitably ironists, if only because the higher the imperial edifice rises—in ancient Rome or at the Sun King’s Versailles—the more spectacular will be its fall. Wilson is a belated follower in this tradition. Queen Victoria adds the most brilliant jewel to her crown—the title of “Empress of India”—in 1876, “at a time when the monarch had never exercised smaller actual power.” A year after the Pope declared his own infallibility (1870), Darwin published The Descent of Man, reminding us of the “wonderfully close similarity between the chimpanzee, orang[utan] and man….” With the same eye for ironic juxtaposition, Wilson notes that Cecil Rhodes colonized South Africa with almost missionary zeal, believing that the British would inherit the earth, when the real power of Europe was passing from England to Germany. In the years to come, Britons sang Ar-thur C. Benson’s rousing anthem to empire—

Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be set!
God who made thee mighty—make thee mightier yet!—

even as the sun had begun to set on imperial Britain. The anthem, “bellowed now with some irony” at the close of the Prom Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, was the credo of two generations of Englishmen, until 1945, when Winston Churchill was voted out of office.

More than half a century earlier, Churchill had served as a war correspondent during the Boer War. Victoria took a keen interest in the war’s progress, kept photographs of her fallen officers, and, insofar as her failing eyesight allowed, read dispatches from the front. Had she lived only a few days longer she might have read the young Churchill’s account in the Morning Post of the disastrous British defeat on January 24, 1900, in the Battle of Spion Kop.


If Wilson is at times hyperbolic, Matthew Sweet delights in shocking his readers with a veritable carnival of rapes, freak shows, high-wire acts, and serial murders. As entertainment, Inventing the Victorians is well worth the price of admission; as a serious revaluation of the period, it is nugatory. We learn from Sweet what most of us already know: the Victorians enjoyed sex, did not drape their piano legs in fear that their curves would arouse lascivious thoughts, and mothers did not in fact counsel their newly wedded daughters to “lie back, dear, and think of England.”2

Nearly forty years ago Steven Marcus, in The Other Victorians (1966), entered the underground world of Victorian sexuality, traveled further, and saw that pornography, with its fantasies of endless orgasm, mirrored in reverse the sexual repressions of “the official culture.” It is exactly this sort of historical and analytic sophistication that Sweet lacks. He is a belated, pop debunker of that arch debunker of the Victorians, Lytton Strachey. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians appeared in 1918, when everything Victorian appeared weary, stale, smug, and hypocritical—a world that had been blown to pieces in the trenches of the First World War. Less a history than a caricature, Strachey’s Victorians are wobbly eminences indeed. (Florence Nightingale figures as a “Demon-possessed” workaholic who sucks the very lives of the hapless males she enlists in her labors of reform.) Sweet has simply replaced one outdated caricature with another. His Victorians did not fear sex, as Strachey everywhere intimates, but were obsessed by it; were not uptight but unbuttoned.

Yet I would be dishonest to deny the compulsive readability of this Baedeker of Victorian oddity, energy, and perversity, its indiscriminate profusion of fact, including a mini-essay that explains why the cutlery of the gentry used to be placed at the diner’s right hand, because, before the widespread availability of toilet paper, he would wipe himself with his left. In a chapter on Victorian advertising, Sweet cites a “contact ad” much like, in its ingenuity and unintended pathos, the “Personals” columns of today: “…wishes to become the wife of an actor…. She is nineteen, pretty, more fair than dark, and rather brilliant-looking by candlelight.” We learn, too, that the Victorians pioneered the celebrity endorsement. Oscar Wilde “fronted publicity for Madame Fontaine’s Bosom Beautifier” and Kipling plugged Bovril, the still-popular beef extract, as a tonic for troops in the Boer War: “An Invigorating and Nourishing Food, preparing the soldier for battle and aiding him to recovery when weakened by wounds….”

These are the finer surprises of Inventing the Victorians. More typically Sweet escorts us through Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors or the still-littered sites of murders and hangings. Sensational accounts of crimes and the display of freaks are the centerpieces of the book. In reading about these, I found myself lingering guiltily, as at a gory accident on an interstate. For Sweet is a voyeur who makes voyeurs of his readers. An habitué of Madame Tussaud’s, he returns to lament how “heritagey” it has become after the eviction of the Manson family and with no “Jeffrey Dahmer hunched by the refrigerator.” Art and life come together in waxen fusion as Sweet stares at the effigies of celebrated Victorian murderers and their victims. (There is, perhaps, a hidden element of necrophilia in our gazing at lifelike effigies of the dead, in violation of ancient taboo, as when looking into an open coffin or even when staring at a sleeping stranger.)

He revisits the rural scene of the beheaded, dismembered “Sweet Fanny Adams” and illustrates the crime with a contemporary woodcut. In the artless illustration the child appears to be witnessing her own decapitation. Happily, her eyes are still in their sockets, but Fanny’s long, serpentining curls suggest the head of a nubile Medusa.3 In his introduction Sweet promises to surprise us by “exhuming” Victorian texts that run counter to our preconceptions. He delivers perhaps more than he intends.

Sweet’s chapter in defense of freak shows rests on a rickety thesis: Victorian freaks were, in effect, happy campers: the better known among them were well-paid celebrities, a more desirable fate than that of their modern counterparts, who are aborted as fetuses or used medically as specimens. Nothing in the chapter is more arresting than its epigraph from Diane Arbus’s album of freaks:

There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.

To view a freak, as Arbus suggests, is to encounter an incarnate riddle, a myth housed in a human body. Like the gods, freaks can have tangled genealogies, ignoring the prohibitions against consanguine marriage. Sweet tells us that the microcephalics Maximo and Bartola were first exhibited as brother and sister but later celebrated their marriage at a fashionable London supper club frequented by Oscar Wilde. Among the Greek gods, the supreme artisan Hephaistos was a hunchback who hobbled about on a game leg through the halls of Olympus. The son of Zeus, he married Zeus’ sister Aphrodite. The warrior Athena sprang full-grown from Zeus’ forehead. Laloo, the Victorian freak, born in India and exhibited in London, wore a tuxedo (“they’re aristocrats”) but the head of Laloo’s vestigial Siamese twin brother was embedded inside Laloo’s abdomen, the tiny torso and legs dangling outside, as if the princely Laloo were giving partial birth to himself. Laloo’s handlers, Sweet tells us, dressed his little brother as a girl, adding a touch of her-maphroditism to the show. Shades of Ovid’s Metamorphoses hover over Sweet’s narrative—two midgets were exhibited as the Fairy Sisters—and his disturbingly pitiless account of Miss Julia Pastrana, exhibited as the Bear Woman, now mummified, her corpse nibbled away by mice, ghoulishly mirrors Apuleius’ tale of Telephron, whose ears and nose were eaten away by witches in his sleep.

Early in the chapter, Sweet reproduces Matthew Brady’s wedding portrait of General Tom Thumb (thirty-one inches high) and his yet tinier bride Lavinia. The towering Abraham Lincoln (6’4″) was a guest at their reception. A child attending the reception might have found himself in a waking dream. Dreams are metaphors for what is itself a metaphor, the idea of metamorphosis, of which freaks are emblems. They were often displayed behind closed curtains, as if beckoning to us from behind the locked gate of our half-forgotten childhood, like the seductive and terrifying goblins who lurk in the watery rushes of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.”

The very names of Victorian freaks recall the alarming instability of boundaries and the mocking cruelty of childhood: Sweet’s gallery of freaks includes Lobster Claw Lady, General Mite and Commodore Nutt, Elephant Man, Three-Legged Child, and the Celebrated Legless Acrobat. To enter a freak show is to see ourselves reflected in a carnival mirror, to walk into our nightmares of deformity and mutilation, of monstrous enlargement or reduction in size (Lewis Carroll’s Alice experiences both). Freaks, in short, freak us out. But out of what? In caricature, distortion cannot exceed the limits of recognition; in the world of freaks, the limit is set by biological viability. In beholding extreme deformity, we feel sympathy as well as horror. But we may also feel a suppressed and guilty laughter at the grotesque comedy of errors that nature has played out upon the body of a freak.

Such a complex of emotions is inherently destabilizing, and perhaps freaks served the Victorians as unconscious emblems of their own anxieties over a world undergoing unpredictable and alarming change, a world that Lewis Carroll expressed comically in his deformations and transformations of characters and words. Yet, however unsettling, Victorian freaks also evoked a vanishing, ancient world. The niece of Emperor Augustus kept a freak at court, and the original Tom Thumb resided at King Arthur’s Camelot. Revolutionary change quickens anxiety but also awakens nostalgia. Queen Victoria crowded her coffin with memorabilia; her subjects collected commemorative mugs, fairy tales, and freaks.

I end where Sweet’s celebration of Victorian freaks begins, with the author taking the B train to Coney Island in the summer of 1999 to see “America’s last freak show.” He describes the ghost of the former glories of Luna Park, the still-surviving Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs (a nickel apiece in my day), and his face-to-face encounter with a few surviving freaks. Deep in the Great Depression, my unwise father took me to that very spot. We passed behind a shabby velvet curtain into a room crowded with freaks of all kinds, performing and immobile. There I saw, with a child’s pitilessness, two aged, drooling microcephalics, meticulously picking and eating lice from each other’s pointed heads. They were exhibited as husband and wife but looked for all the world like siblings.

This Issue

April 10, 2003