Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review : Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet (Faber and Faber 2001)

Think of the Victorians. Do you conjure up pictures of sexually repressed patriarchs who covers their piano legs to prevent their wives, daughters and servants developing impure thoughts? Or do you have visions of stench and squalour, new railway lines being thrust through putrid slums whilst dark satanic mills belch the fumes of unfettered capitalism throughout the land? Or, for that matter, do think of Oscar Wilde and his aesthetic friends, sipping absinthe and giggling over improbably-endowed satyrs in Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations. Or Jack the Ripper, carving his way through Whitechapel?

All these pictures are valid, and Matthew Sweet explores each in his engaging work on Inventing the Victorians. His thesis is that time has distorted our vision of the Victorians and in actual fact they were very similar to us. They were less stuffy about sex than we imagine - the covered piano-legs in fact originate in the United States, and it wasn't Queen Victoria who first lay back and thought of England, but a certain Lady Hillingham in 1912 (although as a counter-example, the form of body-piercing known as a "Prince Albert" was actually the invention of an American proprietor of a string of body-piercing parlours around 1970.)

Despite the book's publicity which focusses on sex and serial killers, it also delves into less extreme byways, such as the nature of Victorian advertising which was, if it can be conceived, even more intrusive and less truthful than today, interior design, or the remarkable feats of the tightrope walker Blondin, who cooked dinner above the Niagara falls, and took a lion in a wheelbarrow on a wire slung between the towers of the Crystal Palace. Apparently spam mails originate in the nineteenth century, as does the first Indian Restaurant in Britain, which predates the first Fish and Chip shop by 54 years. It is an eclectic, enjoyable mix, with the emphasis on the interesting anecdote rather than the thesis which does get rather lost as Sweet gets carried away describing in detail the debauches of the Yellow Book set, or Charles Dodgson's attitude to little girls.

Sweet's conclusion is that the Victorians weren't as stuffed-shirt as we would like to think they were. To be honest, I don't think that most people actually think that - the cliché today, buttressed by numerous Sensation novels both of the 19th century and today, is of the hypocritical veneer of the Victorian patriarch whose outward respectability hides a penchant for prostitutes and pornography. However, let that minor cavil not detract from a most enjoyable romp through some of the less-well known byways of Victorian life.

No comments: