Reviews provided by Syndetics
Library Journal Review
Wilson will need all his skills as a biographer and novelist to encompass an era that included Darwin, Marx, and George Eliot. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
"There will always be an England" ran one of the New Yorker's fabled lines. And there will always be writers-and readers-besotted with the Victorians. Wilson, biographer of John Milton and C.S. Lewis and author of many other works, provides a pastiche of the Victorian age. The 43 chapters are notably brief; the five parts move chronologically through the decades from the 1830s to the 1890s. Individual topics cover the spectrum of life in 19th-century Britain, including high politics and astounding economic progress. Wilson offers vivid sketches of John Ruskin, Robert Browning and many other cultural luminaries. Yet Wilson is, thankfully, not pollyannaish: he depicts the wrenching conditions that industrialization foisted upon the common people and marshals an array of stories that shatter the image of a benign, civilizing colonialism. The many anecdotes about Victorians famous and obscure will delight many readers, but Wilson's book is long on stories and short on explanation. Those with little background in British history will be confused by the parade of people who come and go, and by events that are mentioned but not described. Specialists, on the other hand, will be annoyed by many of the author's judgments, such as the strange comparison of Marx and Hitler and the claim that "there is an inexorability about events and their consequences." Wilson's book has its enjoyable moments, but readers will be better off opening any one of the volumes in Peter Gay's magisterial series, The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud. 32 pages of illus. not seen by PW. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Prolific novelist-biographer Wilson provides a survey of the Victorian world that is a feast for the mind. He breaks no new ground and may commit an occasional error, but has not written a dull page. The book is organized by decades divided into short chapters that illuminate key people and events. Wilson is tough on his Victorians, has his likes and dislikes, and does not flinch from dubious interpretations--his reading of Ireland and India are examples. The lack of detachment can be both refreshing in its directness but off-putting as well, when one acknowledges that the Victorians inhabited a very different world from that of today. Wilson's main indictment of the age is the growing class and wealth divisions and the loss of faith. Much good came of this period, but there was also much hardship. Even to fastidious readers, Wilson's failings are minor, and the colorful tapestry he presents of a smoky world peopled with the likes of Carlyle, Mill, Marx, Ruskin, and Darwin can hardly fail to enthrall. Both professional scholars and laypeople will love to relax with this book, although some knowledge of the age is a must. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. Most collections and levels. P. T. Smith Saint Joseph's University
According to the author, Victorian philosophers, scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, and politicians ushered in an era of rapid and unprecedented change. Twentieth and twenty-first century sensibilities were shaped and foreshadowed by a daring group of radical thinkers who belie the common notion that nineteenth-century Britons were, for the most part, staid and conservative thinkers and workers. Attempting to paint a "portrait of an age" that transformed the world and spawned an increasingly global point-of-view, Wilson provides a decade-by-decade overview of the Victorian era, animating those men and women whose actions and ideas helped define and characterize one of the most innovative and influential ages in history. Wilson's background as a biographer and a novelist enables him to vividly capture and communicate the texture and the flavor of Victorian Britain. --Margaret Flanagan
Kirkus Book Review
A brilliant evocation of a generation that, at least for the English, is both very much alive and has "vanished totally." Over the course of just a few decades in the 19th century, England grew from regional force to global power as it was remade from "a primarily rural community governed at local level paternalistically, at a national level aristocratically" to "an industrial country governed nationally by plutocrats, locally by bureaucrats." A noted novelist (Dream Children, 1998), biographer (Jesus: A Life, 1992), and historian of ideas (God's Funeral, 1999), Wilson ably crosses genres to give readers a portrait of the Victorian era that blends eminent lives with big events and ideas, all delivered in a fluent narrative. Born in 1950, he writes, he belonged to the last English generation that could know this bygone world as "an almost remembered oral tradition" through the anecdotes of elderly compatriots who had been alive during Victoria's reign. Where those tales conflict with received history, Wilson rolls up his sleeves and hits the archives to correct either the anecdote or the historical record. His cast of characters numbers in the hundreds: Dickens, Darwin, Dodgson, and Disraeli are but a few of the Ds, and even Dostoyevsky makes an appearance, though perhaps to be indexed under another Wilsonian theme, the Death of God. Settings range from the high streets of London and England's provincial capitals to slums, wharves, crofts, and factories. Wilson links all these stories, scenes, and players together with some well-defended generalizations, including a few that would do Marx proud: he doesn't just state the obvious fact that "the fortunes of the Victorian millionaires, the mill-owners, the mine-owners, the engineers and the speculative builders were founded on the suffering of others," he immediately adds, "nor was this suffering accidental." An altogether excellent look at the Victorian era, with all its flaws and glories.