"Suppose that everything we think we know about the Victorians is wrong." So begins Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet, a compact and mind-bending whirlwind tour through the soul of the nineteenth century, and a round debunking of our assumptions about it. The Victorians have been victims of the "the enormous condescension of posterity," in the historian E. P. Thompson's phrase. Locked in the drawing room, theirs was an age when, supposedly, existence was stultifying, dank, and over-furnished, and when behavior conformed so rigorously to proprieties that the repressed results put Freud into business. We think we have the Victorians pegged-as self-righteous, imperialist, racist, materialist, hypocritical and, worst of all, earnest.
Oh how wrong we are, argues Matthew Sweet in this highly entertaining, provocative, and illuminating look at our great, and great-great, grandparents. In this, the year of the centenary of Queen Victoria's death, Sweet forces us to think again about her century, entombed in our minds by Dickens, the Elephant Man, Sweeney Todd, and by images of unfettered capitalism and grinding poverty.
Sweet believes not only that we're wrong about the Victorians but profoundly indebted to them. In ways we have been slow to acknowledge, their age and our own remain closely intertwined. The Victorians invented the theme part, the shopping mall, the movies, the penny arcade, the roller coaster, the crime novel, and the sensational newspaper story. Sweet also argues that our twenty-first century smugness about how far we have evolved is misplaced. The Victorians were less racist than we are, less religious, less violent, and less intolerant. Far from being an outcaste, Oscar Wilde was a fairly typical Victorian man; the love that dared not speak its name was declared itself fairly openly. In 1868 the first international cricket match was played between an English team and an Australian team composed entirely of aborigines. The Victorians loved sensation, novelty, scandal, weekend getaways, and the latest conveniences (by 1869, there were image-capable telegraphs; in 1873 a store had a machine that dispensed milk to after-hours' shoppers). Does all this sound familiar?
As Sweet proves in this fascinating, eye-opening book, the reflection we find in the mirror of the nineteenth century is our own. We inhabit buildings built by the Victorians; some of us use their sewer system and ride on the railways they built. We dismiss them because they are the age against whom we have defined our own. In brilliant style, Inventing the Victorians shows how much we have been missing.
About Matthew Sweet
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Published October 20, 2001
by Faber & Faber.