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Understanding the Victorians

Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain


Susie L. Steinbach


London: Routledge, 2011

Paperback. xxx+278 p. 13 figures. ISBN-13: 978-0415774093. £23.99


Reviewed by Ingrid Hanson

University of Sheffield


There is much to inform and entertain the reader in this wide-ranging introductory history of Victorian life. Its opening pages, however, are less appealing than the book itself turns out to be: the twenty-page list of dates with which it opens is typographically jarring in its range of fonts and few minor errors, while the logic of what is included is not easy to discern. As a literary scholar, I found the timeline’s laconic claim that Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning are the ‘most important’ poets of the century from the 1830s onwards irritating (important by what measure, and to whom?) and inaccurate: despite early critical acclaim for Paracelsus, Browning was not widely known or generally well received by his contemporaries at this point. (Well beyond the 1830s, we might note, it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, not her husband, whose name was put forward for the Laureateship that went to Tennyson in 1850.) Such evaluative comments sit uneasily in a list alongside date-specific events like ‘first passenger railways open’ [xii].

The Introduction’s insistence on integration and comprehensiveness offers a rationale for the eclectic approach of the timeline: ‘this book declines to privilege politics and economics over social and cultural concerns’ [3]. ‘To speak of Victorian Britain, […] is to speak of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland’, Steinbach notes, and therefore ‘insofar as is possible, this book seeks to address the history of all of Britain’ [3]. Aimed primarily at American undergraduates, the book sets out to offer a view of the Victorian period that transcends not only the conceptual divisions of narrowly nationalist history and high and low culture but also those set up by regnal periodisation. Steinbach notes in passing, with characteristic attention to critical debate, that although using monarchs’ dates to define historical periods is no longer favoured in contemporary scholarship, ‘recently […] historian Martin Hewitt has argued in favor of analysing a regnal Victorian period’ [3]. While the claims of the introduction are large, and the aim of addressing the history of ‘all of Britain’ raises more historiographical questions than it answers, what follows does in fact traverse boundaries with great effectiveness and make meaningful connections between different aspects of Victorian life. Its combination of heterogeneous subject matter, illuminating and sometimes quirky detail and well-synthesised historical analysis makes it an excellent introductory read, with plenty of pointers for students to follow for more in-depth research.

The book is organised into thirteen themed chapters, ranging over politics and economics, monarchy and imperialism, gender and sexuality, class, religion, science and, more innovatively, space, law, shopping and entertainment. Each chapter stands alone as an accessible and discrete account of its topic while remaining connected to the overall narrative by a web of interrelated references. Some of these are more helpful than others. Despite the Introduction’s claim that the book ‘eschews a start date that emerges from high politics, diplomacy, or economics’ [3], it sets that date in 1820, with the Queen Caroline affair (and the popular response to it) and repeatedly refers back to this event; the piano, used as a marker of shifts in culture and class crops up in chapter after chapter; the idea of separate spheres is elaborated in chapter six and explained again, in similar terms, in chapter seven. Such repetitions may well serve to strengthen the book’s pedagogical usefulness by reinforcing key images and demonstrating the interconnectedness of different aspects of culture, but on occasion they feel rather overworked, particularly when they appear within a few pages of each other, as in chapter nine.

More importantly, however, each chapter covers a great deal of ground, providing a broad overview of its subject combined with close depiction of the practical experience of everyday life. The opening chapter on space and place signals the book’s commitment to the social and cultural, quoting popular newspapers alongside government reports and discussing common household sleeping arrangements, the increasing specialisation of rooms and women’s household cleaning routines, as well as the creation of city parks and the welter of anxieties surrounding city slums. The chapter on religion includes both the finer points of theological debate and the marriage practices of bigamous couples. While the chapter on law opens with the rather puzzling comment that ‘Victorian culture was awash with law’, it goes on to give an informative account of key public lawsuits and changes in law that affected and reflected Victorians’ lives, from the 1832 Reform Act and the O’Shea divorce case to the abolition of debtors’ prisons. The chapter on consumption draws together the economic, the practical and the cultural in its account of the ways in which Victorians engaged with shopping, pointing out the transformations in shopping practices made possible by the inclusion of female toilets and cafés in department stores [106], touching on changes in Christmas shopping expectations across the century [111] and highlighting the complex web of associations by which shopping was identified as a female pastime [109-111].

The commitment to a focus on ‘the interplay between received ideas and lived experience’ [4] extends to the book’s approach to its readers, which includes conscious acknowledgement of the differences in certain received ideas then and now, particularly in the present-day United States. Steinbach suggests that the heated political feelings aroused by Robert Peel’s Maynooth Grant ‘seem puzzling today’, but nonetheless ‘give us a sense of how intertwined politics and religion were’ [39]; she opens her discussion of class with the comment that ‘Americans in particular are uncomfortable discussing or identifying class disparities’ [114]; on religion she notes that Victorian evangelicalism did not imply the political conservatism that the word conjures today in the United States [223]; and on politics she writes that the requirement for voters to be members of the Church of England ‘is difficult for twenty-first century Americans to understand’ [33]. More tantalisingly, she compares urban poverty rates in 1913 with those in Britain and the United States today and finds them lower [97].

The book offers more than cultural contextualisation of the Victorians, however. One of its consistent strengths is its location of its material in relation to scholarly debate. The chapter on monarchy begins by observing that ‘histories of the Victorian era were once routinely written without reference to Victoria’ but that ‘since the 1980s this has changed, and Queen Victoria is now a well-studied part of Victorian history’ [148]. The chapter on religion challenges a simplistic narrative of science replacing religion, arguing that ‘this story, part of a larger “secularisation” model of history, is highly problematic, not least because neither religion nor science was monolithic’ [232-233]. Other engagements with scholarship include a summary of competing critical views of the causes of the economic depression of the 1870s-90s – although oddly, on this occasion, without giving references [93] – and an outline of changing emphases in the analysis of Victorian sexuality post-Foucault [194].

The book’s treatment of literature shows less nuance, although it is well integrated with historical detail and each chapter ends with a list of ‘Relevant Fiction that Students Might Enjoy’, consisting of Victorian and neo-Victorian novels. The chapter on arts and entertainment offers a dismissive account of poetry, name-checking Felicia Hemans and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but reiterating without qualification that Tennyson and Browning were ‘the most important’ poets of the period [185]. If it were not that the Introduction promises to ‘take […] literature as seriously as it does politics’ [4], it would seem churlish to remark on this blind spot in the face of Steinbach’s width of reference and wealth of accessibly presented information which includes, in this chapter, a splendid and pleasingly illustrated account of popular theatre.

Returning to the opening timeline after reading the rest of the book, its use as a reference tool for the more detailed accounts that follow is evident; its miscellaneous character appears more deliberate, more effective and more useful than on a first reading; in fact more decidedly and appropriately Victorian in its juxtapositions. Its typographical ugliness and minor errors continue to jar, and reflect the extraordinary number of typos in the book as a whole: there are over twenty on a quick count, including inaccurate punctuation [49], misspelling [96], additional words [160], and missing words [101]. Nonetheless, this is a highly readable, engaging and informative introduction to Victorian life and current historical scholarship of the period.


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