Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know About Them and Why We're Wrong

Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know About Them and Why We're Wrong

by Matthew Sweet

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"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. One hundred years after 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 park, 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 outcast, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466872714
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/03/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Matthew Sweet recently completed his thesis on sensation fiction. His work appears regularly in The Independent and The Guardian. He lives in London.

Matthew Sweet is the author of Inventing the Victorians, Shepperton Babylon, and The West End Front. He is a columnist for Art Quarterly and a contributing editor for Newsweek International, and he presents the BBC radio programs Free Thinking, Sound of Cinema, and The Philosopher’s Arms. He was series consultant on the Showtime drama Penny Dreadful and played a moth from the planet Vortis in the BBC2 drama An Adventure in Space and Time. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Inventing the Victorians

By Matthew Sweet

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2001 Matthew Sweet
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7271-4


The Sensation Seekers

Outside amusements were few: hence the frequency with which the piano figured in the home.

T. K. Derry and T. L. Jarman, The Making of Modern Britain (1956) The front page of a nineteenth-century copy of The Times is a printed rebuttal to the received image of Victorian entertainment. The edition for 1 January 1861 carries 179 advertisements on its cover. There are sixty relating to shipping, rail travel, haulage; seven personal announcements; twenty-three lost and found dogs, watches and relations; five legal notices; one each advertising the sale of picture frames, bottles and Christmas trees. But the remaining eighty-one are all related to entertainments and leisure: either for products such as toys, games, conjuring sets, skates and magic lanterns; or events such as concerts, theatricals, acrobatic displays, panoramas, pantomimes, waxwork shows and phrenological demonstrations. There are four ventriloquists, three magicians, two dancing dog acts, a spiritualist and a pianist for hire, and ten announcements from ticket agencies offering to secure admittance to any show in London.

A breathless excitement gasps from these advertisements, as if their hyperbole can hardly hope to keep pace with the appetite it feeds. Every product, every event, every novelty is too big, too massive, too wondrous for any sensible person to ignore. It suggests a culture drunk with a sense of its own success, its dizzying complexity; a population goggling at the endless opportunities for spectacular pleasure made possible by those qualities. An ad for the 'Juvenile Fete' at the Royal Colosseum, for instance, announces that 'the Giant Christmas Tree will bloom with watches, cutlery, jewellery and countless toys for gratuitous distribution'. There will be 'Modern Magic by Mr Taylor' and a demonstration of a 'New and powerful Oxyhydrogen Microscope, with its Myriad of Living Wonders'. A 'Photo-stereoscopic Exhibition', 'Cosmoramic Views' and 'Colossal Dioramas of London & Paris, Stalactite Caverns, Swiss Cottages and Mountain Torrents' can be experienced, along with thenovel promise that 'Mr Morris will perform on the Crystal-ophonic and Musical Rocks'. Science-fiction technology, coupled with aggressive marketing techniques, produces boasts of volume and richness too gigantic to represent, too extensive to consume. The magic is modern, the dioramas are colossal, the views are cosmoramic and the distribution is gratuitous. The children of Londoners at the turn of the twentieth century yelled for Playstations, Pokemon and Buzz Lightyear. At the 1861 Juvenile Fete, hundreds of young Victorians scrabbled for spoons and paste diamonds, wild with an identical desire for instant gratification.

There were other, more complex objects of desire: Victorian children wanted to get their hands on the new generation of domestic gadgets formulated with only pleasure in mind; machines that would import the visual thrills of the diorama, the Cosmorama and the photo-stereroscope into the drawing rooms and parlours of England. Sir Charles Wheatstone had devised the stereoscope – a device for viewing three-dimensional images – in 1833. By the 1860s, improved, compact models by Sir David Brewster and Oliver Wendell Holmes had made the machine a mass-market home entertainment system. The London Stereoscopic Company claimed a stock of 100,000 machines, and their advertising slogan 'No Home Without a Stereoscope' made a familiar play upon fears of parental inadequacy. The magic lantern, known since the seventeenth century, enjoyed a concurrent vogue. The first practical handbook on the domestic operation of such devices was published in Britain in 1866, and celebrated 'the increased use of the Magic Lantern, as a means of beguiling the long evenings of winter'. For those parents of more modest means, the Zoetrope – invented in 1834 by William George Horner – was a cheap substitute. It may not have offered the spectacular dissolving views of the destruction of Pompeii provided by the more expensive models of magic lantern, but its revolving drum conjured something more genuinely magical: a series of images printed on a strip of paper, which strobed into vigorous life. Lions leaping over the backs of galloping horses, couples swirling about a dance floor, red devils jumping through hoops, an infinite number of monkeys exchanging stovepipe hats in a continuous loop. The Zoetrope brought the movies to England. The Victorians gazed into the machine, thrilled with the knowledge that, thanks to these new visual technologies, it was no longer possible for them to believe their eyes. One of their many innovations in this field, the cinematograph, remains quite popular today.

There were social and economic factors determining the increasingly elaborate, technological and systematised nature of having fun. The Factory Act (1847) prescribed statutory holidays, giving precise delineation to the boundary between work and leisure time. Crudely speaking, work patterns shifted from those following the rhythms established by families and communities to those timetabled by managements keen to optimise the productivity of their workforces. At the same time, traditional leisure pursuits were being undermined by a new body of public order legislation which still maps the limits of acceptable behaviour on our streets. The 1834 Poor Law Act meant that travelling balladeers and entertainers could be arrested for vagrancy; the 1835 Highways Act allowed street entertainments and sports to be reclassified as nuisances; the 1835 Cruelty to Animals Act outlawed cock-fighting and dog-fighting – but preserved aristocratic blood sports. There was a switch from locally-generated activities and community-based entertainments to increasingly officialised ones: national cricket and football leagues, public swimming baths, dance clubs, museums, exhibitions, arcade games, ticket-only entertainment events – the repertoire of public recreations to which we still adhere. Visual spectacles took on a new primacy. Like us, the Victorians loved staring at things with their mouths open.

The historian Thomas Richards traces this quest for stimulation to the theatre in the first full decade of the Victorian era. 'The spectacle of the early Victorian stage conditioned their audiences always to expect more ... Indeed, one reason Prince Albert's idea for a Great Exhibition was so well received is that by the late 1840s, the escalation of spectacle had gotten so out of hand that it was evident nothing short of a massive collective effort could possibly come close to satisfying the well-nigh universal public craving for monster displays of special effects.' Some of the Crystal Palace exhibits might now seem rather peculiar – a brace of stuffed ermine nailed into position at a taxidermal tea-party, a precursor of the fax machine, gigantic butter sculptures, a roll of paper 1.5 miles long – but these attractions were viewed by a daily average of 43,000 visitors (easily double the figure for its modern equivalent, the Millennium Dome) and helped to inaugurate the first great boom in British consumerism. When Mr Sleary, the lisping circus ringmaster of Dickens's Hard Times, reflected that 'people mutht be amuthed', he was acknowledging that the frantic mass consumption of novelty was one of the defining qualities of the nineteenth-century experience. Always more, always bigger, always increasingly exciting, extravagant, pleasurable; entertainments which dispensed thrills that were powerful enough to overwhelm the senses. And it was in the Crystal Palace that the Victorian public submitted to the most overpowering spectacle of their age – but they had to wait until 1861, when Joseph Paxton's flatpack glass cathedral to global capitalism had been dismantled, removed from its first home in Hyde Park and reassembled in a semi-rural suburb of south-east London.

In the early years of the 1860s, a term began to appear in journalistic writing that described a new type of cultural product, one which embodied the mid-Victorian predilection for spectacular thrills: sensation. By the end of the decade, the public had experienced sensation trials, novels, paragraphs, dramas, contortionists, diplomacy, and – in a burlesque version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame – a sensation goat. The word had been in use since the last quarter of the eighteenth century to describe a violent or excited feeling produced within an individual or community. (The OED's first recorded use of this sense is found in Lord John Malmesbury's diary for 1779. Malmesbury, the celebrated diplomat, wrote of 'a great sensation in the foreign courts'.) Its use as an attributive noun, however, does not seem to have occurred until the 1860s, when a plethora of examples appeared in print for the first time. In 1861, the Illustrated London News observed the prevalence of the '"sensation" paragraphs' of modern crime reporting. The epithet was being applied to fiction by 1861, when a reviewer in the Spectator referred to Francis Browne's The Castleford Case (1861) as 'a new variety of sensation novel'. Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon – who favoured plots involving bigamy, murder, poisoning, insanity and theft – were regarded as the chief exponents of the form. In 1864, a critic in the Edinburgh Review commented that 'two or three years ago ... nobody would have known what was meant by a sensation novel', and claimed that the term had evolved from the status of 'jocular use' to one of a 'regular commercial name'. It was attached to 'drama' and 'scene' in print by 1860 – William Makepeace Thackeray noting in 1861 that 'at the theatres they have a new name for their melodramatic pieces, and call them "Sensation Dramas"'. In his column in the Cornhill, Thackeray considered an infamous murder in Northumberland Street, arguing that the incident was a greater sensation drama than the most celebrated of the genre, Dion Boucicault's The Colleen Bawn (1860).

In terms of plot, characters and dialogue, the sensation drama was not significantly different from the melodramatic pieces that Boucicault and other writers had been producing since the 1840s. Indeed, many were versions of older material, rewritten and repackaged to include extra novelty elements. The reason for the astonishing success and popularity of plays such as The Colleen Bawn and The Octoroon(1859) lay in their overwhelming emphasis on arresting stage mechanics, their aggressive progress towards what became known as the 'sensation scene' – the Victorian equivalent of today's 'helicopter moment'. These works, and those of Boucicault's imitators, constructed a dramatic plot around a series of thrilling stage effects which relied on elaborate theatrical technology and acrobatic performances from the actors. Boucicault first realised that audiences appreciated touches of arresting realism in 1841, when he decided to abandon the traditional painted drapes and dress the set of his farce London Assurance with real windows, mirrors and chandeliers – and elicited a spontaneous round of applause simply by raising the curtain. By the 1850s, his techniques had achieved extraordinary levels of complexity. The Poor of New York (1857) – the title of which Boucicault altered to fit wherever his company happened to be playing – amazed audiences with its forced-perspective gaslit street and its burning building licked by real flames. The Colleen Bawn used gauze waves flapped by twenty stage hands to create the illusion of a cave filled with lapping water. The Octoroon reconstructed a burning riverboat and a thrillingly lifelike Southern plantation, and used a camera to catch its villain. Pauvrette (1858) boasted an onstage avalanche and the collapse of a rope bridge over a crevasse. The Flying Scud (1866) simulated Derby Day with cardboard horses, and concluded by leading the genuine article on to the stage for the finale. (In the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris, they went one better and engaged real horses to gallop and pant away on a concealed treadmill.)

It was, however, the final act of The Colleen Bawn – which witnessed the near-drowning of the heroine and her dramatic rescue from an underground river – that delivered the most profound sensation. Henry Morley, the theatre critic of The Times, reflected that by September 1860 '"Have you seen the Colleen Bawn?" became one of the questions which everybody asked and which nobody cared to answer in the negative.' 'He Who Pays' of Punch protested, 'Of course I went to the Colleen Bawn. I couldn't help myself. Everyone was bothering me about it.' The magazine published a cartoon satirising its modishness with the leisured classes, in which a young woman affirms her familiarity with the piece in a tone that speaks volumes about the rapidity with which some Victorians moved from one novelty to the next:


Queen Victoria went to see the production twice during its initial run. (She also paid dozens of visits to the Crystal Palace, but it is not known whether she was enough like the Horrid Girl to have read Paul Belloni Du Chaillu's Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa [1861], the first published account of gorillas in the wild.) Full of admiration for Boucicault's work, she wrote to the Princess Royal to say that 'People are wild about it – and the scene when the poor Colleen is thrown into the water and all but drowned is wonderfully done.' So intense was the response of its audience that the play generated a plethora of cross-media spin-offs, some produced with Boucicault's co-operation, others maintaining a more piratical relationship with their source. In December 1861, it would have been possible to see the morning performance of the equestrian version of the show at Astley's Amphitheatre, travel to the Gallery of Illustration on Regent Street to hear Mr John Orlando Parry 'Relate, Musically, the Vicissitudes of "The Colleen Bawn"', catch the original at the New Adelphi, cross the Thames for a late performance of the Surrey Theatre's burlesque version – The Cooleen, Drawn (from a novel source), or The Great Sensation Diving Belle – and round off the evening by dancing to The Colleen Bawn Galop, The Colleen Bawn Polka Mazurka and The Octoroon Valses. Six months later, those not entirely satiated could roll up at Covent Garden for The Lily of Killarney, the grand opera rewrite, crafted in collaboration with John Oxenford and Julius Benedict.

Sensation was a physical effect upon the body – a book, play or event which made the heart beat faster, the pupils dilate, the eyes follow the performer or the plot with hysterical urgency – but it also implied a wide and swift circulation throughout culture. Even as it engendered a somatic response in its audiences, the work of Dion Boucicault, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins was crackling through Victorian culture like an electric shock.

There was one name, however, that was more perfectly synonymous with the Victorians' craving for sensation: Blondin. Born Jean François Gravelet in the Normandy town of Hesdin, in 1824, Blondin was unquestionably the nineteenth century's greatest icon of spectacular entertainment. His acrobatic performances at Niagara Falls in 1859 were reported all over the globe; his displays at the Crystal Palace two years later made him one of the most celebrated personalities in England. The secret of his success was simple. He risked a sudden and messy death for a paying public who found themselves mesmerised, appalled, transported to a state of irresistible agony, by his feats of skill and nerve. Watching his act must have been a furiously difficult pleasure – accounts of audience members fainting half-way through were routine – but hundreds of thousands of spectators found it impossible to tear their eyes away from him. There will never be another Blondin. Even if what he did was still legal, it is doubtful whether any living person would be capable of repeating his stunts.

Stand on the midway point of the Rainbow Bridge, the great metal arch which connects Ontario, Canada, with Buffalo, USA, and you begin to appreciate the extraordinary nature of Blondin's talent. One hundred and fifty feet below, the copper-blue rapids of the Niagara river surge northwards. At this height, you can see little constellations of white gulls dotted on the surface. The fisherman casting their lines from the rocks on the Canadian side are impossibly tiny. Up ahead, the twin monsters of the Horseshoe and the American Falls appear as two white walls of thunder and spray. Even from this vantage point – a chunky arm of steel and concrete, two thick lines of traffic wide – the view is enough to make you feel sick and dizzy, to grip the rail more tightly. The courage required to walk across this chasm on a length of rope two inches thick can scarcely be imagined. But to make the trip blindfolded? Or pushing a wheelbarrow? Or riding a bicycle? Or carrying a man on your back? No wonder many Britons suspected that reports of Blondin's activities were some sort of hoax, 'an idle phantom floating in the imaginative brain of the New York penny-a-liners'.


Excerpted from Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet. Copyright © 2001 Matthew Sweet. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Copyright Notice,
List of Illustrations,
Introduction: Inventing the Victorians,
1 The Sensation Seekers,
2 The First Picture Show,
3 The Boer War, Brought to You by Bovril,
4 The Gutter and the Stars,
5 I Knew My Doctor Was A Serial Killer Because ...,
6 Last Exit to Shadwell,
7 The Archaeology of Good Behaviour,
8 Check Out Your Chintz,
9 A Defence of the Freak Show,
10 Presumed Innocent,
11 Whatever Happened to Patriarchy?,
12 Monomaniacs of Love,
13 Prince Albert's Prince Albert,
Conclusion: Liberating the Victorians,

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