Yesterday I started reading a new book, Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet, and I tweeted some facts as I read. Lots of people wanted to know more, so I thought I'd share here!
'Was Queen Victoria amused? Did Victorian ladies really ''lie back and think of England'' In Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet argues that our nineteenth-century forebears were more liberated and radical than we believed.''
Delving into such Victorian passions as advertising, interior decoration, sex scandals and serial killers, Matthew Sweet shows us that we are not so far removed from the Victorians as we would like to think.
The introduction opens with, 'Suppose that everything we think we know about the Victorians is wrong.' Instantly I was hooked!
The book aims to challenge the stereotypes we have of the Victorians. We may presume they were racist, but they elected Britain's first Asian Members of Parliament. We believe that they were strictly religious, but the numbers that attended church fell just as sharply as they do today. We remember the graphic Victorian violence, but apparently their crime figures were lower (I would imagine this to be perhaps be linked to reporting figures?) and we think of them as purists, yet we have tons of evidence proving this false.
I am only up to chapter two, but here are some factoids that tickled my fancy so far:
Victorians are responsible for: Fax machine, junk mail (via telegram), mass-produced porn, DIY, feminism, plastic, fish and chips, sex ads, spin-doctoring, heated curling tongs and much much more.
Much of what we believe to be widespread common belief during the Victorian era has come from books published at the time. It would be like taking The Rules, and and saying that everyone alive during this period viewed relationships in this way. Can we really use self help books and sex manuals to judge a whole society?
Chapter One is titled 'The Sensation Seekers' and focuses on the Victorians love of excitement, risk and spectacle. It delves into the life and career of Blondin (born 1824) who infamously walked across a wire over Niagra Falls. He didn't just cross it.....he went onto crossing it with a wheelbarrow, with a man over on his back, blindfolded, on a bicycle and dressed in costume. Oh and he also put a lion into the barrow once too.
Chapter Two is 'The First Picture Show' which talks about the birth of film. Modern myth tells us that when the first film of a steam train in 1895 it resulted in fainting, screaming and a mass fleeing of the cinema. Matthew Sweet challenges this with some pretty rational arguments against it! The Victorians were used to 'magic', surprises and excitement in much the way we are. We didn't scream when the first 3D film came out did we?
Between 1896 and 1915 there were 56 film adaption of Dickens, 21 based on novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 17of Rip Van Winkle, 6 Jane Eyres, 10 Uncle Tom Cabins........
In the chapter he includes some directions to find nudges to our Victorian film past on the buildings that surround us....a film buff would love to follow his little tour!
My final factoid for the day.......apparently Oscar Wilde was (sexually) a fairly typical Victorian man.
Can't wait to keep reading! Do let me know if you buy the book and read it too!