Lives without theory

Who's Who in Victorian Britain

May 1, 1998

For many Victorians history was a distillation of biographies. "Read no history, nothing but biography," we are told in Disraeli's Contarini Fleming, "for that is life without theory." Fortunately such advice did not deter Macaulay, but it certainly stimulated biographers and their publishers. Some of the Victorian biographies produced were short; others, the kind that Lytton Strachey condemned but drew heavily upon, were longer than three-decker novels. Many of the longest lacked not only theory (or wit) but life.

This useful single volume of Victorian biographies is very much a 20th-century product. It completes a Who's Who series launched by Basil Blackwell in 1962 and sadly, unwisely, discontinued by the company in 1974. Its appearance following an earlier volume on late-Hanoverian Britain is a tribute to the imagination and perseverance of Geoffrey Treasure, who contributes a foreword that promises that "in these pages there will be found in plenty, examples of heroism, genius and altruism; some of self-seeking, treachery and depravity. There will be little that is ordinary. It is the hope of the authors that there will be little that is dull."

And so the first entry - the right word, as in the standard Who's Who - treats Queen Victoria, who presides over the book as over the reign, in a gossipy way that would be resisted by the editors of a current Who's Who. Macaulay gets similar treatment. He was "spectacularly clumsy", we are told, but a razor gash, a knotted mess of cravat, habitual spillings and breakages were regularly attributed to his concentration on higher things. The entry ends rightly with higher things. Macaulay was buried in Westminster Abbey, which he earned and would have appreciated, but he would have appreciated even more his magisterial Life and Letters written by his nephew, George Otto Trevelyan. He would also have appreciated Roger Ellis's postscript that "it is there (in Trevelyan) and in Macaulay's own writing that he can still be found", "for he is the most readable of all the Victorian historians".

Few of them find a place. There is no sign of Freeman, Buckle, Lecky, Maitland or Acton. Selection, as Treasure notes, is notoriously difficult for a conscientious writer of a volume like this. Unfortunately, there is no list of the entries, which are arranged broadly chronologically rather than alphabetically, so that finding who is left out depends on consulting the index, or, of course, reading the book. We are not told how many entries there are. Publishers do not figure among them, but Delane is in. Mayhew is left out, but there is a place for Charles (and for William) Booth.

Fortunately we are given a list of the 26 characters who merit an illustration. Queen Victoria gets two. The brief but in places debatable preface on the reign is in no sense a distillation of the biographies, but it reminds us that the Victorian canvas is as crowded as Frith's Derby Day. Frith gets an entry. So, too, does Watts, three of whose portraits figure alongside entries. G. M. Young's Victorian England: Portrait of an Age rightly finds a place in the recommended and again (inevitably) highly selective book list.

Asa Briggs was formerly provost, Worcester College, Oxford.

Who's Who in Victorian Britain

Author - Roger Ellis
ISBN - 0 85683 095 X and 138 7
Publisher - Shepheard-Walwyn
Price - £.50 and £13.95
Pages - 465

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