Sensible story of Victorian folk

The Victorian World Picture
September 19, 1997

David Newsome's thoughtful and beautifully arranged "world picture" of Victorian Britain wisely avoids the language of "background" and "foreground". Instead it examines the world picture from five different angles - looking inwards; looking outwards; looking before and after; looking beyond; and looking ahead, a favourite activity of fin-de-si cle Victorians. Given Newsome's earlier and more detailed writings, to which all Victorian scholars are indebted, it is not surprising that religion figures in this "world picture" as much as, or more than, politics and that the contours of culture, if not quite the culture that captivates contemporary students of cultural studies, receive as much attention - or more than social trends. One of G. M. Young's favourite words, "watershed", is used in the first chapter, but the intellectual watershed of the 1870s is not fully identified as such, nor are the 1890s as clearly delineated as the 1840s. A few of the many quotations scattered through the book linger in the mind such as Thomas Carlyle's "O Time-Spirit, how hast thou environed and imprisoned us" or Absolom Watkins's "God preserve me from being poor". Both remarks might have been made at any point in Queen Victoria's long reign.

If she had not reigned for so long, we would not have been tempted to talk of one "Victorian world picture". In an age of change Newsome's quotations belong to one moment only in the reign. Near the beginning of what have been called "the mid-Victorian years" Julius Hare, Archdeacon of Lewes, made this abundantly clear in the last quotation in Newsome's book. "As time advances circumstances change: new wants spring up, and multiply, that which may have been perfectly suited for one form of society, for one mode of human thought and feeling becomes in certain respects inappropriate for others." The comment could have been made with more force in the 1890s, a decade which the great French historian Elie Halevy felt did not belong to the same "world" as that which he had examined earlier.

There are few surprises in Newsome's sensible account of what happened in the different parts of Victoria's reign into which we customarily divide it, and it is undoubtedly a serious limitation that it pays too little attention to what has been written about the Victorians in recent years. Some of that writing, particularly in the field of cultural studies (including studies of gender) has been deliberately revisionist, and in style as well as in content contrasts vividly with Newsome's account. The student of Victorian Britain must go on learning, changing perspectives as the Victorians themselves did. Newsome might well have benefited from going back to some of the Victorian authors who impressed their contemporaries. There is only one reference to George Meredith, for example, while Trollope is quoted repetitively and incessantly. On politics, on social relationships, on women, on literature Meredith should never be left out. For the later years of the reign I would never leave out Grant Allen either. Newsome does not mention him and he mentions Gissing only twice. For the early part of the reign a book that has influenced me strongly is Richard Stein's Victoria's Year: English Literature and Culture, 1837-1838, published ten years ago.

It is perhaps even more revealing to concentrate on a year rather than on an age in order to understand social and cultural configurations. Too much writing on the Victorians is derivative, covering all too familiar themes. Too little is genuinely exploratory, although each new generation of historians can break new paths. Whatever their generation, however, they can benefit from Newsome's general survey, qualifying it and above all extending it. Newsome himself broke new paths in Godliness and Good Learning, but since then the map has changed greatly.

Lord Briggs was formerly provost, Worcester College, Oxford.

The Victorian World Picture: Perceptions and Introspections in an Age of Change

Author - David Newsome
ISBN - 0 7195 5630 9
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 310

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