Trains, lesbians and stuffed cats

The Victorian Vision
October 11, 2002

Published to coincide with an exhibition last year at the Victoria and Albert Museum, this volume offers a centennial evaluation of the way our 19th-century predecessors provided the social and technological framework for 21st-century Britain.

It is divided into three related sections - "Society", "Technology", and "The world" - and features essays on topics including domesticity, childhood, international exhibitions, the natural world, royal patronage, gender and sexuality, politics and religion, transport and communications networks, the Victorian "new media", and the relationship between 19th-century materialism and imperialism. It is lavishly illustrated in colour, bringing into focus two comparatively neglected areas of 19th-century studies: Victorian material and popular culture.

Indeed, there is much in this volume to inform even the most wide-ranging Victorian polymath, and a breadth of historical evidence that would have appealed to many Victorians. These range from citations by Dickens and Gaskell to Paul Atterbury's breathtaking accounts of the Blue Riband races across the Atlantic, the rapid criss-crossing of Britain by the railways, and the development of London's underground network.

The book also subtly revises stereotypical ideas about the 19th century. For example, it repeatedly qualifies Edward Said's influential notion of Victorian Orientalism, with Tim Barringer emphasising how Victorian international relations were characterised as much by cultural hybridity as by rampant imperialism - a thesis demonstrated by a fascinating African sculpture of Queen Victoria - and Anna Jackson usefully differentiating British attitudes to China and Japan, and the Victorian cults of Japonisme and Chinoiserie.

It is, however, characteristic of the volume that although Said is repeatedly cited in the essays, he is not mentioned in the index. Those interested in the Victorian sculptor Alfred Gilbert will also find that only one of the four index references is accurate.

While the volume has detail and breadth enough to satisfy lovers of baggy 19th-century fiction, contemporary historians might be less satisfied. Those interested in women's history will baulk at the way in which the introduction only acknowledges that there were some "women visionaries too" after providing a Carlylean list of exclusively male sages.

Indeed, it seems symptomatic that one of John MacKenzie's rare female Victorian visionaries, Florence Nightingale, is first represented by her bracelet rather than by a portrait. This is a pity since many of the volume's most intriguing figures are women. Charlotte Canning, for example, whose remarkable images of colonial India are presented by Barringer; and Anne Lister, who lived openly with her female partner in Victorian south Yorkshire, discussed by Jan Marsh. Those concerned with Victorian visual culture might also baulk at the reductive interpretation offered of certain illustrations. This is particularly unfortunate in a book entitled The Victorian Vision , whose range of imagery, from the microscopic to the panoramic and global, is so suggestive. They are key exceptions, but Asa Briggs's belief that the illustrations speak for themselves is optimistic, and it is disappointing that The Victorian Vision , like its sister exhibition, fails to address the crucial three-dimensionality of much 19th-century material culture by providing multiple illustrations of works of sculpture, for example, from different angles.

Those with regionalist or post-colonial sensibilities might also have reservations about the book. If it is predictably strong on Victorian London and the inter-relationship of 19th-century Britain and its colonies, it is rare for readers to find themselves in Victorian Scotland, Ireland or Wales, although Paul Greenhalgh brings the cultural politics of late-Victorian Glasgow to life.

The Victorian Vision also significantly fails to address the Victorian emergence of multicultural Britain. Indeed, although it provides many fascinating British representations of colonised landscapes and peoples, the non-European experience of Victorian Britain goes almost unnoticed, the book's illustrations mostly providing the reader with a mirror of some Victorians' experience of themselves as empowered observers rather than as peoples also subject to a critical, (post-) colonial gaze. Again, there are exceptions: in Rudolf Swoboda's 1892 canvas, A Peep at the Train, an Indian family stare directly out at the reader; Jackson also cites the testimony of Nakai Hiroshi, a student visiting London in the mid-1860s. But there are comparatively few images by women artists. In addition, there are a few embarrassing errors in dating. Oscar Wilde was not, as Marsh's essay claims, sent to prison in 1896, but in 1895, while Onslow Ford's St George and the Dragon does not date from 1850, when Ford had not even been born, but from some 52 years later.

These reservations are not, however, enough to mar anyone's enjoyment of the book, which demonstrates its thesis beautifully: that certain aspects of new (Labour) Britain originated during Victoria's reign. Yet within its overall celebration of Victorian Britain's emergence as a world leader - economically, industrially, technically, and politically - perhaps the richest pleasures the book affords are those more melancholy moments in the narrative in which less self-satisfying parallels to our times emerge.

Atterbury reveals that, like us, the Victorians suffered from a railway network within which accidents were frequent, and usually the result of excessive speed, inadequate brakes, poor traffic control and rudimentary signalling; while MacKenzie points out that Victorians were also, like us, experiencing events involving distant, apparently pacific British forces remote from their quotidian concerns. Such parallels are painfully familiar but perhaps more in tune than much of the volume with the taste of a popular British audience for history that has been somewhat cured of its former Whiggish pretensions.

With this in mind, it seems fitting to give the last word to Briggs, still to many the grand old man of Victorian cultural history. In his excellent cautionary foreword, he argues that while similarities between Victoria's and Blair's Britain are obviously satisfying, 19th-century cultural history might be an equally powerful and pleasurable source of historical alienation. If Briggs is right, that how we "describe and interpret the Victorians reveals as much about ourselves as about them", the book raises interesting questions. Why, for example, does it include an image of a Victorian anti-masturbation device but not an illustration of Stuffed Kitten Wedding , seen at the exhibition, in which the renowned 19th-century anthropomorphic taxidermist Walter Potter dressed up small dead tortoiseshell felines as a wedding party?

Is it because the former reassures readers that they are living in more enlightened times while the latter challenges the equally smug belief that inside every Victorian was a modernist screaming to get out? If the Victorians did herald our future of global capitalism, the internet and "casualty-free" wars, as the volume suggests, what kind of alternative future did Potter's work anticipate?

Jason Edwards is lecturer in art history, University of York.

The Victorian Vision: Inventing New Britain

Editor - John M. MacKenzie
ISBN - 1 85177 3
Publisher - V&A Publications
Price - £35.00
Pages - 360

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