Sunday, December 18, 2011

Five top books about life in the Victorian age

Judith Flanders's first book, A Circle of Sisters, the biography of four Victorian sisters, was published to great acclaim, and nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. In 2003, The Victorian House (2004 in the USA, as Inside the Victorian Home) received widespread praise, and was shortlisted for the British Book Awards History Book of the Year. In 2006 Consuming Passions, was published. Her most recent book, The Invention of Murder, was published in 2011. Her book Dickens’ London: Everyday Life in a Victorian City will be published in 2012.

One of her five top books on life in the Victorian age, as told to Toby Ash at The Browser:
Victorian Studies in Scarlet
by Richard D Altick

Your next book is by the American academic Richard Altick, who died three years ago after a long and very distinguished career. He is most famous for his pioneering contribution to the field of Victorian studies. How influential a scholar do you think he was?

In terms of Victorian studies, perhaps no one was more influential. He was one of the earliest to explore those elements of life that previous generations had thought didn’t count as “history” – travelling shows, or what the common people read. One of my favourite books of his is The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (yes, another book about books and reading – we are definitely seeing a pattern here). This is a look at how current events were transformed into literature – what were people reading about their own times, and how did it change their views? He was a giant.

Why have you chosen his book on murder cases in the 19th century?

This was one of the two starting points for my last book, The Invention of Murder, which looked at how murder was transformed into popular entertainment in the 19th century. My previous book, Consuming Passions, had explored various forms of popular leisure – in theatres, I was fascinated to discover, current and historical murder cases were turned into plays. I then found Altick’s book, Victorian Studies in Scarlet: Murders and Manners in the Age of Victoria, and realised it was an even richer subject that I’d thought, and he led the way for the rest of my research.

What’s wonderful is the way he makes us see that our responses to murder now are no different to then. When I tell people that the Victorians had a taste for giving their racehorses the names of current murderers, or that they liked puppet shows about murders, they always think it is seriously peculiar. But as Altick shows, it is only a difference in method. The Victorians loved to watch murders on stage, we like to watch docudramas on TV or in cinemas – there is really no difference. Racehorses seem weird to us, T-shirts with slogans about Charles Manson would have seemed weird to them. But they all come from the same impulse, and Altick captures that wonderfully.
Read about another book Flanders tagged.

--Marshal Zeringue