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The Victorians by A.N. Wilson [Apr. 24th, 2011|07:59 pm]

I bought this book because of realization on my part that I really didn't know much about the non-American history of the 19th century. Victorian Britain, as one of the most dynamic countries of the day, seemed like a good place to start. Also, featured prominently on the cover is a quote attributed to The Economist, a quote which states" A. N. Wilson has written the kind of book that turns people on to history." That quote played a part in motivating me to buy the book.
I was furthermore intrigued when the author mentioned in his preface that the purpose of the work was to create, not an academic history since Mr. Wilson is no historian, but rather a "portrait of an age".
Wilson talks variously about the politics and artistic life of each decade of Victoria's reign, including various figures and crises. Mr. Wilson also provides some commentary on the royal family, and some commentary on various ideologies in play among political and social movements, but that's about it.
Which is to say, in 600 pages Wilson missed the point. Ordinary life, the changes in living conditions, technology, and social attitudes that should be the highlights of a good "portrait" were sadly lacking. Hell, even just some drama when discussing the political movements, highlighting the stakes and the actors, is usually enough to get me interested, but Wilson couldn't even manage that consistently, and his descriptions usually left a great deal to be desired. I ended up thinking that while Wilson was obviously a well read scholar, and had some interesting insights , he had neither the professional grounding nor writing style that would make him capable of delivering the promised product, ironic since the short author biography points out that he is also a novelist (and apparently also a biographer).
Another problem, one that I've mentioned before, is the feeling of a lack of context. In this case, I wonder if having a British public school education might have provided me with the necessary knowledge to dive right in to Wilson's work. As it was, there were key figures such as William Gladstone that I had to do some reading on before their treatment in Wilson's work began to make sense...which was another indicator that this wasn't "the kind of book that turns people on to history".
The best parts of the book were the beginning and the end, neither of which provide the promised "portrait" but both at least have some interesting things that they are working with. The end might have rescued it, except that I had been starting to get tired of the book by the halfway point, and no ending could redeem the realization that I had then that there were 300 more pages to slog through.
All of this isn't to say that I didn't learn anything. I did learn things, but neither as much nor as cohesive a body of knowledge as I had hoped. The book is thoroughly not recommended