Books: Prince Albert's Pleasures ; INVENTING THE VICTORIANS Matthew Sweet Faber & Faber, Pounds 16.99, 264pp; Sex, Drugs and Consumerism Flourish Everywhere, in a Culture Obsessed with Sensation and Spin. Yes, It's Victorian Britain: Charlotte Cory Revisits the Wild Time When Harrods Sold Packets of Heroin
Cory, Charlotte, The Independent (London, England)
It is more than 100 years now since Queen Victoria died. That has been plenty of time for notions about the long era to which she gave her name to become fixed, and often farcical. We all know, for instance, that the Victorians were so terrified of the suggestiveness of the naked leg, that the nether regions of pianos needed bedecking with frills to protect the decorum of the drawing- room. We all know that and repeat it ad nauseam, in spite of a complete lack of any evidence. Clearly, we want to believe it. We like making fun of the Victorians. We wallow, indeed, in our ignorance. It is high time, then, for a good dose of revisionism.
In Inventing the Victorians, however, Matthew Sweet goes resolutely farther: "Suppose that everything we think we know about the Victorians is wrong." That piano legs, indeed, went shamelessly unclothed and that many of the myths imposed by posterity tell us more about the attitudes and character of that posterity than they do about the Victorians, so systematically belittled and besmirched. Sweet suggests that "we have misread their culture, their history, their lives - perhaps deliberately, in order to satisfy our sense of ourselves as liberated Moderns." He proceeds to spring surprise after surprise on the reader. His lively onslaught is designed to unsettle embedded prejudices and to encourage a fresh evaluation of our sepia-toned ancestors. Their lives, it seems, were astonishingly similar to ours.
On 29 May 1864, Members of Parliament were annoyed to receive the first junk electronic mail in history. Merchandising tie-ins, brand names, eco- marketing, contact ads and publicity stunts were all facts of Victorian life. Every Christmas, when we sigh as the infant victims of our consumer society demand the latest toy, we forget that mass brainwashing is not new: "The children of Londoners", at the turn of this century, "yelled for PlayStations, Pokemon and Buzz Lightyear. At the 1861 Juvenile Fete, hundreds of young Victorians scrabbled for spoons and paste diamonds, wild with identical desire for instant gratification."
It pleases us to think of the cinema as a 20th-century phenomenon, but we conveniently forget how Victorian authors such as Thomas Hardy (born 1840) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon (born 1835) lived to see their works brought to life on screen. It is characteristic of Sweet that he asks us to picture this illustrious pair "sitting on the back row of the Cinematograph Theatre, eating their vanilla ice-cream with wooden spoons; feeling pleased" that sales of novels written 30 or 40 years previously are being given such a boost.
There is shared horror, also. While we have our Harold Shipman, they had their William Palmer, trusted doctors who wantonly breached that trust by dispensing poison to patients willy-nilly. Subsequent sensational press coverage was not dissimilar. The Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's is as popular today as it was in Victorian times. Indeed, it enjoyed a makeover in 1996 since, according to their press officer, "kids said it wasn't frightening enough."
We like to think that drugs are a 20th-century vice, …
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Publication information: Article title: Books: Prince Albert's Pleasures ; INVENTING THE VICTORIANS Matthew Sweet Faber & Faber, Pounds 16.99, 264pp; Sex, Drugs and Consumerism Flourish Everywhere, in a Culture Obsessed with Sensation and Spin. Yes, It's Victorian Britain: Charlotte Cory Revisits the Wild Time When Harrods Sold Packets of Heroin. Contributors: Cory, Charlotte - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: October 27, 2001. Page number: 12. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.