Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Victoria's Madmen: Revolution and Alienation: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Victoria's Madmen: Revolution and Alienation: Books

Article excerpt

Victoria's Madmen: Revolution and Alienation. By Clive Bloom. Palgrave Macmillan, 320pp, Pounds 20.00. ISBN 9780230313828. Published 2 August 2013

Although Victorianism has a number of contested meanings, it is commonly associated with conformity, religious piety, imperialism, industrialisation, social class hierarchies, racial superiority and social etiquette. Yet there were also, claims Clive Bloom in this highly readable book, a large number of people - including revolutionaries, social visionaries, politicians, artists, assassins and seekers of spiritual enlightenment - who shook the stability of Victorian society and the meaning of the self. Some are well known, others neglected. Bloom skilfully rescues these dreamers of a "new Jerusalem" to tell a fascinating story of those men and women who pursued their ideals against the prevailing norms of the day, offering a counter-history to that usually told.

The challenge to Victorian conformity came from a number of new ideas, particularly from Darwinism and spiritualism, which were often in an aggressive debate with each other. It is easy to forget that by the 1870s, spiritualism was all the rage in Britain, especially in London. On a Friday night, one could watch a medium for a shilling or, for the more adventurous, attend a seance for double that sum. Indeed, by the end of the 19th century, spiritualism was so popular that mediums regularly summoned ghosts who told of life in a different world.

For some reformers, such as Annie Besant, the divorced wife of an Anglican clergyman who lost her Christian faith, other spiritual avenues were attractive. Embracing socialism, anti-imperialism and population control, Besant became increasingly drawn to theosophy. With Madame Blavatsky, a Russian emigree who had founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, Besant set up a theosophical and socialist club for working girls in the East End of London. Although there was a steady decline in established religious belief during the Victorian era, many reformers saw socialism and Christianity as one and the same thing, as in the Labour Church Movement, which was largely confined to the North.

Unrest in many countries would make 1848 known as the year of revolutions in Europe, and as Victoria's reign went on, revolutionary extremism increased, especially when emigre revolutionaries sought exile in England. Many joined the English Revolutionary Society, which met in Soho pubs, and others became members of the Social Democratic Federation as it came to adopt a Marxist programme for change. …

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