Magazine article The New Yorker

Victoriana

Magazine article The New Yorker

Victoriana

Article excerpt

Better known for his prodigious output as a biographer--his subjects have included Tolstoy, Jesus, and C. S. Lewis--A. N. Wilson has returned to social history. The Victorians (W. W. Norton), Wilson's chronicle of nineteenth-century Britain, looks at everything from the era's religious crises (the decline of Christian conviction) to its scientific advances (the emergence of evolutionary theory). One of the major themes is the growing problem of social stratification; the wealthy retreated into gated squares and the poor were left to live in what Wilson memorably describes as "a hard, brick-built, low-lying, gin-soaked world out of whose gaslit music halls and fogbound alleys mythologies developed."

Victorian fiction, past and present, takes up these mythologies. In Michel Faber's latest novel, The Crimson Petal and the White (Harcourt), both the disease-ridden slums of factory workers and the prim precincts of the upper class play a role in the life of a wealthy perfume manufacturer whose daughter's governess (his former mistress) has a shady past as a prostitute and whose pious brother seeks redemption from his own lust by trying to save the soul of a fallen woman. …

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