Richard Davenport-Hines

Curiouser & Curiouser

Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World

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Atlantic Books 420pp £25 order from our bookshop

Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves is a book with Multiple Personality Disorder. It is partly the offspring of museology, the academic study of museums and their social responsibilities, often characterised by doctrinaire anti-élitism and a frown of joyless sanctimony. It is partly an ensemble piece, with five protagonists acting out the obsessions, rivalries, passions and journeying that were the lot of the Victorian collector. It is partly a catalogue, with enticing descriptive lists of beautiful rarities. It is partly the script for a television costume drama. There are regular scene-setting passages, in which boot-makers rub shoulders with baronets, delivery boys trundle hand-carts past fashionable ladies bobbing in wide crinolines, and households have ‘children playing on backstairs, the table laden with veal cutlets, woodcock pie and boar’s head, and leading statesmen such as Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington discussing politics in the parlour’. The overall effects of the Multiple Personality Disorder are by turns diverting, jarring and infuriating.

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