Apart from his talents as biographer and novelist, A N Wilson is the best literary interpreter now writing. I may have got the knack of generalisation from his own book: The Diary of a Nobody he calls ‘the best comic novel in the language’, Cardinal Newman is ‘incomparably the most flawless English stylist’ and Branwell Brontë’s painting of his sisters in the National Portrait Gallery is ‘one of the most inescapably emotional portraits of the whole gallery’ – nevertheless I think all four generalisations are true.
But though our Homer never nods – he is far too thorough a scholar for that – he does occasionally thrash out in ways that the very best critics are apt to do in moments of abandon when the brilliance of some special phrase blinds them to its lack of veracity. John Ruskin, the second best critic of the 19th century (Matthew Arnold was the best) ‘threw a pot of paint’ in the artist Whistler’s face by saying that Whistler had done just that, to the public, with his Nocturnes. The brilliant Marina Warner once got the paint-pot treatment from A N Wilson; in this book it is Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who catches it for wearing ‘extraordinary clothes which are less those of an aristocrat than of a charwoman who has won the football pools.’ Romantic chiffons may not be to everyone’s taste, as the newest portrait of HM in the National Portrait Gallery shows; but there is room for birds of paradise as well as smart black-and-white magpies. However, one must not take this particular pot of paint too tragically, since in Wilson’s thesis the aristocratic ‘Queen Mum’s’ pet-name and clothes are all part of the skilful Pooterisation of the Royal Family by Prince Albert, ‘inventor’ of the modern bourgeois monarchy and first of his six ‘Eminent Victorians’
The author’s aim in this book was originally, he says, to cut Lytton Strachey down to size (there were ‘giants in those days’ of whom Strachey mocked) but Strachey’s ‘pure elegance’ ended by leaving Wilson abashed, while even more acutely aware that Jane Eyre and Newman’s Apologia would long outlive both of them. And since this is the book of the television series, ‘pure elegance’ is not exactly called for. Yet by the end of the book something so weighty, stylish and impressive has been built up that one feels far nearer to the ‘giants’ than ever one was in Strachey’s biography-by-ridicule. If new generations want to know the truth about Victorian eminence and ‘Victorian values’, this is the book to read.
Prince Albert is seen here to be ‘eminent’ not because he was royal but because he adapted the monarchy to the yeasty workings that were going on in the middle and lower-middle classes. The concept of a bourgeois Victorian monarchy is no novel one; among others I myself many years ago called Queen Victoria ‘every ounce a bourgeoise and every inch a queen’. But it is Wilson’s implication that Prince Albert was every ounce and every inch a bourgeois. What was his splendid glass construction at Hyde Park and Sydenham but ‘a glorified version of Dad and his hobbies? The royal equivalent of the pigeon hutch at the end of the yard?’ It was Albert’s ‘Dee-side dreams’ (Dee dreams?) that covered the country’s bourgeois biscuit tins in tartan; Albert, through ‘old Queen Mary and Stanley Baldwin, who put paid to Mrs Simpson’s chances of becoming Queen of England. To George IV, she might have seemed an admirable bride.’
Victoria of course shared some of the same blood as George IV. His ‘First-Gentle-man-of-Europe’ aura reappeared in her in the form of instinctive regality. They said that when she sat down she never looked behind her to see if there was a chair to sit on, as the Empress Eugenie did. Albert, on the other hand, I imagine not only looking behind him to see if there was a chair, but expecting some fashionable joker to pull it away from under him. Wilson is right to turn the spotlight on Albert. He was indeed the source of the injection into Majesty of the vitamins ‘D & M’ – Dad and Mum.
In placing Charlotte Brontë next among his ‘giants’, Wilson makes quite clear the importance he attaches to women’s position – or rather their non-position – in the Victorian age. One of the chapter’s vivid points concerns the diminutive physical size (as if symbolic) of this family of ‘giants’ – all but Emily. The tiny books in which Charlotte wrote her stories as a child do not seem so odd when one remembers how tiny she was herself. Wilson sees in their dining-room at Haworth ‘a doll’s-house quality’. In a sense the essay on the Brontës must have been both the easiest and the hardest to tackle – they have been so tremendously written about. The most recent full-scale biography of Charlotte happens to be by my granddaughter Rebecca Fraser. When A N Wilson refers somewhere to Charlotte’s ‘best modern biography’, I hope he means her.
With William Ewart Gladstone we have reached the heart of the Victorian matter. ‘When I think of Victorian England’, writes Wilson, ‘I think of energy: irrepressible physical energy, intellectual, industrial, moral energy.’ He links Gladstone, ‘the greatest of their Prime Ministers’, with the statue of Physical Energy by G F Watts in Kensington Gardens. It is the figure of a man on horseback, the rider gazing one way, the horse pulling the other; and in this symbol Wilson sees the divided nature of Gladstone. ‘Few men have been more intimately involved in the world. Yet his deepest longing was unworldly’ – for religion and scholarship. One has to point out that all politicians, in so far as they are not wholly dedicated to self-advancement, have divided natures. The great Disraeli compensated for the worship of British mammon by writing Sybil. But Gladstone, being the grandest of the grand old men, was also the most divided. When he took to rescuing prostitutes – a means of fulfilling the religious side of his nature – a new division immediately appeared within that division. Lust was aroused and had to be dealt with by a whip. Wilson amusingly tells us that the GOM obtained his whip from the Anglo-Catholic Dr Pusey of Oxford, who was in turn supplied by a continental convent. Gladstone’s massive energies allowed him to change his political party, chop down trees and bid to save Ireland from the miseries which it endures today. A vote by the House of Lords in 1893 frustrated him. But meanwhile this ‘stern unbending Tory’ had become a Liberal and changed the face of British politics.
John Henry Newman is introduced with a neat analogy. A row of cottages at Littlemore, outside Oxford, was once used by coaches plying between Oxford and Cambridge, to change horses. ‘This old staging-post was also the scene of a more momentous change’, says Wilson. For it was here that the eloquent vicar of St Mary’s, Oxford, shocked the world by becoming a Roman Catholic. Though today Wilson no longer idolises Newman as he did in his teens, he still finds him a heroic thinker and writer, whose typically Victorian capacity for seismic change turned out to herald a quake of genius.
Josephine Butler opens with another of Wilson’s bold generalisations: ‘The greatest single difference between Victorian times and our own is the position of women.’ It was through Butler’s powerful saintliness that she, without a vote herself, forced Parliament to repeal the odious Contagious Diseases Acts against prostitutes and then exposed the White Slave traffic in children. With this essay, ‘Victorian values’ are well and truly carpeted. ‘Josephine Butler’s career’, says Wilson, ‘shows how few people it takes to change the world.’
The last chapter presents Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, in a more light-hearted manner, though some pro-found subjects are touched upon, such as the effect of photography on our ideas of reality: ‘no greater untruth was ever uttered than the saying that the camera cannot lie.’ Mrs Cameron, the only ugly sister of the beautiful Pattie family, links the Victorians to the Bloomsburys, her great-nieces being Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. Julia always carried a coffin in her luggage while travelling, in case she died on the way, as both her parents had. From her photographs (now a prized possession of the National Portrait Gallery) we see that yet another distinguishing feature of the Victorians was the ‘cult of the beard’. Wilson leaves the reader to work out its ‘psychosexual explanation’ – ’if any’.
‘I find that I have chosen six people’, he concludes, ‘who … turned supposed “Victorian values” on their head.’ In the Preface he has already remarked that ‘once a Poorer was established in Downing Street (and you can tell from The Diary of a Nobody that it would be Carrie not Charles who had the will-power for that) there was much talk of a revival in Victorian values.’ Yet we see by the end of this forceful and stimulating book that these values did not prevent children from starving on the streets of London or the Light Brigade from charging into the Great War.