Victoria's Madmen: Revolution and Alienation by Clive Bloom

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Victoria's Madmen: Revolution and Alienation by Clive Bloom

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The Victorian era, and its immediate aftermath, as seen through the lives of assassins, occultists, anarchists, revolutionaries and other free spirits
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 309 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780230313828

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Despite the revisionist work of a few writers and historians, our prevailing image of the Victorian age has generally been one of staid conformity, superiority and stuffiness, during which only a few dissenters put their heads above the parapet. Clive Bloom sums it up rather succinctly on the first page as a ‘monolith of steam and class conflict, antimacassars and aspidistras’. A page later, he describes the nineteenth century – most of which was covered by the Victorian era – as one divided by three groups, namely those who represented the old Georgian decadence, the young Turks eager for reform, and finally a group who felt an allegiance to the world of their forebears but were forced to exist in a world of confirming moralism and priggishness. The young Turks, he concludes, ultimately won.

This book is basically their story, the tale of the radicals, revolutionary thinkers and general flies in the ointment. The title is arguably a little misleading, and those who pick it up in the hope and expectation of a read on victims of mental illness or similar may or may not be disappointed. Authors and celebrities, occultists, murderers, anarchists, ecologists and anti-imperialists are all part of the general gallery. Nevertheless, one of the episodes recounted features that uniquely well-remembered mentally ill artist, Richard Dadd. His fame is twofold, firstly as the creator of an astonishing work of imagination which hangs in the Tate Gallery, ‘The Fairy-Feller’s Master-Stroke’, and secondly as the unfortunate who, having tried to kill the Pope while on his travels abroad, returned home and did his father to death. Bloom examines his case in detail, concluding that his mental personality disorder was Capgras syndrome, in which family members and others seem to have become demons in disguise. Another tragic figure of the age was the poet John Clare, who was convinced he was the reincarnation of Shakespeare and Byron, and spent several years in asylums or in the care of others.

Some of the other names, including a number who began their careers in the Victorian age but outlived it by several decades, are well known. They include authors Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, revolutionaries and political theorists Karl Marx and Beatrice Webb, the Indian-born British Communist MP Shapurji Saklatvala, the ‘knight errant’ of the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence ('of Arabia'), and the self-proclaimed magician Aleister Crowley. Also mentioned in passing are some of the collective groups who had an impact on their age, sometimes for the better and sometimes not, such as the Bryant & May match girls who led one of the first major strikes in industrial history, in 1888, and the Latvian anarchists who killed three policemen in the East End in 1911 in ‘the siege of Sidney Street’.

The content is generally serious, but the odd shaft of humour comes through. There is something comic if not faintly ridiculous about the arguments between the pre-Raphaelite William Morris and his wife, the playwright, vegetarian and general iconoclast George Bernard Shaw, and his fellow author H.G. Wells. For the feuds and long-smouldering rows between them about Shaw’s meatless diet – and dare we whisper it, he was accused of not being a bona fide veggie because he consumed liver pills – just read the book. You may conclude that, to use a cliché, some people needed to get out more. However, one person who got out perhaps a little too much for his own good and that of other people, was Harold Hubert Vincent. An engineer by trade who advocated nudism, tried to organise a nudist march on Hyde Park, and in 1932 capped several convictions for indecency and ‘being insulting in a public place’ with being imprisoned for pushing a policewoman into the Serpentine during an argument.

Although some of those mentioned lived long into the twentieth century, this book is in part a study of the Victorian age and how it came to an end. Bloom has some thoughts to offer on the differing strands of opinion that greeted the Queen’s death in January 1901, contrasting the mourning of the empire with the views of those who felt that it was farewell to a vicious age and that the viciousness had been exemplified by the woman in black whose rule, or at least reign, had outstayed its welcome. He concedes that she was a strange medley of opposites (but then most people are in some way, surely?), a rigid conservative who had been divinely chosen to rule, yet very enlightened with regard to her Jewish (and favourite) Prime Minister and Muslim servants. Political changes were in the air, with a landslide victory for an incoming Liberal government only five years later, but there would be a gradual transition rather than violent upheaval; ironically, in the next chapter we read that English radical traditions seemed to have petered out by 1900, with politicians and thinkers convinced of ‘the inevitability of gradualness’. Any Bolsheviks in Britain would be an ineffectual minority.

With its dwelling one moment on famous and not so famous figures one moment, and on the spirit of the times the next, there were times when I wondered if the book was slightly unfocused. Yet by the time I finished it, it all became clear. As an account of the age and the people who made (or alternatively unmade) it thus, it is a very enlightening, engrossing read.

If this book appeals then you might also like to try Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise

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