Victoria's Madmen by Clive Bloom: A 19th century wilder and richer, closer and more distant than we usually encounter

Victoria's Madmen: Revolution and Alienation collects a crowd of unorthodox men and women to help dismantle the myth of Victorian conformity and uniformity.

Victoria’s Madmen: Revolution and Alienation
Clive Bloom
Palgrave Macmillan, 320pp, £20
 
The Victorians were hypocritical prudes, covering up piano legs by day and visiting prostitutes by night. The men were stuffy, the women domestic paragons (Mrs Beeton) or hysterical (Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason). Modern representations of the 19th century might not be so simplistic but they’re not far off.
 
Clive Bloom is the latest historian to object to such stereotypes. In Victoria’s Madmen, he marshals a crowd of men and women to help him dismantle the myth of Victorian conformity and uniformity. Certainly, it would be hard to imagine a less uniform group of individuals. Bloom’s “madmen” include spiritualists and anarchists, atheists and visionaries, socialists, nudists and assassins. What links them, he argues, is the “revolution and alienation” of his subtitle: the feeling either that they were not the right shape for mainstream society and so had to seek fulfilment elsewhere, or that society was the wrong shape and had to be remodelled.
 
Bloom’s thesis is that these oddballs and outsiders are our Victorian inheritance. They, more than the leading figures of the age, set the course of the 20th century and continue to influence the 21st. Gladstone and Disraeli are supporting actors in the book, while the starring roles go to eccentrics such as Archibald Belaney, who was born in Hastings but grew up longing to be Native American. Aged 17, he moved to Canada and reinvented himself as Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, or Grey Owl. He then became a leader of the emerging environmental movement and returned to Britain to lecture on conservation.
 
Bloom sketches out several 19th-century cults of personality – such as those that developed around Emmeline Pankhurst, Oscar Wilde and the messianic visionary Octavia – and finds in them a form of dictatorship that would reappear some decades later as fascism. At the other end of the spectrum, he shows how Victorian socialists prepared the ground for the welfare state.
 
It is not particularly revolutionary to suggest that the origins of 20th-century politics go back further than the First World War. Nor is it original to extend the definition of Victorian, as Bloom does, beyond the years of Queen Victoria’s reign. As he points out, it is standard practice to treat the period as beginning with the Reform Act 1832, five years before Victoria came to the throne. It is also typical to push the end of the 19th century to include the years leading up to the war. But by emphasising Victorians rather than the Victorian period, Bloom gives himself a far greater time span to play with – especially because he regards as Victorian anyone who lived any part of his or her life in the 19th century. So at one end we have the selfdescribed prophet Joanna Southcott (1750- 1814), who believed herself pregnant with the Messiah; at the other, Oswald Mosley, a Victorian by virtue of being born in 1896.
 
This is an effective way of demonstrating, and not just stating, that eras are not sharply defined. By the last few chapters, Bloom is well in to the 20th century but his organising principle is thematic rather than chronological, allowing him to identify communities and correspondences across time. Consequently, certain figures also appear and reappear in different contexts.
 
Here is the social reformer and theosophist Annie Besant in chapter eight, embroiled in socialist politics; here she is again in chapter 11, defending Jewish immigrants; and again five chapters later, becoming a vegetarian. The Fabians and founders of this magazine, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, turn up similarly often (although, curiously, the only mention of the NS is in relation to its early support for nudism). If Besant and the Webbs seem marginal at the beginning of Victoria’s Madmen, by the end they feel like old friends.
 
Bloom is a professor of English and American studies at Middlesex University and he balances historical research with well-judged readings of literary texts. Unfortunately, some of his research is hidden in sentences so labyrinthine that I found myself lost in a subclause even on a third reading. And the breadth of material exceeds the book’s argument. Spiritualism, the subject of one chapter and mentioned in several others, was hardly a fringe movement: as Bloom describes, it had a huge following, including Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the physicist William Crookes. But it was not particularly influential in the 20th century (Bloom’s attempt to link spiritualism with capitalism by describing corporations as “a new ghostly phenomenon” doesn’t come off).
 
Not all the case studies work as exemplars of personal alienation or social revolution – which becomes a problem only when Bloom resorts to semi-Freudian generalities to shoehorn them into one category or both. Yet even if some of the lives and beliefs he describes are not quite what he wants them to be, they all contribute to creating a 19th century wilder and richer, at once closer to us and more distant, than the one we usually encounter.
 
Hannah Rosefield is an assistant editor of the Jewish Quarterly
Wilde and Wilder: Bloom investigates the personality cults which emerged around certain figures. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era