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

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496