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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage