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

In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times