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.

Oscar Wilde.
Wilde and Wilder: Bloom investigates the personality cults which emerged around certain figures. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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