The Victorians are remembered for their propriety and stolid middle-class manners—in sharp contrast to the libertine spirit of Byron, Shelley, and the Romantics of the generation just prior. In The Making of Victorian Values, Ben Wilson—only in his twenties but already hailed in Britain as heir to the great radical historians of the twentieth century—offers a brilliant and provocative portrayal of how rebels and dissenters were quashed by authoritarians and imperialists and how mindless materialism and capitalism rolled over them all. In so doing, Wilson’s eloquently written account also illuminates the startling parallels between the pre- Victorian era and our own.
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Ben Wilson is a graduate of Cambridge University.From Publishers Weekly:
In this stimulating cultural history, Britain starts out vulgar, drunken, plain-spoken, unruly and sexually relaxed, but ends up prim, abstemious, euphemistic, conformist and sexually repressed—a reversal that was bitterly contested at every step. British historian Wilson links the sea change to fears of French invasion, domestic revolution and the demands of a burgeoning but unstable industrial capitalism. In response to these upheavals, he contends, a Scroogeian alliance of evangelical philanthropists, secular utilitarians and free-market ideologues blamed individual moral turpitude for crime, poverty and social turmoil, insisting that only imposed values of sexual propriety, hard work, self-denial and refined manners could save society. But creeping Victorianism, Wilson notes, was resisted by populists, Romantics and those "nostalgic for the free and easy, tolerant and gregarious culture of previous generations." These resisters denounced moral reformers as snobs, joyless Puritans, bullies and champions of a hypocritical "age of cant." Wilson's heart is with these dissidents, though his head doesn't entirely reject high-minded proto-Victorian impulses. He traces the conflict through a discursive, elegantly written survey of a wide range of subjects, from quack patent medicines to aristocratic sex scandals to London theater riots. The result is an insightful portrait of a culture war that's strongly reminiscent of modern-day America's. Photos. (Mar. 19)
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