Living among the Victorians

The Victorian age sometimes seems closer to me than my own age. This is largely a function of my reading, but I live in a Victorian house, walk everyday through and beside Victorian buildings, enjoy the green spaces in London secured by the Victorians, travel on train and tube lines built by the Victorians, belong to and battle with institutions created by the Victorians, read newspapers and journals started by the Victorians, and sometimes visit Highgate Cemetery where I feel the Victorians very close.


Thomas Wakley, founder of the Lancet

My own age seems full of a craziness and confusion that leaves me bewildered. The Victorians–despite, or perhaps because of, frequent child deaths and the omnipresence of consumption– had a more solid grasp of the world.

I’m reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, and I’m hit by the energy of the man, something characteristic of Victorians, people who thought nothing of walking 20 miles every day of the week. Dickens wrote novels, plays, essays, and journalism at a frantic rate, thousands of words a day. He also edited, acted, lectured, campaigned, travelled, did charitable works in a very practical way, danced and played with great energy, conducted dozens of close friendships, and kept his wife permanently pregnant. Indeed, you feel for his wife: repeated pregnancies subjugated and exhausted her. Birth control would have transformed her life, as it has, without them directly knowing it, the lives of hundreds of millions of women.

Tomalin referred to a story that Dickens had written about the death of children that had appealed greatly to the Victorians. The magic of the internet allowed me to find A Child’s Dream of a Star, and I’ve just read it. It’s a simple story of two children, a brother and sister, who looked each night at the stars and waited eagerly for the appearance of the brightest star. The sister dies and is taken into the brightest star by angels. Then a baby brother, their mother, and, after the brother has grown, his child die and are taken up to the star. At last as an old man the brother dies and ascends to the star: “My age is falling from me like a garment, and I move towards the star as a child. And O, my Father, now I thank that it has so often opened, to receive those dear ones who await me.”

This story doesn’t work now. Child deaths are rare, and it’s hard to think that the story would be any kind of comfort to parents whose child died, especially as they are unlikely to believe in God. Dickens didn’t either, as far as I can tell.

I’ve just finished George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life soon after finishing My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, which was a return visit to both Middlemarch and Eliot’s life; and Lin, my wife, is coming to the end of Middlemarch. Scenes of a Clerical Life was Eliot’s first piece of creative writing, and it has the well-drawn characters, the psychological insights, the wit, the sympathy, and the evocation of the English countryside and rural life that came to a fuller fruition in Middlemarch. It also has a touch of the Gothic, a style that the Victorians loved.

After it was published in 1857 Dickens wrote to George Eliot, who was not then know to be a woman:

“I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume. I can suggest no better one: but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seemed to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.”

Dickens, as Tomalin says, never managed to write a female character who transcended caricature to come fully alive.

The other Victorian in my week is Thomas Wakley, the founder of the Lancet. I met earlier in the summer an obstetrician for whom Wakley was her hero. She’d written a thesis on him and become deeply impressed, almost enamoured, by him. She urged me to read Battling Surgeon, a biography of him, I bought it but haven’t yet read it. She emailed me to say that our conversation had inspired her to do more original work on Wakley and she’d spent happy hours in the British Library learning about how Wakley had spent some years at sea. She’s now writing up what she learnt for the Lancet.

I confessed to her that I hadn’t yet read the book but how I had encountered Wakley in the prologue to the Dickens biography, where Dickens attends an inquest where Wakley is the coroner to speak on behalf of a young woman accused of murdering her baby. Wakley also appears in Middlemarch.

I wrote most of this travelling on a train to Suffolk to see an 87 year old friend. As he drove me back to the station he said: “I am the last Victorian.” I’m not sure what he meant, but I’ve asked him. I may also speculate on what he meant, but later.



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