A dramatic, revisionist panorama of an age whose material triumphs and spiritual crises prefigure our own.
Better known for his prodigious output as a biographer -- his subjects have included Tolstoy, Jesus, and C. S. Lewis -- A. N. Wilson has returned to social history. The Victorians, Wilson's chronicle of nineteenth-century Britain, looks at everything from the era's religious crises (the decline of Christian conviction) to its scientific advances (the emergence of evolutionary theory). One of the major themes is the growing problem of social stratification; the wealthy retreated into gated squares and the poor were left to live in what Wilson memorably describes as "a hard, brick-built, low-lying, gin-soaked world out of whose gaslit music halls and fogbound alleys mythologies developed."
Victorian fiction, past and present, takes up these mythologies. In Michel Faber's latest novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, both the disease-ridden slums of factory workers and the prim precincts of the upper class play a role in the life of a wealthy perfume manufacturer whose daughter's governess (his former mistress) has a shady past as a prostitute and whose pious brother seeks redemption from his own lust by trying to save the soul of a fallen woman.
Still more poverty and dissolution permeate The Trail of the Serpent, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's detective novel, which was first published in 1860. Jabez North, a foundling who was fished from the Sloshy River as a baby, leaves a trail of dead bodies behind him as he moves from the workhouse to the aristocracy. Though he gains his title, he can't escape his lowly past; as Braddon writes, he is still part of the "odoriferous neighborhood, where foul scents, foul sights, and fouler language abound."(Andrea Thompson)