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Inventing the Victorians


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Inventing the Victorians is Matthew Sweet's sweeping and revelatory exploration of the Victorian era, and of the hedonistic Victorians who might seem much more familiar that we've been led to believe . . .

About the Author

Matthew Sweet is a journalist and broadcaster. He has been a columnist for The Big Issue and a director's assistant at the RSC. He holds a doctorate from Oxford University, has contributed to the Oxford Companion to English Literature and edited an edition of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White for Penguin Classics. He is television critic for the Independent on Sunday.


This fun, iconoclastic read from a British journalist and recent Ph.D. shows that stereotypes of Victorian society don't bear scrutiny. Sweet uses Victorian books, periodicals, memoirs, and advice manuals to counter the myths of a strait-laced, repressed, patriarchal, and gloomy culture. Through an analysis of historical pop culture, Victorians are uncovered as progressive, sexually confused, high-tech, sensation-seeking media junkies. Sweet concludes that the Victorians invented "modernity" and reveals various oft-quoted "facts" to be false. Piano legs, for example, were not modestly hidden, nor legs called limbs; and Queen Victoria had no connection with drafting the amendment criminalizing male "indecent acts" the sponsor merely hoped to reduce buggery's penalty. Sweet points out that mainstream pornography at that time depicted men having same-sex couplings as preludes to male-female sex and that one-third of women were in the formal workforce (favored in the then technologically advanced areas of telegraphy and typing). This book can be enjoyed by a wide audience and is essential reading for 19th-century history buffs and professionals. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. Nigel Tappin, Huntsville, Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

'This is a profoundly stimulating and entertaining book'. D. J. Taylor, Sunday Times; 'Matthew Sweet has opened a blast of fresh air into the hothouse of Victorian studies. His book is packed with weird and wonderful information'. Spectator; 'He tells his revisionist version exceedingly well, describing a lurid thrill-seeking populace avid for sensation. Colourful characters parade through chapters that demonstrate how innovative, fast-paced, diverse and radical the era was. Sweet has turned his scholarly research through the detritus of high and low 19th-century culture into a page-turning piece of pop-culture history... A darned good read, and no mistake,' Big Issue

Commonly perceived as stodgy, stern, pious, humorless and deeply repressed, Victorians are frequently invoked in contemporary society as embodiments of everything their more liberated descendants are not. But this perception, Sweet suggests, is far from accurate. Noting that our image of the Victorians is based on a very selective range of materials, Sweet, a British writer, argues that we have almost willfully developed a distorted idea of 19th-century society largely in order to flatter ourselves with the belief that our own age is far more enlightened. Working with a wide-ranging array of documents letters, diaries, newspapers, novels and plays Sweet sets out to prove that the Victorians not only were in some ways more progressive, more sophisticated and less neurotic than we are, they also had a lot more fun than we give them credit for. To that end, he leads readers on a whirlwind tour through the more outr aspects of Victorian life and culture, demonstrating that the 19th century was in many respects as much an era of thrill-seeking, sexual liberation and social upheaval as our own time. While he's arguably as selective in his own source materials and interpretations as are those whose perspective he seeks to debunk, Sweet does paint a more complex picture of the Victorians than we're used to seeing; this is a lively, entertaining trip through a side of 19th-century society most of us are probably unfamiliar with. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Dec.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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