The subtitle of this book is, “A companion for the modern reader of Victorian Literature.” If it were either a work of literary criticism, or a work of historical analysis, I’d be more concerned about the fact that it was published in 1973; but as it turns out, it’s instead the sort of work that doesn’t become dated very badly at all — and precisely the sort of work I needed to be reading right now.
Because it is, in essence, a simple overview of historical events and movements in the Victorian period, as selected under the rubric of “what things were major Victorian poets and novelists inspired by and/or arguing with?” So it tells you about the Reform Bills and the Chartist movement and Utilitarianism and a whole bunch of other things that I’d encountered in passing while reading other books, and then it provides examples of characters or events or whatever in Dickens or Tennyson or whoever that seem connected to those things. Occasionally the result is dry, and it’s entirely possible some of the finer points have been changed or complicated since Altick wrote this book, but on the whole I found it extraordinarily useful for my purposes.
And I definitely picked the perfect time to read it. I now feel much better-grounded in certain issues of the period, and therefore better prepared to tackle some of the other books on my list.