Victorian Book Report: Victorian People and Ideas, Richard D. Altick

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.

0 Responses to “Victorian Book Report: Victorian People and Ideas, Richard D. Altick”

  1. pameladean

    Oh, he wrote The Scholar Adventurers, which I read to death when I was in my twenties.

    Wow, he’s got a Wikipedia article.


    • Marie Brennan

      Everybody has a Wikipedia article these days. <g>

      I can’t find a good description of The Scholar Adventurers that helps me understand what it is — could you give a quick blurb? Because it sounds fabulous, even if it has nothing to do with my current research . . . .

      • pameladean

        But he’s a legendary figure from my past!

        The book is about literary detective work. The bits I recall best are about the discovery of Boswell’s journals and about Leslie Hotson’s discovery of the coroner’s report on Christopher Marlowe’s death. I found Altick an exttemely engaging writer, and he is certainly one of the reasons that I went to graduate school.


        • Marie Brennan

          Ah, okay. Still interesting, just not for the use that first leapt to mind — I wanted it to be about scholars going out and having adventures, rather than adventures in scholarship. 🙂

    • owldaughter

      Oh, I shall look that one up as well. The title alone intrigues me.

  2. sartorias

    I highly recommend Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern if you want to get down to the bones forming the Victorian times.

  3. owldaughter

    I *know* I own this book. I read your post and said, “Ooh, I should go look at that again; it’s been at least ten years since I last read it.” And lo, my bookshelves have eaten it, because it is nowhere to be found. Hmph.

    I did find Mason’s The Making of Victorian Sexuality and The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes where Altick should have been, though. (My main interest throughout my BA was Victorian lit. Which is no doubt why I did an honours thesis on early Canadian literature, and then my MA thesis on the effects of Thatcherism on the portrayal of nostalgia in the British academic novel. No, I don’t understand, either.)

  4. cathschaffstump

    Thank you. I NEED that book, and you saved me some research of my own.


  5. auriaephiala

    Thanks for the recommendation. It sounds highly worth reading.

  6. green_knight

    Thanks for the reccommendation; it sounds intrigueing, and ever so useful in a way that so much historical writing _isn’t_ – sometimes you simply want an overview, and a book that connects the dots of veiled hints and ‘this is the issue they were referring to’ is worth a lot.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think of this sort of thing as “an undergraduate book.” A step above the utterly basic high-school textbook introduction to a topic, but not so buried in complexities as grad-student/full-blown academic work. Ergo, very useful when you know the utter basics, but aren’t ready for the pro leagues yet.

      • green_knight

        I think it’s a different ecological niche. Personally, I need a framework to hang knowledge upon – the overview that gives me an idea what the issues are, before I delve into the more specialised (and often more controversial) works. I don’t mind reading a book that, in the end, proves to get very little _right_ as long as it’s equidistant from ‘right’ in all directions – I find that more useful than delving into the real stuff too soon.

        These days. I <whispers> look at Wikipedia if I don’t already own a book on the topic.

        Conversely, I think such books can be dangerous to undergraduates who don’t automatically question everything they read.

        • Marie Brennan

          Hey, don’t feel guilty about Wikipedia! I’m thinking of writing an essay for my website on its usefulness. It’s given me wrong information before, but that wrong information has still helped me move forward, which is more than no information can do.

          Conversely, I think such books can be dangerous to undergraduates who don’t automatically question everything they read.

          Honestly — and speaking from my own experience — anything is dangerous when you’re at that stage. You think, this was published, therefore it must be true. Everything presents some kind of argument, and in all but the most bland instances, every argument can be complicated or disagreed with.

          In truth? The thing that broke me out of that stage was not reading good stuff, but reading stuff so bad even I, a snot-nosed undergraduate, could knock it down. (History of anthropological theory: we started in the nineteenth century. An eight-year-old could knock that stuff down.) I started being a lot more critical of a reader after that.

          • paulliver

            Sometimes Wiki is more accurate than magazines and newspapers, especially since the print companies have been laying off fact checkers to save money. Sometimes reporters use Wiki just to save time, because print companies are forcing fewer people to do the same amount of work.

            When I tell people that I read “The Foundation Trilogy” in elementary school and “Chronicles of Thomas Coventant” in junior high, they either have no idea what I’m talking about or say, “That’s how you got so warpped.”

  7. la_marquise_de_

    That does sound good.
    There’s also The Cambridge Cultural History series that looks at things like furnishing and artistic movement by era — I don’t know the 19th c. one, but the mediaeval and 17th c. vols are very useful.

  8. auriaephiala

    Tnx again for the rec. I got the Altick book through inter-library loan, and finished it this week. I found it certainly reminded me of the sources of some current attitudes (see my LJ), but also gave me some serious double-takes: for example, when he pointed out how railways made paved roads obsolete back in the mid-19th century.

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