Matthew Sweet,
Inventing the Victorians
(Faber & Faber/St. Martin's Press, 2001)

We all imagine that we know everything there is to know about the Victorians. We read Dickens and saw the Sherlock Holmes films. We know about Jack the Ripper and the dour old queen who gave the era its name. Everyone can quote ideals of the age. For sex, it was "lie back and think of England," and there are tales of even piano legs being covered. Oh, what a repressed and depressing age.


The Victorian age gave us the modern 21st century world, as you'll learn in Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet. The information technology age started with the telegraph. Tabloids like the National Enquirer and the like were born in that era. Investigative journalism started there. Sponsorship was common. Reports on the Boer War were "brought to you by Bovril." Product placement was rife in the novels of the day. These novels in turn spawned spin-offs. When The Woman in White was at its height you could buy Woman in White cloaks and bonnets. You could dance to Woman in White waltzes.

Drugs were sold over the counter. Teething babies were given opium and black treacle in bottles marked Mother Bailey's Quieting Syrup. White poppies were cultivated in Surrey. Sideshows and displays like the Elephant Man were precursors of many of our daytime television shows.

The first Indian restaurant in England opened in the early 1800s about 40 years before the first Fish and Chip shop. They had serial killers but also sensational books on their exploits. They had junk mail -- by telegram. They invented such common items as suburbs, industrial pollution, feminism and the electric iron.

Dip into this book on any page and you will be amazed. So much that we consider modern was common for people over a century ago.

This is history at its best -- well written, easily read and offering a million items for the water cooler gossip mill.

- Rambles
written by Nicky Rossiter
published 8 March 2003

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