Mar 9, 2010

Victorian Sensation by Michael Diamond

Victorian Sensation by Michael Diamond

Much has been written of how remote the Victorians are from us. Their inflexible thinking on social issues, the severity of their moral code, the hypocrisy with which they broke it have been much derided. They have been seen as monsters of repression and restraint. This book, however, has attempted to redress the balance, to show how like us they were in their love of sensation, scandal, melodrama and excess.
Victorian Sensation is, as the subtitle tells us, a study of the Spectacular, the shocking and the scandalous in nineteenth-century Britain. Specifically, some of the topics it covers are politics, religion and morality, sex scandals, murder, and public entertainment As Michael Diamond tells us in the above passage, these days we tend to think of the Victorian era as very rigid and inflexible, but of course, in real life things are always a little more nuanced than that. Victorian Sensation shows us that in many ways, the Victorians weren’t as different from us as all that.

In addition to chapters on the topics I listed above, there’s also one on sensation novels, which I look forward to reading in its entirety someday. I say this because I actually skipped most of it – the reason being that it’s full of spoilers for the most well-known Victorian sensation novels. I understand why this is the case (there wasn’t much Michael Diamond could say without giving the plots of these books away), but because I’ve only read a few sensation novels (and do very much care about spoilers), there was very little that was safe for me to read. I’ll be sure to come back to it once I’ve read East Lynne, Aurora Floyd, No Name and Bleak House.

Victorian Sensation is a rich and detailed piece of social history, but it’s also accessible, colourful, and a whole lot of fun to read. Diamond retells some famous cases, like Oscar Wilde’s trial, Dickens’ last public appearance (at a time when it was widely known that he was seriously ill and wouldn’t live much longer), Madeleine Smith’s murder trial, or the case of the mysterious Jack the Ripper. But there were also many stories I can’t recall hearing of before, though they were huge at the time – such as the tale of the Tichborne Claimant, for example. Also, I cannot believe Annie Besant and Josephine Butler had not come to my attention before. They were two women ahead of their time, who fought for women’s rights, birth control, and the welfare of prostitutes among other things, and now I urgently want to read their biographies.

Some of the scandals retold here actually inspired the Victorian sensations novels I have so enjoyed. I loved how this book enriched my understanding of the era and of the social context from which these stories sprung. But I also loved how universal it felt. Each time period has its own specificities, of course, and those who say the past is a foreign country do have a point. Yet as I read Victorian Sensation, I actually found myself thinking about how little has changed. People still love a good scandal, and though our social mores have changed and we no long define respectability quite so narrowly, many of today's scandals are about the very same things. That's one of the interesting things about the Victorians, actually - how remote and yet how close to us they seem.

Another great thing about Victorian Sensation was the fact that it included plenty of illustrations, newspaper cuts, reproductions of the covers of penny dreadfuls, and even the lyrics to popular music hall songs. This glimpse of the Victorian underworld put me in mind of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet. And that, of course, can only be a good thing.

Interesting bits:
It was the same on the day of the public hanging at Horsemonger Lane gaol. ‘She walked to her doom with a firm, unfaltering step’, while his step was so ‘feeble and tottering’ he has to be supported by two turkneys. His counsel had told the jury to disregard the idea that the male is always stronger than the female. ‘History teaches us,’ he said, ‘ that the female is capable of reaching higher in point of virtue than the male, but that when she gives way to vice, she sinks far lower than our sex.’ The Victorian obsession with wicked women often surfaced in fiction and on the stage. As Judith Knelman points out in her study of Victorian murderesses, murder by a woman did not fit the patriarchal ideology of Victorian England: it had to be explained away as the action of ‘a whore, witch, monster or mad woman’—as in the case of Maria Manning.

The crash of his fall was all the louder because so many disliked Wilde – which was inevitable because he advertised himself so relentlessly and was so much cleverer than most of his adversaries. Also, he insisted scandalously that aesthetic values mattered more than moral ones. The Victorians set high store by morality, and Wilde actually claimed there was no such a thing as a moral or an immoral book, that books were either well or badly written. After he was sentenced, the Daily Telegraph published a leader that opened with an attack on art for art’s sake, and, doubtless to the bemusement of many readers, invoked the names of Kant, Lessing, Schiller and Hegel.

It is still disputed how many murders were due to ‘Jack the Ripper’; possibly there were five, although several more were ascribed to him at the time. These horrific killings occurred over about fifteen months from April 1888. They were all committed in Whitechapel, in the East End of London, except one that took place a short distance away in the City. The location helped to make the story sensational. Respectable people feared to tread the ill-lit lanes and alleys of one of the capital’s poorest areas. All of the victims had been prostitutes, which did not prevent respectable ladies fearing for their lives. Where the series of female poisoning cases revealed the passion seething behind middle-class respectability, the Ripper story was one of desperate women, often abandoned by their partners for their heavy drinking, trying to earn money for their next meal or the next night’s room in some sordid, vice-ridden lodging house. Ironically, it was the nature of their trade that they accompanied men to where they would not be disturbed.
(Have you posted about this book? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)


  1. This sounds fascinating! I'm always ready to read more about Victorian history and this sounds like a wonderful choice that will fit in well with what I've read.

  2. I am forced to add this to my wishlist, since the Victorian Era is one of my favorite periods. Thanks for this great review!

  3. This sounds very good. I tend to like reading about this period very much. I love the bit about the Telegraph's response to Wilde's trial. I can see why you skipped the chapter on novels, but on the other hand, it undoubtedly provides a built-in reading list if one can sort of elide over the content!

  4. I love the idea of the Victorian era being full of sensation novels. I am intrigued by this book and left wanting more. I want to know about Dickens last public appearance and Jack the Ripper always attracts my attention. I really want a good book about Jack the Ripper - it is a story that I have always held a morbid fascination for, though I imagine if I had lived during that time period, I would have been scared to death.

  5. I love social history books! Granted, I'm more into the Georgian/Regency period and you're more into the Victorian one, but there's so many FUN things to learn! And frightening things, too. This will sound weird, but I often like to hear about the ridiculous trials, scary injustices and scandals of the past- just so I can be secure in the knowledge that it's NOT JUST HAPPENING NOW.

  6. Oh, this sounds like a wonderful read! I think that these types of books are very interesting and they really get me hyped up about reading more literature of the period they are attempting to distill. Great review Nymeth, you will have to let us know what you think about the section on the Victorian sensation novels when you go back and read it.

  7. This sounds like a fantastic book for those of us interested in the Victorian period. This puts me in mind of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (I finally read it toward the end of last year) and the way it fed into the fondness for sensationalism. It is so true that some things haven't changed ... we are still fascinated by a good scandal.

  8. Is there anything more delicious than a Victorian scandal? I don't think so. :)

  9. Disliked Oscar Wilde, how ridiculous. If only the people who didn't like him had just MET him. He was delightful.

    I have this on my shelves. About time I got round to reading it.

  10. this does sounds really interesting! you always find the most unique reads.

  11. Meghan: I think this is right up your alley, yes!

    Andreea, then I'm sure you'd enjoy it!

    Jill: It really does! I now want to read every one of the books he mentioned.

    Vivienne: I'd love to read more about Jack the Ripper too. I have Alan Moore's From Hell - which is a graphic novel based on the Ripper story - on the tbr pile, but haven't gotten to it yet.

    Aarti: There is! I like the Regency period too, actually, though the Victorians own my heart :P Also, that doesn't sound weird AT ALL. I feel much the same way.

    Zibilee: It'll take me a while, but I promise I will :P

    Terri B: I actually meant to say that this reminded me of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher a bit! Well, this reads more like actual non-fiction, while Mr Whicher had a novelistic feel, but they cover some of the same ground.

    Heidenkind: Nothing whatever :P

    Jenny: I know! Poor Wilde. I look forward to your thoughts when you get to it :)

    Naida: I can't actually remember how I found this one...but! Victorian Sensation, how could I say no?


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