In the Olden Time: Victorians and the British
Church Times Bookshop £36 (Use code CT853
WHEN it came to emblems of past ages, what the Victorians junked
and what they revered were highly revealing.
Queen Victoria sold off the Brighton Pavilion, gaudy symbol of
Regency hedonism associated with her uncle, George IV, in 1850.
Nine years later, the Church of England dropped from the Book of
Common Prayer the "occasional services" to mark the failure of the
Gunpowder Plot, the martyrdom of Charles I, and the Restoration of
Ideas of decorum, together with 150 years of relative religious
concord, made the one unseemly and the other seem unnecessary.
Andrew Sanders's new book lays bare how the Victorians
reorientated the past, often ruthlessly, to interpret their own
times. Sanders offers a magisterial survey of the theme of history
as it appeared in painting, literature, and architecture, as well
as history-writing itself. His book uncovers many forgotten gems,
and exposes paradoxes in how Victorians regarded the past and the
Victorians adored the swashbuckling Elizabethans, but loathed
the Virgin Queen who ruled them (A. W. N. Pugin called her the
"female tyrant"). The hero-worshipping Thomas Carlyle praised
Oliver Cromwell as a "strong man", but had no time for the
"fuddy-duddy" Archbishop Laud.
Sanders argues that such responses were shaped by a sense of how
far the Victorians had come, but also how historical spectres still
had the power to unsettle. Prince Albert, consort to the last
Hanoverian, felt secure enough dynastically to dress as a Jacobite
Highlander at a fancy-dress ball to mark the centenary of the
Battle of Culloden. A row about the statue of Cromwell outside the
Houses of Parliament, on the other hand, was potent enough to bring
down the Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery (who paid for it).
Sanders is particularly refreshing in looking beyond Victorian
interest in the Middle Ages to show how the national consciousness
was shaped by more recent periods, including the Civil War, the
Glorious Revolution, the reign of Queen Anne, the first three
Georges, and, finally, Victoria's "wicked uncles".
The danger was forever that history might repeat itself, or
bring about a relapse. The doctrinal struggle between Evangelicals
and followers of the Oxford Movement, for example, threatened a
reprise of Reformation-era conflict.
The Victorians were capable of making sweeping moral judgements
about history besides holding some rollicking (and often very
enter-taining) prejudices. This lavishly illustrated book depicts a
culture enviably steeped in historical awareness.
Dr Andrew Rudd is a lecturer in English at the University of