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All too aware of their history

by
20 December 2013

Andrew Rudd looks at how the Victorians chose from the past

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In the Olden Time: Victorians and the British past
Andrew Sanders
Yale £40
(978-0-300-19042-7)
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 Charles II.

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 present.

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 Exeter.

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