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The Year that Shaped the Victorian Age: Lives, loves and letters of 1845 by Michael Wheeler

31 March 2023

John Pridmore reads of shocking scandals and the Brownings’ romance

THERE is a consensus among historians that 1848, the year of revolutions in Continental Europe and Chartist riots at home, was the critical year in the reign of the young Queen Victoria. The cultural historian Professor Michael Wheeler begs to differ. In this enthralling study, he argues that it was in “the crucible of 1845” that Victorian England came to define itself. He considers in turn a series of challenges and crises that marked 1845, “that prodigious year of excitement and disaster”, as Dickens’s biographer John Foster called it.

Wheeler’s panoramic overview of this momentous year falls into four parts. First, we savour three public scandals. When, in the mid-1840s, it came to light that the correspondence of the Italian nationalist exile Giuseppe Mazzini was being covertly opened by the Post Office, a huge brouhaha ensued. The public was equally appalled by the frequency of crashes on an ever-expanding railway network — financial crashes as well as horrific pile-ups on the line.

Outrage was kept on the boil by “the Andover workhouse scandal”. The story broke in August 1845 when it was revealed that the diet provided by the drunken master of the Andover workhouse was so meagre that inmates were reduced to gnawing the rancid bones — some human — that they were required to reduce to fertiliser.

In Part 2 of his study, Wheeler turns from public scandals to private lives, trawling the vast archives of personal mail which the Victorians have bequeathed to us. He invites us to revisit three of the more extraordinary epistolary exchanges of the Victorian period, the love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, the correspondence of John Ruskin with his possessive father, and the torrent of letters between the ill-tempered Thomas Carlyle and his infinitely forbearing wife, Jane.

Part 3 of Wheeler’s book is entitled “Oxford Movements”. A sparkling chapter reminds us of William George Ward, Fellow of Balliol, “brilliant, overweight and thick-skinned”, who, in 1844, published his opinion that the Roman Catholic Church was the model of the one true Church. In February 1845, Ward was stripped of his degrees, famously falling over in the snow after the ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre which “degraded” him.

Author’s photoThe Andover workhouse today; it was the cause of a scandal in 1845

Perhaps, in the end, it does not matter very much whether we decide that 1845 or 1848 was the most significant year in Queen Victoria’s long reign — except that it was in 1845, not 1848, that the event took place that lingers in the Christian memory as no other. On 9 October that year, John Henry Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and for Christendom nothing was ever the same again. Reading Wheeler’s chapter on those last days at Littlemore — so well does he tell the familiar story — it is as if we were hearing it for the first time.

In the final part of this absorbing survey, treading surely where many have stumbled, Wheeler addresses three aspects of “the Irish Question” — first, the proposal to increase the grant to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, where Roman Catholic priests were trained; second, Thomas Foster’s letters, published in The Times, on “The Condition of the People of Ireland”; and, last, the part played by Robert Peel in the abolition of the Corn Laws.

In a brief “afterword”, Wheeler points out some of the striking parallels between the Victorian Age and our own. Most significantly, both then and now, means of communication become far swifter. The Victorians had their “penny post”. We have our smartphones. The difference, of course, is that their exchanges were rather more literate than ours.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.


The Year that Shaped the Victorian Age: Lives, loves and letters of 1845
Michael Wheeler
Cambridge University Press £29.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.99

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