Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain. By Susie L. Steinberg. Routledge. 2012. xxx + 278pp. £23.99.


The development of scholarship on nineteenth-century Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century has been influenced by the growth of Victorian Studies. Encompassing literature, art history, history and economics, Victorian Studies has provided insights into economics, empire and politics as well as violence, family life, work, marriage and civic life. Such work has shown the diversity of life in nineteenth-century Britain: there were a range of perspectives, ideas and attitudes, practices and behaviours expressed and communicated in a multitude of ways. Yet it also shows that there is something that can be tangibly identified as ‘Victorian’, made possible by the inclusiveness of Victorian culture. Victorian culture was diverse and pragmatic, able to adapt to social, economic and political change. Understanding the Victorians requires an approach that seeks out this diversity but which also explains why some representations became fixed in the minds of contemporaries and historians. Steinbach's book does this with great flair. It covers politics, culture and society through lived experience, dominant tropes and shared beliefs. It presents both the variety and coherence of nineteenth-century Britain in ways that are accessible and memorable and will, for that reason, be a useful text for its primary target audience, students of nineteenth-century Britain.

Steinbach offers readers a ‘portrait of the era’ which covers familiar topics and new approaches. The family, religion and the economy are, as one would expect, given thorough treatment. But more recent themes in history are given equal standing such as, for example, space, consumption and the law. Taken together these topics and themes show how the expansion of opportunities and possibilities in the nineteenth century produced debates about boundaries, regulation and change. The book begins with a short history of the piano, which is used to represent the economic, social and cultural transformations that took place between 1830 and 1914. Until the 1840s the piano was a luxury item made by craftsmen primarily for the elite. In the middle of the century, as the cost of a piano came down, it became an object of social emulation, associated with respectability and middle-class leisure. By the end of the century pianos were mass produced, available on hire purchase and within the reach of the working classes. It was, as Steinbach states, ‘no longer a case of have and have not, but rather of the qualities of having’ (p. 10). Not forgetting the many who still ‘had not’, as the rest of Steinbach's book shows, increasing access to politics and culture produced anxieties about how social distinctions might be made. For example, as new commercial spaces emerged in town centres and off-the-peg clothing was made available, uncertainties about identity and authenticity were expressed in a number of ways and particularly through literature and the law. The case of the Tichborne Claimant was, as Steinbach notes, drawing on McWilliam's study, a cause célèbre because it articulated contemporary concerns about people, place and identity.

Across all chapters, Steinbach's volume is best when drawing on literature to tease out and demonstrate the trends and tensions of the age. The section on class and shopping is illustrated through critical commentaries on working-class spending and through satirical literature targeting the aspirational yet budget-minded suburban middle classes. Steinbach's argument is brought to life through the writing of the urban journalist George Sala, who described London clerks with their slavish devotion to fashion as young bucks ‘who purchase the pea-green, the orange, and the pink-rose gloves’ (p. 107). She also refers to the commentator T. W. H. Crosland, who wrote contemptuously of the ‘pitiful’ lower middle classes and their ‘cheapness’ and ‘vulgarity’. As the chapter on consumption leads into one on class, Steinbach shows how class politics were negotiated around distinctions of attire, attitude and behaviour. As Steinbach argues, understanding class in these terms is fundamental to understanding the age.

Steinbach's book is remarkable for its complex and nuanced understanding of culture and for the clarity in which this is expressed. Care is taken to pull out examples which represent the age, but analysis is subtle and aimed at gaining a precise understanding of their significance to Victorian society. For example, the case of the cross-dressers Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park, otherwise known as Fanny and Stella, who were arrested and acquitted of incitement to commit an unnatural offence in 1871, is shown to be more about titillation than revelation; there was, according to Steinbach, already broad awareness of transgressive subcultures. The case of Oscar Wilde is discussed not as a watershed in the history of homosexuality but as part of a broader consideration of sexuality which shows how cross-class relationships, urban subcultures and same-sex desire were ‘simultaneously understood and unnamed’ (p. 208). As Steinbach argues, sodomy and attempted sodomy were already illegal and prosecutions common by the time Wilde came to trial, though the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 did make it easier to prosecute sex between men without firm evidence of sodomy (p. 205). Wilde's trial may not have been the ‘the general public's first hint that sex between men existed’ but it did mark a shift in the way homosexuality was represented in Victorian culture (p. 208).

Steinbach's book sets out the methods and approaches best suited to understanding the complexities of Victorian culture and society. It reminds scholars of the need to look at a range of sources in getting beyond dominant accounts. The chapter on marriage demonstrates the need to look at demographics, diaries, pornography, adverts, letters, advice manuals and legal records to get behind stereotypical representations of Victorian sex and marriage. The chapter on religion demonstrates the need to explore faith in relation to place and shows how, despite the low levels of church attendance that were revealed in the 1851 census, religion was a central part of everyday life with many churches embedded in local politics and culture. There are, nevertheless, one or two stereotypes that go unchallenged. Steinbach refers to ‘alcohol-laden Britain’ when recounting the importance of the temperance movement (pp. 49, 220), but she doesn't consider how the pursuit of pleasure might coexist with forms of rational recreation or how it might even be seen as defiance or subversion of middle-class values. Other Victorian tropes are retold to better purpose. The history of Ireland is brought in at various points in the book to show just how powerfully it challenged and continues to challenge narratives of progress and democracy. Overall, Steinbach's book integrates old topics and new frameworks in a way that offers an overview of the discipline and which, through careful synthesis of diverse approaches, offers new perspectives on the Victorians and their place in British history.