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Leisure’s Epitaph

John Pemble: The Victorians, 8 March 2007

Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain 
by Judith Flanders.
HarperPress, 604 pp., £20, August 2006, 0 00 717295 8
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... Will the history of the Victorian age ever be written? Lytton Strachey was emphatic that it wouldn’t. It will never be written, he declared in the preface to Eminent Victorians, because we know too much about it. Neither a Ranke nor a Gibbon could master the vast ocean of material bequeathed by those prolific generations. The historian could do no more than row across it, sink a bucket, and retrieve a few random and suggestive samples ...

Shopping for Soap, Fudge and Biscuit Tins

John Pemble: Literary Tourists, 7 June 2007

The Literary Tourist 
by Nicola J. Watson.
Palgrave, 244 pp., £45, October 2006, 1 4039 9992 9
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... Literary tourism is naff. It means coach parties, blue plaques, monuments, the National Trust, Friends of this and that. It buys from Oxfam books like The Brontë Country, Dickens’s London, With Hardy in Dorset, Literary Bypaths of Old England, The Land of Scott. Academic libraries don’t cater for it, and academic critics have about as much regard for it as they have for Disney World or back numbers of Reader’s Digest ...

Golden Dolly

John Pemble: Rich Britons, 24 September 2009

Who Were the Rich? A Biographical Directory of British Wealth-Holders. Vol. I: 1809-39 
by William Rubinstein.
Social Affairs Unit, 516 pp., £20, May 2009, 978 1 904863 39 7
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... came from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. Others came with nothing from nowhere. John Sowerby, a London merchant who died in 1823 worth half a million, had reputedly been a Cumberland farm labourer. Thomas Leyland, a merchant and banker of Liverpool, began life as a cooper and died in 1827 leaving £800,000. Sir Edward Banks, a public works ...

The Only True Throne

John Pemble: ‘Muckraker’, 19 July 2012

Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W.T. Stead 
by W. Sydney Robinson.
Robson, 281 pp., £20, May 2012, 978 1 84954 294 4
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... by the 1850s, when William Russell was reporting from the Crimea for the Times and his editor, John Delane, was fulminating against the mismanagement of the war, nobody could argue with it. ‘This country is ruled by the Times,’ the Saturday Review declared. ‘We all know it, or if we do not know it, we ought to know it.’ Once, governments had ...

Happy Bunnies

John Pemble: Cousin Marriage, 25 February 2010

Incest and Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England 
by Adam Kuper.
Harvard, 296 pp., £20.95, November 2009, 978 0 674 03589 8
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... job as vicar of Doncaster. Not until 1964, when Phyllis Grosskurth published her biography of John Addington Symonds, was it revealed that Vaughan had resigned in order to avoid prosecution for sexual offences with a pupil. As late as 1955, in his essay ‘The Intellectual Aristocracy’, Noël Annan was writing (probably with a knowing wink at fellow ...

So Very Silent

John Pemble: Victorian Corpse Trade, 25 October 2012

Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c.1834-1929 
by Elizabeth Hurren.
Palgrave, 380 pp., £65, December 2011, 978 0 230 21966 3
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Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor 
by Ruth Richardson.
Oxford, 370 pp., £16.99, February 2012, 978 0 19 964588 6
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... The last year of the workhouse was 1929. The old-age pension, introduced twenty years earlier, was still only ten shillings a week. George Orwell hadn’t imagined that anyone could live on it, but when he went slumming he discovered that people did, thanks to a diet of bread, margarine and tea, dirt-cheap lodgings and clothes from charities. By now, the unemployed could draw insurance benefit, and the destitute Public Assistance; so the workhouses were either demolished or adapted to other purposes ...

Respectful Perversion

John Pemble: Gilbert and Sullivan, 16 June 2011

Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody 
by Carolyn Williams.
Columbia, 454 pp., £24, January 2011, 978 0 231 14804 7
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... Something remarkable happened one night in 1920, during a performance of Iolanthe at the Prince’s Theatre. After the chorus had sung To say she is his mother is an utter bit of folly! Oh, fie! Our Strephon is a rogue! Perhaps his brain is addled, and it’s very melancholy! Taradiddle, taradiddle, tol lol lay! the man sitting next to Maurice Baring turned to him and said: ‘That’s what I call poetry!’ He then predicted that the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan would be the most enduring achievement of the Victorian age ...

A Spanish girl is a volcano

John Pemble: Apostles in Gibraltar, 9 September 2015

John Kemble’s Gibraltar Journal: The Spanish Expedition of the Cambridge Apostles, 1830-31 
by Eric Nye.
Macmillan, 416 pp., £100, January 2015, 978 1 137 38446 1
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... are no sodomites in Greene’s account, and the only coward, crank and sap-headed dilettante is John Sterling, the would-be mastermind of the whole affair. Charismatic, feckless and volatile, Sterling had dropped out of Cambridge, and by 1827, when he was 21, drifted to London, where he was dabbling in journalism and trying to sort out his doubts about ...

Resurrecting the Tudors

John Pemble: James Anthony Froude, 23 May 2013

James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet 
by Ciaran Brady.
Oxford, 500 pp., £45, May 2013, 978 0 19 966803 8
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... struck by lightning’. To Froude, he was ‘a Calvinist without the theology’, Scotland’s new John Knox, ‘whose voice was like the sounding of ten thousand trumpets’. In the 1830s fashionable London had been spellbound by his charismatic presence and his inspirational brew of fire and brimstone. He taught that right is might and might is light and ...

High Taxes, Bad Times

John Pemble: Late Georgian Westminster, 10 June 2010

The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1820-32 
by D.R. Fisher.
Cambridge, 6336 pp., £490, December 2009, 978 0 521 19314 6
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... to have cost £80,000: the Whig spent £30,000 and still lost. The burden could be crippling. John Benett, MP for Wiltshire, was told by his brother in 1820: ‘The failure of the subscriptions at both the last elections has already thrown an overwhelming debt upon your property, and one that you will never see cleared as long as you live.’ And all for ...

Gaslight and Fog

John Pemble: Sherlock Holmes, 26 January 2012

The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England 
by Haia Shpayer-Makov.
Oxford, 429 pp., £30, September 2011, 978 0 19 957740 8
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... own affair. ‘The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society,’ John Stuart Mill said, ‘is that which concerns others.’ What was done in secret was another matter. Secret ballots were pernicious, according to Mill, because they freed voters from ‘all sense of shame or responsibility’. ‘Everything secret,’ Lord ...

Besieged by Female Writers

John Pemble: Trollope’s Late Style, 3 November 2016

Anthony Trollope’s Late Style: Victorian Liberalism and Literary Form 
by Frederik Van Dam.
Edinburgh, 180 pp., £70, January 2016, 978 0 7486 9955 1
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... but it also suggests the possibility of some psychosexual crisis. We know from the memoirs of John Addington Symonds that boys weren’t likely to leave Harrow sexually innocent, and it could be significant that Trollope destroyed all his youthful journals because he thought they were too revealing. Since his father was bankrupt and he had failed to win a ...

Phantom Gold

John Pemble: Victorian Capitalism, 7 January 2016

Forging Capitalism: Rogues, Swindlers, Frauds and the Rise of Modern Finance 
by Ian Klaus.
Yale, 287 pp., £18.99, January 2015, 978 0 300 18194 4
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... Victorian decade began in 1856, when the Tipperary Bank collapsed and the chairman’s brother, John Sadleir, a serial swindler up to his neck in debt, made the headlines with that suicide by poison on Hampstead Heath (thereby achieving immortality as Merdle in Little Dorrit). A sequence of failures followed: the Royal British Bank, the Western Bank of ...

The Man Who Never Glared

John Pemble: Disraeli, 5 December 2013

Disraeli: or, The Two Lives 
by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young.
Orion, 320 pp., £20, July 2013, 978 0 297 86097 6
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The Great Rivalry: Gladstone and Disraeli 
by Dick Leonard.
I.B. Tauris, 226 pp., £22.50, June 2013, 978 1 84885 925 8
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Disraeli: The Romance of Politics 
by Robert O’Kell.
Toronto, 595 pp., £66.99, February 2013, 978 1 4426 4459 5
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... but updating the story with the recent work of Colin Matthew, Roy Jenkins, Richard Shannon, John Vincent, Sarah Bradford and Stanley Weintraub. Essentially it’s dry-bones parliamentary history – elections, cabinets, reshuffles, bills, budgets, divisions, dissolutions – and its verdict on the falling out hardly deepens our understanding: ‘By the ...

Superior Persons

E.S. Turner, 6 February 1986

Travels with a Superior Person 
by Lord Curzon, edited by Peter King.
Sidgwick, 191 pp., £12.95, October 1985, 0 283 99294 8
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The Ladies of Castlebrae 
by A. Whigham Price.
Alan Sutton, 242 pp., £10.95, October 1985, 0 86299 228 1
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Lizzie: A Victorian Lady’s Amazon Adventure 
by Tony Morrison, Anne Brown and Ann Rose.
BBC, 160 pp., £9.95, November 1985, 0 563 20424 9
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Miss Fane in India 
by [author], edited by John Pemble.
Alan Sutton, 246 pp., £10.95, October 1985, 0 86299 240 0
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Explorers Extraordinary 
by John Keay.
Murray/BBC Publications, 195 pp., £10.95, November 1985, 0 7195 4249 9
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A Visit to Germany, Italy and Malta 1840-41 
by Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Grace Thornton.
Peter Owen, 182 pp., £12.50, October 1985, 0 7206 0636 5
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The Irish Sketch-Book 1842 
by William Makepeace Thackeray.
Blackstaff, 368 pp., £9.95, December 1985, 0 85640 340 7
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Mr Rowlandson’s England 
by Robert Southey, edited by John Steel.
Antique Collectors’ Club, 202 pp., £14.95, November 1985, 0 907462 77 4
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... whether to introduce ‘some bursts of fine writing’, an indulgence best left to Viceroys. John Keay, the drily witty author of Travellers Extraordinary (and, earlier, Eccentric Travellers), comes as a timely model of concision. His heroes are the coxcombs and humbugs of travel, or pretended travel. The best-known is Louis de Rougemont, alias Henry ...

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