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Swellboy on… the Victorians

Isn’t it time for the Victorians to become fashionable again?

Swellboy on… the Victorians

Image: Brijesh Patel

May 04 2011
Nick Foulkes

Forgive me for rattling on about the 19th century, but I was mighty pleased by the recent television adaptation of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Not having seen it, I am unable to comment on its qualities or otherwise; my interest is rather less disinterested: I write books about aspects of 19th-century life and I am currently trying to get another off the ground, so anything that demonstrates the viability of Victorianism is a blessing.

As is usual in my life, I have chosen a somewhat contrary and contrapuntal direction. In publishing circles, the axiom seems to be that between Henry VIII and Hitler there is a barren wasteland which is very difficult to cultivate, and yet it is in one of the most arid areas of this historical dustbowl that I plough my little furrow.

You only have to visit your local bookshop, should your neighbourhood boast such a quaint and old-fashioned amenity, and measure the shelves and shelves of volumes about the second world war and compare the impressive number of yards to the scant few feet that are allocated to the period between the Reformation and the Anschluss.

If you were to move the goalposts and measure the passage of time from the Merrie Monarch to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (after all, with 2014 on the way I am sure we are due a bumper crop of Great War histories), I am pretty confident that would only need a six-inch ruler. OK, I hyperbolise, but only a bit.

I am mystified. I find it hard not to be intrigued by the Briton of the 19th century who went about his bustling and largely lucrative business, firm in the conviction that being born an Englishman he had indeed drawn first prize in the lottery of life. Self-belief is not something that I have been overly afflicted with, so I suppose I always marvel at this quality in others, and there is something miraculous about the collective confidence of an age that plainly thought God was an Englishman who probably looked like Ruskin on a walking holiday in the Lake District.

Of course, judged by 21st-century standards, Britain’s subjugation of hundreds of millions of the world’s peoples was hardly an act of enlightened and compassionate statecraft, but then it did not happen in the 21st century. At this point I must admit that I would have serious misgivings about embarking on an imperial adventure today. But there are those who see things differently. I vividly recall being ticked off by a fully tweeded-up Indian magnate who gave me the strong impression that he held me personally responsible for the end of the Raj and spent most of the afternoon telling me that things had not been the same since the British had left the subcontinent. Nevertheless, as a modern Briton, I can see why David Cameron recently apologised for the British Empire’s role in the trouble around what used to be known as the North-West Frontier (one of the hotspots of the Great Game – what we had before the Cold War).

My only hope is that coalition performs another of its U-turns. A few days after Swellboy questioned the government’s apparent antipathy towards the harmless nepotism of work experience, David Cameron announced that while Clegg may have been against it, he was in fact wholly in favour of it. Quite right too. Now, on behalf of beleaguered 19th-century enthusiasts, I call upon the government to reverse its thinking on the British Empire. In fact it does not even have to perform a volte face; I would settle for a few cunningly leaked and expertly spun “throwaway” remarks about the repeal of the Corn Laws and a summer reading list for Cleggeron MPs heavy on Macaulay, Ruskin, Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, etc; such measures would be of inestimable help to my agent, Luigi Bonomi, as he conducts negotiations on my behalf.

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