Two pleasures come together in one here. I’ve been interested in the Victorian Era for as long as I can remember, and I’ve enjoyed Jeremy Paxman’s other books about The Great War, Royalty and the British Empire. He’s a fine writer with a light touch and very easy to read.
But before I go any further, I need to point out what Paxman himself acknowledges: that Neil Hegarty wrote most of it. Paxman presented the BBC TV series on which the book is based. He worked on the script. But when it came time to complete the book, he was too busy. Enter Hegarty. Not that you can tell from reading The Victorians. If I hadn’t known, I would have assumed the author was the man whose name is on the cover.
Nor is there any point in belabouring this further. It’s a fascinating look at the age through the paintings that emerged during it. They offer glimpses – in good full colour reproductions – of its striking contradictions: technological innovation alongside grinding poverty; the advent of train travel and mass seaside holidays against longings for a bucolic past; religious conviction unsettled by evolutionary theories.
It’s not exhaustive. It’s not intended to be. What it is – for me at any rate – is an introduction to paintings I’d never been aware of before. (And if nothing else, to the haunting works of Elizabeth Thompson.) It’s certainly enough to make me want to buy the DVD of the actual BBC documentary and I would… if it weren’t listed online at the sphincter-shrinking price of £59.95.
I’ll stick with the book instead.