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Based on the BBC 2 series of the same name (first shown in 2001) this book explores the technological, scientific and cultural strides that were made in the Victorian era. Queen Victoria reigned for over sixty years, so the developments during this time are considerable and I was therefore very impressed that Adam Hart-Davis was able to pack so much information into a mere 220 pages.
I don't think you need to have seen the TV series to appreciate this book. Adam Hart-Davis captures the flavour of the age perfectly - the sense of national pride that stemmed from Britain's vast empire and the excitement mixed with trepidation that new concepts such as electricity and speedier travel brought with them. What is most striking of all is the double standard, the rich acquiring a variety of new gadgets for their homes whilst the poor struggled to survive.
This is an enthusiastically written book, which presents the information in a way that is easy to access and is engaging to the reader. It also contains lots of illustrations in the form of paintings and photographs - both old photographs and modern photographs of the places Hart-Davis visited during the series.
What I particularly enjoyed about this book is that, whilst it does talk about the big names from the history books such as Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin, it also pays tribute to the lesser-known individuals who made a valid contribution to history. Hart-Davis manages to describe them in a way that not only tells us what they achieved but also gives a sense of the type of man/woman they were. No doubt we have all heard of Mrs Beeton, for example, and her influential Book of Household Management, but I certainly never realised that she died at the tender age of 28, before she was able to become rich from her words of wisdom. (I had always imagined Mrs Beeton to be an old lady.)
We learn a little about Mary Anning, the fossil hunter from Lyme Regis, and how at the age of 11 she and her brother found what turned out to be a fossil of a marine reptile from the early Jurassic period. However, Hart-Davis does not refer at all to the prejudice Anning faced due to her sex and social class within the male-dominated 19th century science community. This is one of the drawbacks in a book like this where you can only really skim the surface of the subject. Another inspiring character I had not heard of before is Frederick Savage from Norfolk, who invented steam powered machines and was responsible for developing many fairground rides, despite being unable to read and write.
The admirable engineering feats of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was responsible for building the Great Western Railway, are explained in such a way that Brunel's flamboyant, determined and somewhat arrogant personality is conveyed, showing how he battled with shareholders, landlords and critics who still believed that passengers would die of suffocation if the trains went too fast! It puts things into perspective when Hart-Davis points out that before the Victorian era the fastest mode of transport was a galloping horse.
At times Hart-Davis goes into some technical detail when he describes the engineering methods used, but he prevents the book becoming too dry by including fascinating snippets of information that are often amusing. For instance, he tells us that the lack of lavatories on trains and inadequate local facilities often led to men and women congregating at opposite ends of the platform, pretending to admire the view.
Particularly fascinating to me were the accounts of developments in understanding how diseases like cholera and typhoid were transmitted, something that was vitally important given that infant mortality was at such a high rate when Victoria came to the throne, with only half of all babies living to see their fifth birthday. I was interested to read the story of Joseph Lister, a pioneer of antiseptic surgery who made the link between using carbolic acid to clean drains and to clean wounds.
This is an ideal book to pick up and dip in and out of. There are so many fascinating facts to learn, which include how the bowler hat came to be invented, the standardisation of rules for Association Football, developments in forensic science and policing, the increase in branded produce and the expansion of seaside resorts.
We don't just learn about the successful inventions but some of the flops too, which I found particularly interesting. You can almost imagine a Victorian version of Dragon's Den, when someone turns up and tries to get them to invest in an electric corset, claiming it has health-giving powers, or false teeth made from hippo ivory, held in place by springs.
I would recommend this book as a wonderful overview of a colourful era. There will obviously be areas where you wish there was a bit more detail, but it is an excellent starting point for anyone who is interested in this period of history. If you find you have a particular interest in a certain 'mover and shaker' you can take your reading further. A list of suggested further reading is helpfully provided at the end of the book, along with a list of interesting places to visit. However, people who already know quite a bit about the Victorians might be slightly frustrated by the sketchy detail in some places.
I think the reason some people dislike history is because they can't see the point of it. Commonly held views seem to be, "what's the point of reading about something that is over and done with?" Whilst I have never held that view, I can see that history becomes much more interesting when the past is shown to have relevance to the present day. What is good about this book is that it links the past with the present in a meaningful way, reminding us just how much of the Victorian age is still with us in terms of the buildings and structures that remain and the inventions that have been tweaked and improved over the years, but which the Victorians pioneered.
Used copies are currently available from Amazon for as little as £0.01 (plus delivery).