Stuff vs. Theory

In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled Fun Stuff I Have Found Out. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to a point it’s a fair cop, guv. I came to history-writing by the back door. I was writing a biography of four Victorian women, and to understand their own particular lives I felt I needed to know more about the lives which most women of their background and time
lived. My next four books, to a greater or lesser extent, focused on exactly that: how did the people of the time live; what did they do, what did they see, feel, smell; how did they amuse themselves, what was available to them on a day-to-day basis? If we don’t
know about ordinary life, goes my brain, how can we understand what motivates the less ordinary?

The historian Robin Winks divided history into ‘three things: what happened in the past, what people believe happened in the past, and what historians say happened in the past’. This tripartite division is a good description of what history is. History-writing, however, can just as well divide into two schools: theory, and ‘stuff’. Stuff falls into Winks’s ‘what happened in the past’ category, while theory spills across the other two. But stuff encompasses more than just ‘what happened’. It is also ‘what was it like when it happened’.

Take urbanisation, for example. Theory discusses the broad sweep of city growth and the socialisation of populations. Stuff uncovers that, in the new cities, when traffic began to be
segregated according to different types of transport, carts went in one lane, pedestrians and horses in another: the division was wheels versus legs. Not an insight that alone will set the world on fire but one that, nonetheless, does indicate a mindset revealingly
different to our own.

The source-materials for stuff are also pleasantly far-ranging. I would never take Tennyson’s description of ‘streaming London’s central roar’ as evidence of ‘what happened in the past’. It might mean the city was noisy, or it might be a flight of fantasy. Nor Dostoevsky calling London a city filled with ‘the screeching and howling of machines’ – he is hardly known as being the most even-keeled of writers. But then there is Dickens. Novel after novel abounds with throw-away lines like this from Our Mutual Friend, where one character asks another, ‘Would you object to turn aside into this place… where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?’ Add in visitors’ reports of being
unable to hear a sermon in St Clement Danes on a Sunday over the sound of the traffic in the Strand, and Jane Carlyle complaint of the ‘everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, waggons,
carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay…’ from her small by-street in Chelsea, and Tennyson and Dostoevsky now appear to be merely reporting.

I do understand the qualms of the theory-ers, who question whether the experiences of individuals alone can be the basis on which to formulate more abstract ideas about society. Yet stuff allows us a mosaic-style formation of a picture. One tile tells us
little: it is too highly coloured, or too pale; but combine the many, many tiles that make up stuff, and a vivid picture emerges. We can stop with these pictures – that may be all we ask of ‘what happened in the past’. But my view is that, carefully assessed and
weighed, stuff can indeed lead more naturally to theory, to understanding how the people of the past thought about what happened.

It took me a phenomenally long time to discover exactly how a doorstep was whitened in the 19th century. Every household management book assured its readers it had to be done daily, but detailed instructions were scanty, for the simple reason that it was done daily, so everyone knew how. I was finally enlightened not by a book, but by my great-aunt (born 1905). The step was scrubbed down with boiling water. After it dried, a white paste
was applied. (Details to be found in The Victorian House, should any of you kids decide to try this at home.) It was done first thing in the morning, she said, before they went to school, so she and her sister had to jump from the threshold to the path, because
walking on the step would mark the white. How, I asked, wondering, did they get back in again after school? This was the revelation: ‘You could walk on it after eleven; everyone had seen it.’

This stuff therefore has two parts. First, the step was scrubbed before it was whitened; the whitening was not part of the cleaning process. And secondly, whitening a doorstep was not about cleanliness, it was about status. The very transience of the white announced the householder’s respectability: she had cleaned that day, and would clean again the next. So here, stuff leads to theory. What happened, what people thought about it, and why.

For the book I am currently working on, an attempt to outline the development of the idea of home, I am by the nature of the subject dealing more with theory than I ever have before. For the first year, I felt like a cow in ice-skates: please let me have my stuff back, I cried. I can trace the development of artificial lighting with no trouble. I can do it with both arms tied behind my back. Please please please don’t make me write about why, as lighting
became brighter, cheaper and more accessible, window-curtains moved from being rarities to being routine, or why the trends in decoration pronounced darkened rooms more aesthetically pleasing. (Although my stuff-nature leapt upon the nomenclature. In Germany in the late 19th century, one especially gloomy tendency was known as the braune Soße – gravy – style of interior decoration.)

Sometimes I think theory is like dealing with a particularly inquisitive five-year-old. Why was there an Industrial Revolution? Because of the consumer revolution. OK, so why was there a consumer revolution? Because of the… and we’re off, an endless series of ‘whys’ pushing each question further and further back.

At other times, I am amazed not so much by the material (although that is astonishing too), as by Winks’s second category: ‘what people think happened’. Or, in some cases, what they refuse to believe happened; we refuse to move from stuff to theory. Dutch academics have produced exceptional work on 17th-century inventories, comparing the paintings of the Golden Age to the actual design and contents of the houses supposedly
depicted. There is, they show, little overlap – barely any houses had marble floors, brass chandeliers, carpets on tables, or owned musical instruments; meanwhile many items that were in common use, such as strip-matting on the floors, were rarely or barely ever painted. The Dutch of the 17th century knew these pictures did not depict reality; it is we, in the intervening centuries, who have lost sight of that.

But the fascinating thing is how little purchase this work has had, how rarely it has been incorporated into the mainstream of general knowledge, despite – or indeed because – of the popularity of the paintings. The reason for this obscurity, of course, moves us from stuff (the inventories) to theory. The pioneering curator and design-historian Peter Thornton knew of this work, but continued to argue for the verisimilitude of Dutch
Golden Age art: the departure from reality for artists ‘is never all that large’, he wrote. And how, he challenged, if there were no carpets in houses, could artists ‘find carpets on floors to depict so accurately’, taking for granted that artists paint only the world about them, that they do not own props, nor create staged settings to paint.

In part, Thornton’s rejection of the research may have been one of age. He had relied heavily on paintings and engravings for his great histories of interior decoration; to accept the symbolic nature of supposedly realist works as he reached his eighties would bring into question a lifetime’s work. But his refusal mirrors the seemingly inexplicable obscurity of such fascinating material.

His refusal is ours. We really don’t want to know that these paintings are not realistic. From their re-popularisation in the 19th century, these paintings have been a major component in what we think of when we think of the word ‘home’. We want those tranquil, golden-lit rooms to have been real, to be, now, a place that once existed, and might therefore exist again. If we accept they are imaginary, we must accept that our own notions of home are, in part, imaginary too.

Is this theory correct? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: stuff doesn’t lie.

This article first appeared in The Author.

Don Q and Dracula, Royal Ballet and Mark Bruce Company

 

 

Double visions

Should anyone need an object lesson in archetype vs stereotype, the dip back into the nineteenth century performed by these two radically different companies could scarcely be bettered as an example.

Potential dance audiences tend to be gun-shy, skittering at unfamiliar titles or mixed bills. The old favourites – Swan Lake, Giselle – still attract the most people, to the despair of artistic directors and devotees alike. So drawing on titles familiar from other contexts is a way of making audiences feel safe when booking tickets, while allowing creativity to flourish.

With Just ten dancers, the Mark Bruce Company’s production of Dracula packs a punch far beyond its weight. Bruce’s choreography more generally could perhaps be called “psycho-dance”, exploring as it does the emotion of movement and the movement of emotion. Previously Bruce has sometimes seemed undisciplined, his work running off at tangents, but adapting Bram Stoker’s bitty, epistolary novel has allowed him to focus this tendency into a virtue.

He has chosen his collaborators wisely: Phil Eddolls’s overwrought irony of a set wittily gestures towards period without any attempt at authenticity; Guy Hoare’s almost velvet lighting is a character in its own right; and Pickled Image’s creepily effective masks provide some of the show’s highlights – the wolves baying around Dracula in the opening will long linger in my mind.

At the production’s core is the reliably wonderful Jonathan Goddard. Long a stellar dancer, he has also grown in psychological intensity with every new role. His long, lugubrious face is tailor-made for the Transylvanian, allowing him to be at once both shamelessly predatory and tormented by his animal desires.

It is this double nature that lifts Dracula above stereotype and into archetype. Stoker created an Other who walks among us, the outwardly respectable frock-coated gent who will rip out a heart and eat it as casually as he hails a cab.

In Bruce’s grey-on-black world, it is, in particular, sexual doubleness that fascinates and lures, as Kristin McGuire’s limpid Lucy Westenra trades the tame adoration of her suitors (presented in 1930s music-hall style) for Dracula’s bloody dance of death. Not for Bruce the camp accretions of a century of adaptations. This Dracula brings fresh blood to slavering audiences.

Meanwhile, the Royal Ballet too has returned to the nineteenth century to look for a crowd-pleaser. The decision to mount a new production of Don Quixote is at first surprising.

In the past twenty years they have staged two failed productions of what is ostensibly Petipa’s classic of 1869 (which has in reality only survived in fragments, through a heavily revised 1900 staging by Alexander Gorsky).

However Carlos Acosta, the Royal’s star of many years, cut his teeth on Don Quixote in his native Cuba, and it has been his calling card when guesting elsewhere, so it is likely that his was the guiding desire here when deciding what to stage for his first production at the Royal.

The ballet itself – a demented mash-up of Imperial Russian choreography, Austro-Hungarian oompah-fest score, and late nineteenth-century ethnic caricatures – is pure stereotype, not archetype, and as such will never fit neatly with the British passion for theatrical realism. This is surprisingly deep-rooted in the classical dance world, and British dancers can’t ever quite bring themselves to click their castanets, shout olé (and Acosta has his dancers really shouting) or even perform the famous rocking-horse jetés (back leg snapping up to the head) without adding a raised eyebrow to signal ironic distance from the piece’s sheer silliness.

The plot focuses on a tiny episode from Cervantes’ novel, about a barber and his love, while the Don and Sancho Panza merely wander through. Acosta handles the absence of motivation as well as possible, and indeed the further he gets from the traditional staging, the more assured he is. Act I, which is almost all plot set-up, only intermittently and very unevenly interrupted by dance, is a long haul, whereas in the second act, in the gypsy encampment, Acosta’s interpolations, such as the flamenco jam session, are charming.

Here he also gives Basilio (Acosta) and Kitri (Marianela Nuñez) some character development, which they clearly relish. Nuñez has long been cast as a soubrette, which is mystifying: she is, true, both small and neat, with a great bouncy jeté, all aspects of value in soubrette roles. But she is also a dancer of formidable attack and intelligence, neither of which have much place in a stamp-and-pout part. “Feisty” is a word applied usually to women – women who speak their minds are “feisty”, whereas men who speak their minds are just men. Nuñez is indeed “feisty”, in that her dancing says straightforwardly what she thinks, with no beating around the bush. Would that such straightforwardness no longer had to be wrapped up in a veneer of cuteness for it to be considered acceptable.

Other elements of the evening are similarly tame. The West End designer (Spamalot, Shrek) Tim Hatley’s first act has a muted pastel palette. The day-glo sunset of the gypsy encampment and the surreal giant flowers of the vision scene see him at his most effective, but his dance inexperience shows in the frantically bustling houses and windmills. Dance doesn’t need moving scenery; dance is moving scenery.

The Mark Bruce Company knows this in its bones. It may be that having only a tiny fraction of the resources of the Opera House forces creators like Bruce to imaginative heights they would not otherwise reach. Two scenes – Jonathan Harker (Christopher Tandy) in the Transylvanian tavern, and Dracula’s final chase, surrounded by wolves – show how skilled Bruce is at handling larger groups of dancers. One longs to see what this company could do with a quarter of the resources spent on Don Quixote – or maybe just the budget for the castanets.

Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation, by Andrew Lycett

Andrew Lycett: Wilkie Collins, A Life of Sensation (Hutchinson, 544 pp.)

A nondescript street near Regent’s Park in London bears a blue plaque. It uses the old, postwar style, with a minimum of information: ‘Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), novelist, lived here’. Whenever I pass it, I always wonder, if I only knew which corner to turn, would there be another sign that says ‘…and here’? For Collins was not merely peripatetic (Lycett lists 19 addresses in London alone), but for much of his adult life, he also maintained two families, in two houses.

Collins is less famous today than his slightly older contemporaries – Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray and the Brontës Major and Minor. And, despite his thirty-some novels, he is really only remembered for two – The Woman in White, a terrific potboiler of a novel, and The Moonstone, which T.S. Eliot called ‘the first and the best’ detective-novel.

‘First’ and ‘best’ can both be argued, but Collins was certainly a pioneer in the new genre that was only just appearing: crime-fiction. He was also a pioneer in the depiction of women detectives – amateurs, to be sure, but independent women who do things. The Woman in White’s Marion Halcombe crawls out on a roof in the dark to obtain proof of a crime; David Copperfield’s Dora finds a cookbook too difficult for her poor little brain.

As Lycett shows in this comprehensive new biography, women were Collins’, shall we say, forte. He claimed to have lost his virginity in Italy at the age of thirteen. The death of his rigidly religious father, a society painter of some fame, who had destined his son for a career as a tea-importer, left the still-adolescent Collins with an inheritance that enabled him to choose his own path, of fiction. He also chose his own life. Outwardly he was a conventional bachelor man-about-town, the man to know when it came to exploring the dives of Paris, or finding a doctor to treat the unfortunate side-effects of those explorations.

He was even less conventional at home. Caroline Graves was a lower-middle-class widow struggling to survive when Collins first met her; Martha Rudd a barmaid at a seaside resort. Although Collins married neither, Caroline lived as the first wife in the zenana, entertaining Dickens (who disliked her) and Collins’ other literary friends; Martha lived in more obscurity, but she and Collins produced three children.

All this despite the ill-health that dogged Collins’ life, and made him an opium addict of heroic proportions. He carried a hipflask of laudanum, and when in pain drank off an entire glassful – six to eight drops in water being the usual dosage.

With a private life as complicated as this, there are many gaps in the record. Some episodes remain cloudy. Collins had an apparently facetious correspondence with an eleven-year-old, but that he addressed her as ‘Mrs Collins’ does give the modern reader pause. His own letters presented this as a joke; if there was more, it remains unknown. But, short of a major discovery of papers, Lycett knows as much as anyone. He is also excellent on Collins’ friendship with Dickens, which he presents, convincingly, as much more of a relationship of equals than Dickens biographers allow.

And he answers the main question of any literary biography: why do we continue to read the novels. Neatly avoiding endless plot summaries, Lycett instead explores the themes that dominate Collins’ work: the duality of appearance and reality, the position of women, legal and medical advances.

And, finally, there is Collins’ sheer readability, his ability to make the reader turn the page, and then turn again, to long to know what it going to happen. Often derided as mere populism, story-telling and suspense are rare and precious gifts. Collins had them in spades.

Review first appeared in The Times

Ticket, Brandy, Pistol: All you need on the first Tube ride

On 9 January 1863 was both a day of celebration, and sheer relief. 650 of the great and the good travelled three and a half miles by underground railway, from Paddington to Farringdon Road, stopping to admire all six intermediary stations before lunching at Farringdon Station to mark the completion of what, two decades before, had seemed nothing more than fantasy: a railway under the earth. Palmerston, the Prime Minister, had refused the invitation, saying that he thought it prudent, at the advanced age of 79, to stay above ground for as long as possible. (Allegedly. Almost as many bons-mots are attributed to Palmerston as they are to Churchill. And some of them are even true.)

Most Londoners thought the day would never come. When the Great Northern Railway arrived at Euston in 1850, a few visionaries – or fantasists – had seen that, in the world’s most densely populated city, underground was the only way to go. As with HS2, from the beginning the political will was there, but money was harder to come by. It was 1859 before Charles Pearson, solicitor to the Corporation of the City of London, persuaded his paymasters to invest in the project, and building began.

London had been a building-site for most of the century. If it was not gas-pipes being laid for street-lighting, it was Bazalgette’s great sewer, or water-mains, or new bridges, or streets. But what followed was worse than anyone had imagined. The word ‘Underground’, despaired the Daily News, implied ‘mole-like secrecy’, but ‘this is a great mistake.’ Just as Crossrail today has devastated whole neighbourhoods, nothing was more visible to Victorian Londoners than the installation of the supposedly invisible tube. (And while Crossrail – theoretically – will take eight years, construction of the underground continued for three decades.)

The first Metropolitan Railway used the ‘cut-and-cover’ system: a trench was dug, the railway was inserted and then the ditch was covered up again. Endless streets were therefore boarded off, or narrowed to a single pathway for carriages and pedestrians alike, for years at a time. For the creation of the District line, Parliament Square was one great pit for much of the 1860s, resembling some hideous natural disaster.

Certainly enough disasters, natural and man-made, occurred along the way. In 1860 a locomotive exploded, killing two; in 1861 there was a landslide; and in 1862 the Fleet River, long covered over and filled with sewage, ruptured. The western embankment of the new railway, its brickwork eight feet thick, was tossed up in the air by the power of rushing water, and a hundred feet of wall was carried away in an instant.

Meanwhile, the poor were more permanently disrupted. Where possible the railway lines followed the roads, but often whole neighbourhoods were demolished. As usual, the poor suffered the most. Compensating large tenement-owners was cheaper than compensating individual homeowners, with less chance of vexatious lawsuits. (The Duke of Buccleuch’s claim for compensation when his house was razed to make way for Bazalgette’s sewer took eight years to grind its way through the courts.) Theoretically the railways were obliged to declare how many people they displaced, but without oversight their reports were plainly fiction: a mere 307 people, they claimed, had been made homeless between Paddington and Farringdon Street, whereas contemporary observers put the number at closer to 12,000 for just half that distance. Between 1850 and 1900, as many as 100,000 people may have been evicted, their homes destroyed.

In 1848, a Royal Commission had drawn a line around central London, into which the railways would not be allowed to stray. Instead of one or two mainline stations in the centre of the city, therefore, as in most European capitals, London is ringed by terminals. A mere ten years later this seemed like the natural order of things, and so the first underground silently follows this path: its later extension followed the border too, creating the loop we know as the Circle line.

Then as much as now, great civic projects routinely overran. One newspaper wrote in exasperation in 1862, the opening ‘was fixed for May last; then it was positively promised for the 1st of October; and, finally, for the 1st of January next.’ It wasn’t quite the 1st, but on 10 January 1863, the public was finally allowed to see what all the fuss was about.

As with the overground, the underground trains had first, second and third-class carriages, all lit by gas. Fares were 6d., 4d. and 3d., and 30,000 people were happy to pay that the very first day. By evening Farringdon station was so crowded, it looked like the opening of a West End play. Nearly a quarter of a million more travelled underground the following week, and by the 1870s the Metropolitan line alone was carrying 48 million passengers annually.

Not that it was always, or even often, an enjoyable experience. An American tourist was at first disappointed: it would be no more exciting than going through a tunnel, he grumbled. But he soon realized that, between the smoke from the steam-locomotives and the lack of ventilation, a voyage underground ‘was more disagreeable than the longest tunnel the writer had ever passed through’, and the foggy, smoggy London air above was, by contrast, as limpidly pure as that found on any Swiss alp. For below-ground, travellers’ mouths filled with the taste of sulphur, breathing was difficult. In 1867 a woman’s death was attributed to ‘natural causes, accelerated by the suffocating atmosphere of the Underground Railway’.

‘First’ is not always best. Other undergrounds learned from London’s early foray, and even today some of London underground’s problems arise from those first designs. Air-conditioning requires larger tunnels than the early engineers could have foreseen. And later systems were designed for electricity, not steam-power. (Glasgow and Liverpool’s Mersey Railway were exceptions.) Most countries, too, relied on central planning, whereas in Britain, private development rather than state control produced a spaghetti-bowl of lines.

By the 1880s, Punch magazine satirically recommended that essential equipment for any tube voyage include smelling-salts, a fan, potted shrimps, a brandy-flask, a pistol and a lamp. There was, however, no mention of a map: such were the constant additions to lines that it took over four decades for one to become available.

Finding your way, therefore, was a challenge. Station staff were just as bewildered as passengers. ‘If they do attempt to advise you, take some other ticket than the one recommended’: the odds are against them being right, claimed a west London resident. He added: ‘How many Kensington stations there may be…I do not know; but I know…that the officials always send you to the wrong one… All very well to say that we should look at the map at home and ascertain our route: firstly, there is no map.’ (After that ‘firstly’, pragmatism suggests he needed to go no further. Harry Beck’s iconic diagram, still the basis for us today, did not appear until the 1930s. The special Johnston typeface designed for clarity and reading at speed, and used across the underground came earlier, in 1916.)

Yet to the pioneers who had dreamed of an underground world, and then made those dreams concrete, these were details. They were men who failed to be daunted. Explosions, floods, wars, they overcame them all. A route was blocked by a canal? They re-purposed it as the bed of the new District line. Rivers were in the way? They moved them. (The Westbourne was culverted, and is still visible over the District and Circle line platforms at Sloane Square station.)

And so the oldest underground in the world, a matter of compromise, and patching, and scrabbling, is today still the third largest system in the world (surpassed only by Beijing and Shanghai), carrying 1.2 billion passengers a year.

On that triumphant 9 January 1853 at Farringdon Station, toasts were made to Charles Pearson, that forward-thinking solicitor, who had not lived to see his dream a reality. Let us hope that next Sunday, when the newly restored Met Steam Locomotive No. 1 runs along the original route, glasses will be raised once more to the man who, as his project neared its brilliant conclusion, rejected a cash bonus from the Metropolitan Railway Company: ‘I am the servant of the Corporation’, he said; ‘they are my masters and entitled to all my time and service.’

We shall not see his like again.

Sunday Times, 6 January 2013

William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow

William Morris has been in and out of fashion so often that the sympathetic watcher can get whiplash following his reputation. Lauded by his contemporary, the great critic John Ruskin, by 1904 he was merely “a great man who somehow delighted in glaring wallpapers”.

Yet Morris, the forerunner of the Arts and Crafts movement and pioneer of furniture and fabric design, was never only about design. As a pioneering socialist he wrote: “I do not want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

And in this ebullient, confident reopening of the William Morris Gallery, we see his life and work spread out for the many, as he would have hoped. Morris grew up in Walthamstow, and lived in this splendid Georgian villa as an adolescent (an indication of his background is that the three-storey Grade II building was where his mother downsized after his father died).

The building has been sensitively restored, with its features respected and enhanced. The curators have opened a world, moving from conception through creation to the sale of the goods.

Morris opened “the Firm”, as he called Morris & Co, to produce well-designed objects of daily life, be they wallpaper, textiles, glass or furniture, for the middle classes.

There is a splendid interactive game where you can “be” Morris and try various business plans to keep the Firm afloat. (I swiftly bankrupted the company.) Then the workshop techniques of printing, dyeing, weaving and tile design are explored (with more excellent interactives), where many of Morris’s designs are on display, followed by a room dedicated to end-products – jugs, stained-glass windows, curtains, chairs.

There is a “book” room, showing Morris’s vast contribution to both the art of the book and the art of the woodcut, and a final space, dedicated to his campaigning work. Along with socialist causes, he also established the world’s first conservation movement: the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (known to his family as “Anti-Scrape”), one of the main influences in the formation of the National Trust.

The gallery’s renovation, undertaken by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects, is not only sensitive to the original fabric of the building but has also created an equally sympathetic surrounding for temporary displays.

The first is Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry (2009), all 15 metres of it. For our consumer world, Perry’s tapestried cavalcade transforms the Seven Ages of Man into the Seven Ages of Shopping, beginning at birth, following along a red river – of blood? – waltzing through adolescence alongside Topshop, before ending in old age with “grey-power” brands: the National Trust, the Post Office, PG Tips and the Duchy of Cornwall.

It is fitting that these rooms face Lloyd Park and William Morris Gardens, community spaces in keeping with Morris’s belief in art and craft not simply for the elite, but for the population at large.

The gallery was for decades a place for Morris enthusiasts to visit once. Now, with this attractive new face to show the world, the gallery is likely to become a place for enthusiasts and locals alike to revisit regularly, once more situating the old socialist in the middle of the people he served.

Paul Thomas Murphy: Shooting Victoria

British television has a lot to answer for. From “Upstairs, Downstairs” to “Downton Abbey,” it has perpetrated an image of “historical” Britain as a country filled with a loved, even revered, upper class that gracefully patronizes the lower orders, who in turn are thrilled to roll over and have their tummies tickled by their social superiors. Absent is any sense of political, much less social unrest—there are no bread riots, no Luddites, no machine wreckers. Thus many PBS viewers might be surprised by the violence that accompanied the 19th century’s extreme political instability. And they might be positively shocked to learn that no fewer than seven of Queen Victoria’s subjects made attempts on her life.

In 1812, seven years before Victoria was born, the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, had been assassinated. It was the only political assassination in British history and an indication that the world was hardly a safe place: Between 1830 and 1848 there were seven attempts on Louis-Philippe of France; between 1866 and 1881, six on Alexander II of Russia, the last successful. Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary was murdered in 1898, Umberto of Italy two years later. This is hardly the world of happy, smiling lower orders that we see on the screen.

Television also somehow, magically, makes a single moment stand in for decades, even a century. That Queen Victoria was regarded by most with admiration at the end of her reign, if only for its longevity (63 years, so far the longest in British history), is transformed retrospectively into her being loved and venerated throughout that reign. And this is where problems begin for Paul Thomas Murphy’s entertaining but infuriating “Shooting Victoria.”

The author’s thesis is that the queen’s seven would-be assassins played an integral part in “the great love story between Victoria and the Victorians,” creating a communion between the threatened queen and her sympathetic people. But he skips over the crucial first question: Was there such a love story? He asserts that, from day one, “the public” adored their young queen. At her accession, her popularity was “unparalleled,” he writes. “The nation seemed to share her joy.” In reality, as one diarist noted on the day she ascended the throne in 1837, “the people . . . did not . . . hurrah.”

The arrival of Albert, the German prince whom Victoria married in 1840, is presented in the same fashion. Mr. Murphy depicts the public as full-throatedly for the couple, even as he acknowledges that Albert was initially viewed as an “adventurer.” One of his sources notes, in a passage he leaves uncited, that only a week before the wedding, a “mob” followed the prince down the street, shouting. We don’t know what they shouted, but the plentiful street songs focused on “German sausage”—lewd subtext intended.

As for the so-called assassination attempts, only the fifth, in 1851, put the queen in any danger. In 1840, Edward Oxford, the son of a gold-engraver, who had delusions of leading a new political movement called Young England, shot at the royal carriage as the queen and her consort were taking an airing in the park. Albert’s quick movement to protect the queen, and her own stoicism—she drove to her mother’s house to prove she had not been injured, then calmly resumed her outing in the park—did truly win the admiration of all.

Although Oxford was tried for high treason (he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent the rest of his life locked up), it is likely that his gun had only wadding and no bullets in it. Two years later, this was also the case with John Francis, a failed tobacconist who aimed at Albert and then made a second attempt on Victoria when he was not immediately arrested. At this stage, it was decided that the charge of high treason was encouraging those with a lust for fame, and the next assailant, John William Bean—a cripple who, unable to earn a living, hoped for a life of “luxury” like that of the incarcerated Oxford—was charged only with assault. ¬Except for his target, it was tacitly recognized, he was no different from the children who broke streetlights in order to be jailed for a week, in order to find food and warmth.

In 1849, another starving man, William Hamilton, shot at the queen, and the pattern was interrupted only by Robert Francis Pate, who in 1851 hit the queen with his cane as she was leaving a house in Piccadilly. He was clearly what today would be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. His wealthy family managed to get him transported to Australia; few troubled even to turn out for the trial. Another attempt was made in 1882, by another poor deranged soul, Roderick Maclean, who, when he was not conversing with God, thought “that old lady Mrs. Vic” should have stepped in to support his family when his father lost their money in a bank-crash.

Therefore to reinforce his theory, Mr. Murphy is reduced to presenting a what-if. At the Golden Jubilee in 1887, “what could have been the most serious threat” against the queen, an Irish terrorist act, was planned. On the next page, however, it appears that “there exists no evidence that Clan-na-Gael leaders specified a target.” Despite this, the threat “was certainly real,” the author writes, before acknowledging that one of its leaders was a government informer, and “it is more than likely that he never intended to assist the Jubilee plotters” at all. By this stage, any careful reader has whiplash.

The real pity is that Mr. Murphy is a fine researcher and vivid stylist when he drops his thesis, crafting delightful passages about the intrigues of the royal family and such arcana as the organization of the queen’s household. One department was responsible for cleaning the outside of the windows at Buckingham Palace, another for the insides. They refused to coordinate, and consequently the queen’s windows were always half-dirty.

Hmm, “Cleaning Victoria’s Windows”: I can see the miniseries now.

Peter Pagnamenta: Prairie Fever: British Artistocrats in the American West, 1820-1890

The British upper classes have long had a problem with their younger sons. The eldest son inherits, the daughters are married off, but what to do with the other boys? One answer was, ship ’em out. It was one of P.G. Wodehouse’s most joyous diversions to have feckless younger sons supplied with money from home on the condition that they go forth “to some blighted locality of the name of Colorado” to “pursue cows, and so forth.” One Wodehouse hero concludes plaintively that he is nothing but “a sort of valet to Uncle Frederick’s beastly sheep.”

Peter Pagnamenta’s vivid retelling of the British gentry’s 19th-century dabblings in the American West shows that this New World destiny was not merely comedy. Unlike Wodehouse’s characters, most of Mr. Pagnamenta’s young men actively desired their “wilderness” years, which combined favored outdoor pastimes from home with new diversions like hunting bison. He tells us that Englishmen in Harper County, Kansas, put on the traditional “pink” hunting clothes and chased coyotes across the prairie.

The British had been devouring tales of the American wilderness since the 1820s appearance of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” of Indian warfare in the backwoods of New York. With “The Prairie” (1832), Cooper took his characters west, beyond the Mississippi, and introduced his English readers to the Great Plains (though he himself had never traveled west of Niagara Falls). In the 1840s, the painter and showman George Catlin toured Britain with a collection of Native American weapons, clothing and wigwams. From 1843, he was accompanied by nine Ojibwe who drew large crowds.

By this time a few venturesome Brits had begun to travel to the American West themselves: by steamboat to St Louis, then on by pack-train to the prairie expanses. William Drummon Stewart, a retired British army captain, arrived in 1832 and spent six years journeying through the west. He headed first to what is now Wyoming, where fur trappers and Native Americans traveled great distances for an annual summer rendezvous, a combination of fair, trading post and drinking bout.

On this trip, Stewart lived like a trapper, happily roughing it with minimal supplies. In his later journeys west, comfort and status ruled, and he took with him three servants and a range of wines and spirits. Charles Murray, son of the Earl of Dunmore, traveled through the plains in the 1830s with his valet and his dog, Peevish. (Mr. Pagnamenta excels in finding these telling details.) Sir St. George Gore went one better, making his tour complete with a brass bed, a bath and three cows to provide milk for his tea.

These early visitors were both aristocratic and wealthy, but as the pioneers’ wagons wore a route across the plains in the 1840s, it became less expensive to make shorter jaunts out to the prairies. British newspapers and sporting journals began to feature articles on what had become an “extensive hunting frolic,” where the hunters, according to one scandalized observer, shot for sport, not for meat. And the spread of the railways made such journeys even simpler. Now men could travel a few hundred miles out onto the prairies and be home in time for Christmas, with a good story to tell in their clubs.

Soon, however, the reasons for travel changed. Britain experienced a drastic agricultural slump, lowering the income of landowners. Dilettante aristocrats were soon replaced by men more intent on making a life, or at least a living, in the American West.

Most of the new arrivals were naïve to the point of foolishness. Some still spent wildly, bringing out British architects to design their houses or, in the case of the silk merchant George Grant, to plan an entire town in order to entice gentleman-farmers to buy property. Thomas Hughes, the author of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays,” founded a town, Rugby, in Tennessee (it survives), where immigrants, when not farming, played cricket and rugby and ran an amateur-dramatic society and a monthly magazine.

Some hopefuls put their money in beef. Federal law gave homesteaders with 160 acres grazing rights, and as long as cattle obtained high prices in the Midwest, they did well. In the 1880s, Lord Tweedmouth bought a ranch in the Texas panhandle for his younger son; Lord Airlie did the same in Colorado. But by 1884 prices for cattle were falling, the land had been over-grazed, and a summer of drought followed a ferocious winter just as farmers were enclosing what had previously been pasturage.

Many ranchers, both British and native-born, had used the same underhand methods to acquire land, but the idea of British aristocrats grinding the faces of valiant American homesteaders made a much better story. The Alien Land Bill passed in 1887, banning any foreigner not undergoing naturalization from buying land in the territories. The cattle boom was over. English lords began to look to places like Kenya and Australia for their younger sons.

In “Prairie Fever,” Mr. Pagnamenta tells this story with verve and style. His love of tales of derring-do on the prairie matches his subjects’, even as his exploration of the travelers’ successes and failures (mostly the latter) are models of sympathetic objectivity. His grip on British history and culture is less sure-footed: London’s “new” underground was in 1887 nearly a half-century old; Lord Althorp spells his name without an “e”; European notions of the Noble Savage derive not only from James Fenimore Cooper but also, and primarily, from Rousseau, whom Mr. Pagnamenta fails to mention.

But these niggles cause no harm in a book that is a constant delight. One British aristocrat had her expectations of the Wild West dashed when she arrived in Indian Territory to find four Native Americans taking part in a brisk game of croquet on the railway platform. A sight, surely, worth being a valet to your uncle’s sheep to see.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

“I think people marry far too much; it is such a lottery after all, and to a poor woman a very doubtful happiness.” So wrote Queen Victoria, and reading Kate Summerscale’s extraordinary dissection of a failed marriage, it is hard to argue.

In 1850, Isabella Robinson, a bored and restless married woman of 37, met 27-year-old Edward Lane at the Edinburgh home of his mother-in-law. While Isabella’s businessman husband Henry was absent, Lane saw a friendship between his wife and Isabella develop. Isabella, however, read his polite attentions as suppressed passion, which she brooded over in her diary.

When Robinson’s work took his family south, Isabella developed crushes on other young men, but her marriage jogged on. Then Lane qualified as a doctor and set up a practice near Farnham, where he offered the fashionable “water-cure”.

Isabella became a patient, even while recognising that all he had to offer her was “cool friendship”. Then at some point Lane made overtures, although whether the pair crossed the line to outright adultery will never be known. At the same time, Henry discovered that Isabella had been giving money to the recipients of her crushes and the family decamped to Boulogne. Soon after, Isabella developed diphtheria and rambled in periods of delirium. What she said is unknown, but it led Henry to her journal, and as soon as she recovered he collected their children, her papers and left.

At this date marriages could be dissolved only by an act of parliament, unaffordable for all but a tiny minority. But two years later, in 1858, everything changed: a new act made divorce a possibility if adultery were proved against the woman, and Henry’s was the 11th petition lodged under the new law.

Isabella’s defence was that, since keeping a diary of such explicitness was madness, then she must have been insane: the diary merely recorded what her counsel claimed were lunatic fancies. Lane, with his reputation on the line, agreed. Isabella, he swore, had merely been a friend of his wife and, later, a patient.

Summerscale is fascinatingly forensic, parsing the various witnesses’ statements as she did in her earlier The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, turning the did-they-didn’t-they question into the best kind of detective story. She astutely notices Isabella’s resemblance to Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s notorious novel of the previous year, which has come to embody the fate of the unfulfilled woman longing for life to be an unending romantic novel.

There are perhaps too few reminders that we are, ultimately, hearing Isabella’s story, based on her journal, with nothing equivalent to give Henry’s view of events. Summerscale’s description of Henry as “uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud”, is, in reality, not hers but Isabella’s. Even the fact that Henry had a mistress and illegitimate children appears to derive from Isabella alone, for they were never mentioned in court. Perhaps they never existed?

And while Isabella claimed that Henry was rapacious, a more interesting story may be lurking under the surface. Isabella had about £400 a year, while initially Henry earned significantly more, making them rich. Their move to Edinburgh, however, suggests an attempt to reduce expenditure, especially when coupled with the fact that they employed only four servants. Their subsequent relocation to Boulogne would then indicate an even more extreme financial retrenchment: the French town was a resort for the genteelly down-on-their-luck.

As with so much of this case, superficially obvious, and even in Summerscale’s expert hands so mysterious, we may never know. After the event, Lane wrote, “There is so much… recklessness about truth in general… that no partial account of anything is to be trusted.”

Summerscale is too original a writer to quote Tolstoy’s “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but she follows his lead, detailing the specific unhappinesses, and mapping the way these miseries spread and infected everyone they touched.

That she manages to make the end surprising shows her literary dexterity. Had I been a judge at the Robinson trial, I would have found Isabella guilty for offences against literature: “I dipped my pen but too often in the fairy ink of poesy”, she wrote to herself.

Summerscale triumphantly avoids fairy ink and poesy both, producing a gripping account of the destruction of a marriage.