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The Victorian Vision: Inventing New Britain, edited by Professor John Mackenzie. ISBN 1851773274. £35.

THE Victorian era is inextricably linked with Empire, the British Empire, one of the most astonishing phenomena of modern history, where a quarter of the world’s land mass and a quarter of its people came under the sovereign rule of one small island. Acquired almost by accident, a port here, an island there, by the end of the 19th century the Empire dominated the lives of 372 million people. The English language, British ideals, notions of justice and taste in art and architecture were found in every corner of the world and on “nearly all the isolated islands and rocks in the ocean”.

In chapter 10, The World: Empire And The Global Gaze, John Mackenzie, Professor of Imperial History at Lancaster University writes: “... the Victorians seemed to develop a high degree of conviction in their right to expand and rule, reassuring themselves they were transporting a beacon of civilisation around the world.” For the Queen imperialism was at the heart of the Irish problem; the Fenian outrages were a contrast between a loyal Scotland and a disloyal Ireland; while Britain’s population grew, Ireland’s halved, caught in economic and social misery.

The specialist contributors to this book consider the ideas, products, inventions and social changes brought about by the Victorians. It has three main sections: Society, Technology and The World and focuses on the dramatic developments in each of these spheres. In his introduction, Asa Briggs refers to Paul Atterbury’s chapter, Steam And Speed: Industry, Transport and Communications, as offering keys to the Victorian language and to the Victorian experience. Throbbing with confidence and new ideas when Victoria came to the throne, Britain’s status as an industrial power was unchallenged. This chapter looks at its expansion through the widespread development of the railways, the social revolution that was the bicycle, electricity, the telegraph and the monstrous telephone; even the Queen spoke via a phonograph cylinder to King Menelik in Abyssinia.

Handsomely produced, with a fine picture archive and with good sections on Art and Design/Art and Industry, this book fails to grip the imagination about a transformation in Britain’s history like none other, and sometimes reads like a university text. It lacks passion. It is also noticeable that the dark side of New Britain, the hell of poverty and the workhouse, is but a shadow here.

Of Queen Victoria herself, whom the author VS Pritchett dismissed as a mixture of national landlady and actress, it is an irony that she died in the arms of her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Victorian Age reached its final and dramatic end 13 years later, in August 1914.

Victorians At Home And Abroad, by Paul Atterbury and Suzanne Fagence Cooper, ISBN 1851773290. £9.95hb.

THIS populist little book, again well designed and with imaginative images, covers the influence of the royal family and their role as patrons of the arts and as instigators of social change. For the arts see the great revival of the Gothic decorative style and the attendant rise of its most fervent proponent, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin "... not a style but a principle”.

Under the still ponderous title Visions of the New Britain we have the wonder of the railways, with Frith’s brilliant Dickens’-style painting of Paddington Station getting a showing, the seaside, theatre and music hall, advertising, medicine, work, religion and death. Nature is Darwin, while Style and Decoration is what it says. Visit Osborne House on the Isle of Wight to get a real feel for one royal family at home.

The Victorian Woman by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. ISBN 1851773304. £9.95hb.

AS Suzanne Fagence Cooper comments in this book, our image of Victorian womanhood is one of different sorts of women – a domestic goddess in conflict with the working woman and the whore, and the image of Queen Victoria herself, Empress of India, and her rule of totality over millions of poor working women, who themselves had no rights, with barely even the right to live. This book talks about the myths and the reality of the Victorian woman – women as victims, women and work, domestic service and manual labour, and there’s a chapter on pioneering women, including a note on mill-girl Selina Cooper who in 1891 asked her union to consider her objections to the sexual harassment of the mill-hands. From 1891 to 2001.

Both books are good for all students of the Victorian genre. Read Suzanne Fagence Cooper’s afterword in Victorian Women on the attempts to limit the role of women who wished to go out to work – this was just one part of a much larger Victorian obsession with respectability and what defined it.