Review: Victorian Sensation: Or, the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Michael Diamond

Victorian Sensation: Or, the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain
Victorian Sensation: Or, the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Michael Diamond

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The research in this book had the potential to make a great read but the actual writing was a let-down.

I constantly found myself confused at what was happening and the general thread of each passage as everything was so jumbled together. It was as though the author was so excited about sharing everything that they’d researched that they ran away with the stories without really involving the reader. This was especially the case when the author was trying to sum up a fictional plot or the basic details of a murder as they’d often leave out the essential parts such as who was murdered and by whom altogether or leave them right until the end so the reader had no idea what they were really talking about. I tried to ignore this as the research is tackled admirably and some of the cases gave real insight into Victorian culture but even in cases where I already knew the background of the content from other reading I was confused at who or what the author was talking about. This was further confused when the author tried to connect stories/cases together with fairly tenuous links – rather than seamlessly going from one ‘sensation’ to the other by tackling them chronologically or thematically, it feels like the author is clutching at straws to make everything link together. The book would be so much better if each chapter was divided into subsections so we could see which details belong to which story – it would make figuring out the basic ‘who, what, when, where’ ten times easier.

My only other criticism, but a pretty big one in my view, is some of the language used by the author to describe the cases. In particular, there was an instance when Diamond describes the relationship between two homosexual men as having ‘filthy details’. This just didn’t seem appropriate at all and though I guess (and hope!) it was an attempt to poke fun at Victorian attitudes towards homosexuality, it really should have been pulled up and corrected during editing.
This isn’t just nit-picking, there were multiple cases when the author used questionable word choices to describe people, particularly contemporary marginalised groups e.g. unmarried women. It seems out of place in the text and forced as though the author is trying to make the ‘sensational’ even more sensational which doesn’t work and feels plain awkward when translating stories that were shocking to audiences in 1800s Britain into the context 21st century Britain.

Still, this is not a bad book. While the structure is messy and confusing, it is an interesting read once you begin to get your head around what’s going on. The author manages to give a decent context to most of the tales and goes out of his way to include why a particular thing would have been a cause for ‘sensation’ in Victorian society which is not only helpful for placing the stories but also for imagining the experiences of Victorian life from the perspectives of a range of social groups.

The book isn’t an easy read thanks to the structure but if you can get past that, the language and content are pretty accessible and interesting enough to give some historical background without taking on any sort of academic dryness.
I reckon it’d be a decent read for anyone with a passing interest in Victorian Britain that doesn’t know too much about the period. Instead of, or alongside this, I’d recommend reading the likes of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (if you’re interested in Victorian poverty or criminal justice) or Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin (basically a gritty, seedy account of gender issues in Victorian London), while both fictional and very different in style, will give a much juicier introduction to the Victorian period.

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