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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Review: Nineteenth-Century Britain by Jeremy Black

Nineteenth-Century Britain
Nineteenth-Century Britain by Jeremy Black

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A half-decent overview of 19th century Britain that is sorely let down by its shoddy editing and its inconsistent complexity.

There are many grammar, punctuation and formatting mistakes in this book which, at their best, are aggravating, and at their worst, completely change what I supposed was the intended meaning of a passage or make it unreadable. Unfortunately this isn’t an exception, I found half a dozen examples of it in every single chapter.

What’s more, I have no idea who this book is aimed at. In previous Palgrave Foundation books I’ve read the content has been consistently aimed at A level/early university students but this book was all over the place. In some parts it was simplistic enough to be GCSE level and in others, I had no idea what was going on or what point the author was trying to get across due to all the technical language – this was especially the case when the author spoke of other historians. On top of this, the book was also quite repetitive and, though necessary to keep it within the lines of a brief overview, it swept across important issues. For instance, the Irish Question chapter was really lacking which completely undermined the Anglo-Irish relations of the period. The ‘Into the 20th century’ chapter was also a disappointment as talking about Liberal reforms would’ve fit in nearly with the author’s concluding thesis.

On the plus side, there was a good selection of primary sources included which was immensely helpful and most of them were accompanied with some analysis which is useful across all stages of studying history.

Previous books that I’ve read by Jeremy Black (namely, ‘Studying History’) have been far better than this so I’m going to chalk this book up as a bad egg. For anyone who hasn’t read it and is a history student, ‘Studying History’, also published by Palgrave, is a brilliant book and a great help to beginning a history degree.

Also – don’t be swayed by how long I took to read this! I dipped in and out of it for the best part of a year and then read it cover to cover over a couple of weeks as exam prep. The chapter summaries are fairly helpful for this!

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Photos and Words: Pages of the Past

 – ‘She lived for pages that wove the past into the very fabric of her dreams, devouring their stories one by one as times long gone by became more familiar than her own.’ –
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