Asa Briggs’ Victorian People first crossed my path again when A. Scott Berg unexpectedly quoted Briggs in his new biography of Woodrow Wilson.* (Coming soon to a blog post near you.) Soon I was stumbling over it everywhere–a phenomenon I’ve commented on before. When I needed to check a quick fact about the Crimean war and wanted to avoid a special library run, I gave in and pulled Victorian People off the shelf. I was immediately sucked in. Quite frankly, the library trip would have been quicker.
In Victorian People, sub-titled A Reassessment of persons and themes, 1851-1867, Briggs sets out to understand what he describes as the “social balance” of the high Victorian period–a term that he immediately and appropriately qualifies. His work is in many ways a response to Lytton Strachey’s iconoclastic Eminent Victorians. Strachey’s work, published in 1918, is an act of rebellion against his immediate forebears. He indulges in a bit of hero-bashing: not only showing his selected “specimens” warts and all, but possibly making the warts a little bigger than warranted.** Like Strachey, Briggs considers a selection of “specimens”: his own slate of eminent Victorians who made a contribution to the character of their time. Unlike Strachey, Briggs enjoys the distance of time. His Victorians are neither ridiculous nor veiled with period charm, but serious and interesting characters. Rather than choosing heroic figures like Florence Nightingale and General Gordon, Briggs considers social critics, chroniclers, reformers, and exemplars of social values. Men like John Bright, Samuel Smiles and Thomas Hughes.**
So far, Brigg’s companion study, Victorian Cities has left me alone. I suspect it’s just a matter of time.
* A salutary reminder that Wilson, linked irrevocably to World War I and an architect of the 20th century, was a child of the Victorian era. People very seldom fit neatly into one historical era. Even Victoria was a child of the Georgian period.
**Transforming the art of biography in the process. If you haven’t read Eminent Victorians you’ve missed a sharp-penned treat.
***Yep, all men. Mr. Briggs, b. 1921, is a product of his time.