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Radical Victorians (Hardback)

The Women and Men who Dared to Think Differently

British History P&S History Social History Women of History Victorian Era Biographies 19th Century

By James Hobson
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 232
Illustrations: 40 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781399008266
Published: 11th May 2022


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There is more to the Victorian era than respectability, economic success and the grudging solution of the practical social problems they encountered. The politicians, generals and commercial classes have been well covered in popular history books, but there were also thinkers of radical and unsettling ideas who had a real influence at the time. Many were women, many from the middle and working classes, and almost all outside the power structure. They were by no means all fringe ideas either – in 1840, Queen Victoria herself attended a séance, for example.

The book is a biography focussed history of some of these challenging ideas and the men and women who promoted them. It looks at radical thinkers and movers, the people who stepped outside of the social norm and propelled the Victorians towards the modern day.

Victorian society is usually thought of as traditional, conservative, and staid. And for most people who lived during the reign of Queen Victoria, that is true. However, James Hobson presents several Victorians who not only broke societal rules to make a point, they influenced future generations in ways they might not have dreamed of. Sadly, the names of most of these early influencers have been lost to history but this book gives them a last hoorah.

I originally picked this up as research for my own writing, since characters who behave all the time are boring. The author has a dry wit and the book is very readable (no textbook-style slog here), and I found myself immersed in history - which is one of my favorite places to be.

The author was very clear in his selection process: he chose radical thinkers “whose ideas were not much acted on (during the Victorian era).” In fact, most of those highlighted did not live long enough to see society embrace their ideas. But whether they knew it or not, they all changed the future.

The book explores both men and women. Most were wealthy, a few were not. Some were better tolerated than others. A few hobnobbed with high society and other radical thinkers like Darwin and Karl Marx. A few went broke pursuing their dream and one died on the Titanic. Some were radical atheists, others were conservative Christians. They couldn’t be pigeon holed.

The Victorians in this work embraced ideals that included vegetarianism, the end to vivisection, temperance as a lifestyle, freedom of the press, atheism, radical Christianity, acceptance of birth control and cremation, spiritualism, and women's equality under the law.

If you’re interested in Victorian society or just historical movers and shakers, I highly recommend this book. It’s a worthy addition to any library.

NetGalley, Ann Dudzinski

Radical Victorians was a surprisingly good read about lesser-known movers and shakers of Victorian Britain. Each chapter covers a different area of "radical" thought where the highlighted individual played a big role for reasons that are often forgotten about today. The one name I knew from the people featured was Keir Hardie for his involvement in the early British Labour Party. This meant that the book provided a lot of interesting new information, which is always a plus for me. Another interesting point was their definition of radical including many topics that would be seen by many as being far from progressive by today's standards.

NetGalley, Stuart Harrison

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This was a fascinating book about radical Victorians and how they influenced how we live today. I was thrilled to see how many women were mentioned and included in this book. Really interesting read.

NetGalley, Karen Hammond

Radical Victorians by James Hobson is a fascinating glimpse into the nonconforming side of Victorian culture.

While these are essentially biographical sketches I like that each chapter is titled with the issue for which that person is most associated. Even with the person's name as a subtitle I think it allows Hobson to be more inclusive of other individuals in discussing the topic. As one would expect, there is also a lot of crossover since many of these people cared passionately about other related topics. I guess what I am saying is that each chapter is a nice mix of biography and discussion about the movements more broadly.

As he points out, many of these people were far from perfect. They often held views that are certainly offensive to the 21st century mind and many were even questionably ethical by their own contemporary's minds. That doesn't change the impact they had in the areas discussed and, while making them less appealing, it also highlights the difficulty in expecting anyone to be perfectly aligned with our own views. We could learn from that. It doesn't mean we don't hold our current activists accountable for offensive views but it does suggest that we work with people on some issues while working against them on others. This will lead to far more progress than strict polarization where someone who doesn't align perfectly is discarded and their efforts in mutual areas ignored. We are all students and we are all teachers, we all seek change and we all should be open to change ourselves.

NetGalley, Jack Messer

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Brilliant book honouring the victorians who dared to stand out and think for themselves.
Great look in to history and brought to life well written and totally worth reading.

NetGalley, Karen Bull

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

James Hobson details the lives of 19 trailblazing Victorians in this fascinating and very readable book.
None of the 19, except perhaps Labour Party founder, James Keir Hardie are well-known today. Hobson's interest is not in those who like Charles Darwin, saw their radical theories widely absorbed into mainstream society. during their lifetimes. The book is more interested in the outliers: the often lonely figures who stuck to their guns in the face of almost universal indifference, hostility and sometimes hatred.
None of the 19 figures featured saw their ideas lived to see their ideas become universally accepted.. Some of their outlandish notions, such as gender equality, freedom of the press and the notion of cremating the dead, have become widely accepted since. Others, such as socialism, vegetarianism and republicanism remain minority opinions, but are at least tolerated today. Others, such as spiritualism and eugenics have largely fallen out of favour.
They are a mixed bunch. For one thing, the vegetarian, Anna Kingsford,, socialist Henry Hyndman and scientist, Francis Galton were all undeniably very racist by modern standards. Although Hobson keeps an open mind, it is difficult to read the chapter about spiritualist, Florence Cook, without concluding she was some sort of fraud. Many of these figures were eccentric. Some were deeply flawed. All were very unusual.
But some undeniably great things and did much to improve the lives of large numbers of people. The 19th century temperance movement has developed a reputation for hypocrisy and cant. In the chapter on Ann Jane Carlile, Hobson reminds us that this wasn't always the case and was, at any rate, tackling an extremely serious alcohol problem which was destroying thousands of lives. Josephine Butler, likewise, did invaluable work in combatting the sexual double standard enforced by the odious Contagious Diseases Act. Even Francis Galton, today notorious as 'the father of eugenics' was justly celebrated during his lifetime for his very real scientific achievements. His ultimately wrongheaded ideas about selective breeding were shared by many on both the left and right of the political spectrum at the time. Long after Galton's death they would become inextricably linked to the horrors of Nazism.
In short, this book presents a fascinating portrait of a society tentatively taking the small but essential stepping stones towards the world we know today.

NetGalley, Chris Hallam

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This was such an interesting read, obviously everybody knows about the suffragettes during the Victorian era but this was a refreshing read because it covered more than that. I had no idea that there were men who were thinking progressively as well it was fascinating. There were people that I hadn't heard about before reading this that I found inspiring. A really good read.

NetGalley, Aria Harlow

About James Hobson

James Hobson has taught and written about History as teacher for twenty-five years. His first book was The Dark Days of Georgian Britain, a history of the Regency period. His other Pen and Sword books are about the English Civil war. His new book extends his interest in radicalism and protest into the Victorian era.

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