La Rentre: Ten books about the Victorians

We’re now well and truly into September, the nights are drawing in and it’s starting to feel a little autumnal. As the French would say, it’s la rentree – that time of year forever associated with going back to school after the holidays.

So why not make the most of that back-to-school feeling by brushing up on your knowledge? Here are ten wonderful books about the Victorians, to ease you back in to historical studies!

10 Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

 Water’s wonderfully saucy coming-of-age romance is set against a backdrop of Victorian music halls and the working-class women’s rights movement.  It features some of the hottest sex scenes ever – well done Waters, you almost made me turn lesbian! This is a crazy piece of pseudo-Victorian pastiche and an incredibly entertaining and informative read.

9 A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death that changed the British Monarchy by Helen Rappaport

This biography of Queen Victoria charts her great passion for her cousin and husband Prince Albert, and how she mourned his death for 40 years – 40 years!! Victoria was stupid and a plain little pudding to boot. Little wonder then, that she adored her handsome, clever, capable husband, dead at age 42. The rest of the nation just resented him as a meddling foreigner. Victoria’s pathological grief led to the spectacularly over-elaborate, weird, creepy Victorian mourning rituals we all know and love.

8 Desperate Romantics: the Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites by Franny Moyle

Art is the old rock’n’roll.  All those beautiful women ‘resuced’ from the slums and exploited as muses and models. All those marriages, love triangles and lovely flowing hair. This book concentrates on the personal dramas and scandals of the group’s entangled love lives.


9 Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet

The Victorians were a bunch of hypocritcal, moralising, boring old prudes, right? WRONG! claims Sweet, in this scholarly but entertaining book. Victorian ladies didn’t just lie back and think of England, table-legs weren’t covered up, and Queen Victoria certainly WAS amused. And as this book dedicates a whole chapter to Prince Albert’s Prince Albert, we know why!

6 Mr Brigg’s Hat, Kate Colquhoun

This narrative history tells the gripping story of a murder on a train. It’s part Agatha-Christie-style locked-room mystery, part thrilling police chase to America, part exploration of the Victorian psyche. The birth of the police, the judicial system and sensational novels are all explored in detail.


5 A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England, Michelle Higgs

Ever wondered how to do up a corset, how to treat your servant, or avoid Victorian faux pas? This fun little guide is the book for you! It covers all aspects of Victorian society, from the city to the countryside, from high society to low. It offers advice on transport, food, entertainment and exactly how far your money would stretch. Most importantly of all, it answers the all-important question ‘how did they go to the toilet?’ (Please tell me I’m not alone in my obsession with historical toilets!)

4 The Blackest Streets, Sarah Hall

The notorious Old Nicol slum in London’s East End is now, ironically, one of the priciest pieces of hipster real estate in Britain. This impeccably researched book gives a detailed account of the horrors of life for London’s most destitute people. It examines the slum from all angles: the builders, landlords and lawyers who profited from poverty; the indifferent local council; the evangelical and radical do-gooders who tried to help; and just what exactly the working classes did to help themselves.

3 The Surgeon of Crowthorne, Simon Winchester

No list on the Victorians is complete without a lunatic asylum. Winchester tells the story of American William Chester Minor, an ex-civil war surgeon, murderer and inmate of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. He pairs this with equally astonishing story of the Oxford English Dictionary, to which Minor made a major contribution from inside the asylum. A poignant and dramatic story.

2 The Victorians, AE Wilson

This is everything history should be – erudite, opinionated, eccentric, and full of amazing little factoids that make you want to shout ‘drop everything, people! Did you know….??!!!’ It’s quite a challenging read, as Wilson makes no concessions to the fact that normal people may not be quite as cultured as he is. One of Wilson’s most endearing traits is that he never takes the straightforward route into anything. It’s like going to someone’s house and being invited to climb up the drainpipe, over the roof, down another drainpipe, into the shed and through a secret tunnel before your host reveals – ta-dah – ‘here we are in the pre-Raphaelite drawing room!! Weren’t expecting that, were you??’

1 From Hell, Alan Moore

Yes! My number one book is a comic book about the Jack the Ripper. Taking the ludicrous royal/Walter Sickert Ripper connection as it’s starting point, Moore weaves together conspiracy theories, medicine, the masons, illuminati, religious epiphanies, prostitutes, murder, wrongful incarceration in asylums (of course), London’s psycho-geography, time-travel, feminism, magic and just about every famous character of the Victorian era. Moore makes the Ripper killings a metaphor for the whole Victorian age, and like many of the best fantasy writers, insists that the past is still with us today, in a very real sense. Totally brilliant.


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