Book review: Radical Victorians, by James Hobson

The Victorian era is sometimes remembered as a stuffy, prudish period when radical ideas were either not proposed or not listened to. This is not entirely true. Here, author James Hobson details the lives of nineteen ground-breaking Victorians who boldly blazed a trail for various ideas and positions, which in most cases, were not widely adopted until much later, if at all.
Of the nineteen figures included not one, except perhaps Labour Party founder, James Keir Hardie is 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 nineteen figures lived to see their arguments become popular. 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 significant minority opinions, which are at least tolerated today. Others, such as spiritualism and eugenics have largely fallen out of favour.
Th figures included are a mixed bunch. For example, whatever good points they may have had, the vegetarian, Anna Kingsford,, socialist Henry Hyndman and scientist, Francis Galton were all undeniably very racist by modern standards. And while the author 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 as well as the right at the time. They would become inextricably linked to the horrors of Nazism, but this would only happen long after Galton’s death in 1911.
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.

Book review: Radical Victorians: The Women and Men who Dared to Think Differently, by James Hobson. Published: May 30th 2022, by Pen and Sword.

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