Bentley, Nicolas. The Victorian Scene: A Picture Book of the Period, 1837-1901.

London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968.

The word “Victorian” instantly brings a host of clichés to mind, many of them inaccurate. It was a period of great and broad changes in the English-speaking world, in both culture and technology. A great many volumes of social history have been published about the 19th century in all its aspects, but it’s hard to find a good, readable survey that escapes being trite and superficial. I first read this one thirty-odd years ago and it’s still one of the best, even if it is a “picture book.”

Following a broad-stroke introductory section to review what came before, Bentley takes a topical approach, with chapters on domestic life (residences from slums to mansions and palaces, sanitation, interior decoration, and the growth of hotels for the traveling middle class), food (cooking at home, chop houses for the bachelor, and the appearance of popular cookbooks), clothing and fashion (from underwear to mourning dress), education (the development of state-funded schools, “ragged schools,” the governess, and the great universities), religion (the Oxford movement, spiritualism, and the Darwinian revolution), the working class (child labor, the servant class, farm workers, and the union movement), travel (the growth of railroads and the invention of London’s Underground), and leisure (from the royal tea party to the music hall, and not to forget the Great Exhibition). Every large-sized page includes one or several illustrations (mostly black-and-white) of people, places, things, and events both major and minor. The style is relatively light but quite informative and you’re likely to end up with a list of subjects for further exploration. Recommended, especially for the beginner in social history.

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