Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Victorian Lives

I usually confine reviews to the sidebar, but one new book, Great Victorian Lives: An Era in Obituary (Times Books, 2007) -- available via -- deserves special mention. It brings together more than 70 obituaries of eminent Victorians from The Times and shows how some of the leading personalities of the nineteenth century were viewed by a newspaper that was itself one of the defining institutions of the age.

The Times recorded notable deaths from its beginning as The Daily Universal Register in 1785 and by the middle of the next century obituaries were established as one of the glories of the paper. There was no attempt at comprehensive coverage, and nothing like the daily obituary page of modern times, but under the 36-year editorship of John Thadeus Delane (1841-77) the paper began to respond to the deaths of significant national and international figures in a style – and on a scale – that none of its rivals could match.

The following excerpts provide a flavour of the full obituaries collected in the book.

William Wordsworth (1850)
"There is so much in the character, as well as in the works of William Wordsworth, to deserve hearty admiration, that we may indulge in the language most grateful to our feelings without overstepping the decent limits of propriety and plain sincerity. We point out, in the first place, one of the great excellencies of the departed worthy. His life was as pure and spotless as his song. It is rendering a great service to humanity when a man exalted by intellectual capacities above his fellow-men holds out to them his own person the example of a blameless life."

John Stuart Mill (1873)
"We need hardly add that many of his opinions on society and government have been generally and justly condemned; and that, in his more appropriate domain of mental and moral philosophy, he was engaged in unceasing feuds. He was, however, the most candid of controversialists, and too amiable to indulge in scorching sarcasm or inflict unnecessary pain. He was often a wrongheaded, but always a kind-hearted man."

Benjamin Disraeli (1881)
"We have remarked that, like a man of spirit and shrewdness, in his writings as in his speeches, Disraeli boldly prided himself on his Jewish descent and the glories of his race. Jews rich in gifts as in gold are the mythical heroes of the Utopias in his fictions. But this most eloquent defence of his people against the prejudices of Christendom is to be found in that chapter of the 'Political Biography' which precedes the explanation of Lord George Bentinck’s conduct with respect to the Jewish disabilities."

Charles Darwin (1882)
"In 1859 was published what may be regarded as the most momentous of all his works, 'The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection.' No one who had not reached manhood at the time can have any idea of the consternation caused by the publication of this work. We need not repeat the anathemas that were hurled at the head of the simple-minded observer, and the prophecies of ruin to religion and morality if Mr. Darwin’s doctrines were accepted. No one, we are sure, would be more surprised than the author himself at the result which followed. But all this has long passed."


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