Victorian Britain and the Empire: Top Ten Books to Read

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When we say “Victorian Britain”, we’re referring, loosely, to the period that fell between Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901. This was an era of massive societal development -- the effects of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of scientific theories, and the advent of secularism are just a few topics that comprise Victoria's reign.

It was also during this time that the British Empire expanded exponentially. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain would come to rule over almost 25% of the world’s population. (cite) As the saying went: “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

1. Jan Morris: The Pax Britannica Trilogy. This series is regarded as one of the most comprehensive and readable histories of the progress and fall of the British Empire. Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress Pax Britannica: Climax of an Empire Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat

2. Henry Mayhew: London Labour and the London Poor – This four volume work by social theorist Henry Mayhew is full of rich and accurate accounts of what life was like for the down and out in Victorian London. Mayhew interviewed everyone from small shop owners to prostitutes to pure-finders (those who collected dog poop for money).

3. Bernard Lightman: Victorian Science in Context – Science was an extremely important part of life in Victorian England. New scientific discoveries were being made almost daily, and due to fewer taxes on publishing, newspapers were affordable to almost everyone.

4. Steven Johnson: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – This book is a super fun, quick read on medical history. Cholera was a huge deal in nineteenth-century London – its spread was primarily due to dismal living conditions that were a product of rapid urbanization and the Industrial Revolution.

5. Sally Mitchell: Daily Life in Victorian England – This book is a quick primer on social history in Victorian England. It deals mostly with the rise of the middle class, which is a very important part of nineteenth-century history. Great for a quick overview of Victorian social history.

6. Alex Owen: The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England – While this book deals with a specific subject matter, it is a wonderful introduction to the little-explored life of women during the Victorian period. It also examines gender relations in a more general sense.

7. Lytton Strachey: Eminent Victorians – This work was one of the first biographies to not examine great men who did great things. It helped replace a certain reverence that Victorians usually had for famous figures with a healthy skepticism of their actions. Strachey examines his subject’s great deeds alongside their faults, all the while displaying a great wit.

8. Richard Ellmann: Oscar Wilde – With a subject like Oscar Wilde, a biographer would be hard-pressed to not render his subject engrossing. This is the definitive biography of Wilde; it brilliantly juxtaposes Wilde’s eccentricities against straight-laced Victorian society.

9. Judith Flanders: Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England – This is a fun, quick read on the daily lives of Victorian upper and middle class people. Flanders largely ignores the working classes, which made up the majority of Victorian society, but the work is interesting nonetheless.

10. Edward Royle: Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement – A little mentioned book among modern British historians, but an important work nonetheless. Royle’s work examines the beginning of secularism in Britain outside the context of class and political boundaries – a method long overdue when this book was published.