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 upheaval -- the effects of the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the British Empire, the rise of scientific theories, and the advent of secularism are just a few topics that mixed things up in Victorian Britain. This book list deals with things at "home" in Britain, as well as things abroad in the British Empire.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the British Empire ruled over almost 25% of the world’s population.[1] No small feat. As the saying went: “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”[2]

The books listed below just barely brush the surface of the history of nineteenth-century Britain and its Empire, but they are a good place to start.

1. Jan Morris: The Pax Britannica Trilogy. This series is regarded as one of the most comprehensive and readable histories of the rapid progress, and eventual fall of the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The volumes read almost like a novel as Morris encapsulates her reader with the sights, sounds, and smells of the Empire. The series is divided into three books, in the following order:

  1. Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress
  2. Pax Britannica: Climax of an Empire
  3. 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, accurate accounts of what life was like for the "down and out" (the poor and working classes) in Victorian London. Mayhew interviewed everyone from small shop owners, to prostitutes, to pure-finders (those who collected dog poop for money). This groundbreaking look into the life of London's poorest was, and remains, one of the most important works on working-class culture ever published. Mayhew's work has also been annotated by Penguin Classics into a 512-page book.

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 for the first time, newspapers were affordable to almost everyone, so scientific knowledge spread like wildfire among all classes. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was published right in the middle of the Victorian era, in 1859. To those living in the nineteenth century, science was somewhat akin to magic, and was an endless source of fascination.

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4. Steven Johnson: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – This book is a super fun, quick read on nineteenth-century medical history that examines a particular outbreak of cholera in London in 1854, and a doctor named John Snow who helped put an end to it. Johnson's work explains how theories of contagion evolved from blaming sickness on "bad air" (miasma), to blaming sickness on bacteria due that arose from unsanitary conditions. Dr. John Snow's findings changed the nature of epidemiology forever -- one cannot overemphasize the importance of this study.

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. This book takes on a vast subject matter, so the information contained within is condensed, and can sometimes lean toward being oversimplified. For those interested in learning more about the Victorian period, Mitchell's book is a good place to begin, though.

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 now burgeoning subject of the life of women during the Victorian period. In zeroing in on spiritualism as a mechanism by which women subverted traditional gender relations, Owen also examines the role of gender during this era in a more general sense. With the advent of science, Victorians became obsessed with explaining the unexplainable, and Owen does a magnificent job of explaining the place of such pseudoscience during this period.

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7. Lytton Strachey: Eminent Victorians – This work, first published in 1918, was one of the first biographies to not examine only great (white) men who did great things. Strachey's style helped replace a certain reverence that Victorians usually held for famous figures, with a healthy skepticism of these figures' actions. Strachey examines his subjects' notable deeds alongside their faults, all the while displaying great wit and undeniable readability.

8. Richard Ellmann: Oscar Wilde – With a subject like Oscar Wilde, a biographer would be hard-pressed to create a work that didn't read like a best-selling novel. Ellmann's work is the definitive biography of Wilde; it brilliantly juxtaposes Wilde’s eccentricities against straight-laced Victorian society. It's a hefty read at over 700 pages, but well worth it.

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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 delightfully illustrates the real "stuff" of nineteenth-century England: What did they do all day, what did they wear, what did they eat? Her main flaw is the she largely ignores the lives of the working classes, who made up the majority of Victorian society, but this work is, nevertheless, an interesting look into the life of the new middle class in Britain.

10.Edward Royle: Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement – A little mentioned book among modern British historians, but a very important work, nonetheless. Royle’s study examines the beginnings of secularism in the UK, outside the context of class and political boundaries. Before Royle, most British historians considered atheism/agnosticism as products of working-class distrust of the State. Royle's work changed all that, and it is perhaps one of the most important books on the beginnings of secularism ever published.
  1. Brendon, Piers. The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.
  2. This phrase was commonly published in multiple newspapers, magazines, and even children's encyclopedias.
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