Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Victorians

This video, via Gracchi, provides a wonderful view of the remarkable achievements of the late-nineteenth, early twentieth century. Seeing it reminded me of the film The Prestige which also deals with the Late-Victorian age. Both capture, in their own ways, the immense technological and social changes going on at the time. The Prestige provides a fictional depiction of the magical quality of the technologies of the time, particularly electrical engineering. The video above captures the extent that technologies and organisations built then have defined the modern experience.

I get the feeling that we underestimate the pre-war era. Perhaps I'm extrapolating too much from my own experience. When I first read George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England I remember being struck by how little I knew of the society, economy and politics of Britain and the World before the First World War. During my economic history education the qualities of this era between the pioneering Industrial Revolution and the dramatic catastrophes of the Twentieth Century constantly stood out. For example, this was an era in which Britain invested more money abroad than any society before or since. We may be 'globalising' now but trade was freer before the First World War although many countries did have tariffs to generate income. Am I the only one who sees this era as a blindspot?

I can see two reasons this might be the case. First, the drama of the First World War obscures less dramatic goings on pre-war. The years prior to the war are thought of as its precursors rather than a period of history in themselves. Equally, the pre-war years are seen as a continuation of the novelty of the Industrial Revolution that largely took place earlier in the nineteenth century. Second, I wonder whether we assume that the relatively straight-laced morality of the Victorians, the high watermark of social taboo, must have made them less creative. It evidently did not.


Anonymous said...

Nice film.

I think you're right about how so much that we consider intrinsically modern was familiar to the late Victorians/Edwardians. If you look at consumerism and advertising, for example, which a lot of the "No Logo" school would assume to be an ultra-modern, or post-modern, development, it's amazing how consumerist and at home with a reality built by fiction and advertising they were.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Good pseudonym, I rewatch Brass Eye regularly and no other modern satire really comes close.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for the link, Matthew.

I've been under the vague impression that Britain caught up with the pre-1914 levels of overseas investment at some point in the late '90s, but I don't have anything more definite on that.

As for the advertising of the period, some of Alfred Kahn's autochromes featured on the BBC website recently ( show just how colourful - and intrusive - commercial illustration could be then.