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Why is Victorian History so Dull?

Lately I've been studying up on the Victorian Era, but I'm surprised to find how few engaging books I can find on the subject. Almost every book I find seems dedicated to the endeavor of making the Victorian era as dull as possible. I'm particularly interested in the Victorian English and their preoccupation with the supernatural. You'd think that with fairies, spiritualism, the Rosicrucians, and the Theosophists there'd be something interesting written. But every book I find seems to skirt around the interesting stuff and instead dwell on page after page of dull exposition.

I'm reading a book on Victorian fairy painting now, and this passage is typical: "This was the last painting Dadd painted before he went mad." Apparently Dadd, the most renowned of Victorian fairy painters went Mad and knifed his father to death. He became obsessed with assassinating the Duke of Austria and was eventually confined to Bedlam, where he created some of the most quintessential English fairy paintings. But also, no details of this drama are included. Instead we get a functional descriptor of a painting which I can see perfectly well myself because it's printed on page 125.

But Victorian History is exciting, as the occasional glimpse reveals. George MacDonald Fraser's excellent Flashman series provides a fictionalized (but very well researched) look at several major military events of the era. Bill Bryson's A Brief History of Nearly Everything has many startling portraits of the great scientists of the time. Nevertheless, most of what I've been able to find is dull dull dull.

Would you believe that when I read that I thought, "huh, I wonder if Dadd is the guy who painted The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke?" Yep. I don't even know why I know about the Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke, but I once owned a book with it in there and the painting and title never left my mind.

Yes, that's a great picture. It blows me away every time.

As an aside, I meant to post this on my personal blog, not on Attacks, but since I'm researching for an RPG project, I guess it's sort of relevant to Attacks as well.

I know Shadows in the Fog faced some of the same issues; the players were all supposed to be on the same page, but how to get them there was debated. "Book reports" didn't work very well, though movies often do better. [I think Treasure Tables recently wrote about getting groups up to speed on a topic.]

Movies are great, especially if you can find one everyone's seen, or if you can actually sit the players down to wath and excerpt (Feng did this with the final battle scene of Saving Private Ryan for one game).

For the Victorian setting there's not much to go on. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic) might work.

Some of the Shelock Holmes stuff with Jeremy Brett would be good video fodder.

Victorian history is dull ... well, because its Victorian.


Not that the Victorians themselves were dull, but their ideas of polite society - and thus what typically can be accurately recorded and referenced - were somewhat restrained. Now, granted, that is a very big blanket statement that covers a wide span of time, but *shrugs* there ya go.

Just like Victorian women (and, it can be argued, men), the surface may be stuffy and proper--and if you want a peek at the fun stuff, you need to look beneath.

A quick Google (victorian supernaturalism) turns up a number of fun things, including sites to buy hardcopy books. A couple other searches:

victorian gothic literature OR fiction (the book, "Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History's Nightmares" is pretty prevalent)

victorian gothic literature (turns up some surprisingly different results, including book lists and essays, including the provocative book title, "Victorian Gothic: Death, Disease, Desire and Doubling in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture")

Prodigies: Drawings of Anomalous Humans by James G. Mundie is a flavorful site (and "victorian freak show" is a good search seed).

Think about the more interesting facets of Victorian history/culture that interest you, and search specifically for them. Think of names that are evocative of the era--Edison, Tesla, Darwin, Freud, Shelley, Stoker.

And as I poke about Cyberspace, I run across this website, which may have a good deal of what you're looking for.

Tell me about it! Finding reliable and detailed information about anything in the period between 1850-1900 is nigh-impossible. I find the periods directly before and after to be very well-documented, but my period of interest is more often than not dismissed as "Well, those Victorians weren't that interesting, really." Luckily, my project isn't so much about real Victorianna as it is the idea of the period. I'm adding ether-powered space ships, after all.

I did find Victorian Web to be an interesting, if relatively shallow, resource, though.

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