Michael Mason

Michael Mason is the author of The Making of Victorian Sexuality.

A Little Pickle for the Husband

Michael Mason, 1 April 1999

Who needs a facsimile edition of Mrs Beeton, when you can buy a perfectly good modern edition? This sounds like a fair point, but it depends on a misconception: that the recipes in the modern books bearing the name ‘Mrs Beeton’ have some connection with the recipes in the book of 1861 entitled Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In fact there is no connection: something which was deplored even at the time of the centenary of publication 38 years ago, when Elizabeth David pointed out that the currently available Mrs Beeton didn’t contain a single recipe from the original. That this is an odd state of affairs does not of itself make a facsimile of the 1861 book an interesting object. People buy and use the modern Mrs Beeton with some feeling that the book enshrines venerable English cookery, but you don’t have to read Stalky and Co. in order to enjoy Mr Kipling’s exceedingly good cakes.‘

Anti-Victorianism seems to have settled in as a permanent feature of our modern historical consciousness. What started as a mischievous or irritated gesture on the part of a small intellectual élite around the time of World War One has become the firm orthodoxy of the middle-brow mass. The Victorians have retained their demonised status despite the emergence of powerful rivals, as later periods slip back across the line marking off the historical past. Even the Sixties have come in for some hefty stigmatising, but that has not lightened the burden borne by the Victorians. Professional students of the period are more interested in analysis than judgment and see things differently – but they tend to be out of touch with general opinion. A collection of academic essays on the subject of ‘Victorian values’, first published in 1990, has just been reissued. It is revised and enlarged, explains the editor, because so much has happened to change our vision of the Victorians since 1990: the Tories are out, Princess Diana has died, and so on. These remarks will be baffling to many for whom the basic indictment of the Bloomsbury circle has never been revised.’‘

Larkin was right, more or less

Michael Mason, 5 June 1997

Historians prefer not to think about coincidence. It threatens their generalising if the resemblances between events are just accidental. Simon Szreter’s remarkable and very important book argues, in effect, that coincidence has deceived the historians of family sexuality in the period 1860-1960 – and moreover that sometimes the historians connived in their own deception. The birth-rate per family in England and Wales declined ever more steeply in this hundred-year period, and it declined with roughly the same timing and speed in most other European countries. One can see how historians would dearly love the whole story to be one unitary phenomenon – which is how it is normally understood. But Simon Szreter now argues that their cherished unitary fertility decline is riddled with coincidence. The appearance of one effect linking bedrooms of 1860 with those of 1960, and English bedrooms with those in Finland and Spain, is illusory, according to Szreter. If he is right, he has completely rewritten this tract of English social history, and created a model for enquiry into the subject.’

Downland Maniacs

Michael Mason, 5 October 1995

‘Acid rain’ was first identified, and deplored, almost 150 years ago. That is a disconcerting fact for our modern environmental awareness – which thus appears not to be modern at all, but almost as old as the manufacturing processes that have caused all the trouble. We have a triumphalist perception of human treatment of the environment: for a long time there was benighted callousness about it, then wisdom dawned, in isolated heroic acts such as Silent Spring, and now we are blessedly enlightened, like South Sea cannibal islanders converted to Christianity. Patrick Wright’s new book is all about not being triumphalist, or taking any simple view on the history of attitudes to human use of the natural world. This sounds like an implausibly large endeavour for a book whose subject is just one bit of England (Purbeck), in the years (1916 to the present) in which it has been used as a tank firing range by the British Army. Purbeck and the Army in the 20th century is an episode of tremendous resonance, however, and Wright is an author wonderfully adapted to do it justice.’

Coats of Every Cut

Michael Mason, 9 June 1994

Vladimir Nabokov said that it was ‘childish’ to read novels for information about society. In the same context (the Afterword to Lolita) he also wrote that ‘reality’ was ‘one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes’. Such scepticism about the capacity of fiction to report on the world is still very fashionable, and in that sense Norman Gash’s book on Robert Surtees goes against the grain of present-day literary analysis.

Body Parts

Lawrence Stone, 24 November 1994

All my lifetime, until very recently, conventional wisdom has had it that there was something very peculiar about the ‘Victorian’ era. Since about 1910, its values and practices have...

Read More

Wordsworth and the Well-Hidden Corpse

Marilyn Butler, 6 August 1992

‘The best-known publication date in English literature,’ says Michael Mason of 1798. But the terse, intelligent Introduction to his new edition of the Lyrical Ballads seems out to...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences