Michael Mason

Michael Mason, who died in 2003, taught English at UCL. He is the author of the two-part study, The Making of Victorian Sexuality and The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes.

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.’

Ruth Parkin-Gounelas’s parody (Letters, 5 September) of the new academic conformism was amusing, but a little overdone. Young academics are not this close, yet, to being the Red Guards of our intellectual life.
Ruth Parkin-Gounelas’s parody (Letters, 5 September) of the new academic conformism was amusing, but a little overdone. Young academics are not this close, yet, to being the Red Guards of our intellectual life.

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 reviews

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 reviews

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