Victorian Worthies –
Vanity’s Leaders of Church and State
By Malcolm Johnson
Foreword by Ian Hislop
Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd – £14.99
”Every morning as I stroll to my office at Private Eye in Soho I cut through Cecil Court and outside the second-hand bookshops I stop to look at a display of old prints from Vanity Fair. This is not just to remind myself in a gloomy way that even the best satirical magazines must pass but because the brilliantly-executed caricatures of Victorian celebrities are still so arresting. Who were these extraordinary figures in their top hats and their frock coats? What was going on in their severe-looking heads and why are they still staring out at me so confidently?”
Lest it be said, it makes a nice change for religion and the trajectory thereof, to be seen, considered, or at least written about as ‘fun.’
In this terribly heartbreaking age of killing in the name of religion, Victorian Worthies – Vanity’s Leaders of Church and State, does indeed make for a refreshing and equally inviting change. Its collection of fifty of the most renowned caricatures (of leading figures) in Victorian Britain, are herein reproduced in fine colour; along with an approximate four-to-six-hundred word synopsis of who and what they were all about.
From William Ewart Gladstone (”were he a worse man, he would be a better statesman”) to The Marquis of Salisbury (”he is too honest a Tory for his Party and his Time”) to Alfred Lord Tennyson (”It has become fashionable to doubt his genius and to deprecate his works but he remains unquestionably what the public voice has long pronounced him, the first poet of our day”); this most jovial of hardback books is something of a light-hearted pleasure to behold.
In the words of The Revd Richard Coles: ”Malcolm Johnson has skilfully recovered these caricaturists from the magazine rack of history.”
In so deftly doing, Johnson has ensured these 225 pages (excluding Hislop’s Foreword, Postscript and Bibliography) are a full-on, risible reason, for the reader to be wholly transported back to another time. And place.
”As none of these Victorians probably said at the time, ‘Enjoy.”’