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19th-Century Models

EMINENT VICTORIANS, By A.N. Wilson, New York & London: W.W. Norton, 236 pp., $25

BRITISH novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson takes his title for this book from Lytton Strachey's famous quartet of biographical essays. Published in 1918, the final year of the Great War that had come to seem a horrific exercise in futility, Strachey's irreverent portraits of ``Eminent Victorians'' signaled a radical change in attitude among a generation deeply skeptical of their parents' values.

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Wilson sees Strachey's ``Eminent Victorians'' as an ``elegant and hilarious example'' of the ``literature of despair'' that emerged in the wake of World War I. ``The world has not got any nicer'' since then, Wilson writes, ``in fact, the reverse. But somehow, it is no longer possible to dismiss anyone, whether dead or alive, in quite the debonair spirit in which he caricatures his subjects. We share a common humanity with people in the past, even when they baffle us....''

Strachey's brief, sprightly sketches were a marked contrast to the reverential, multivolume biographies that proliferated in Victorian times. Yet, his witty portraits of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, who set his stamp upon English public (private) school education as headmaster of Rugby, and General Gordon, hero-martyr of Khartoum, are not without sympathetic insight into these characters, and in the case of Florence Nightingale, a spark of genuine admiration.

Although Wilson's aim in giving us his own version of ``Eminent Victorians'' is to correct Strachey's mockery by providing a ``simpler, less propagandist'' view of some other eminent Victorians, his writing has a Stracheyan elegance. There is more than a touch of irony in his tone that lightens it even as he is commending Victorians for their undeniable greatness.

Wilson's book resembles Strachey's in its enticing blend of playfulness and seriousness, sophistication, and mock-simplicity. Both writers love to ``explain things,'' whether it is the wretchedly inferior status of women in the greater part of the 19th century or the debates that racked the Anglican Church, a propensity that renders both versions of ``Eminent Victorians'' exceedingly accessible.

Certainly Wilson's attitude - and the figures he has chosen to sketch - show the Victorians in a kinder light.

In place of the flinty Cardinal Manning (a leading High Churchman who converted to Roman Catholicism), Wilson gives us the far more intellectually and emotionally appealing figure of Cardinal Newman, whose conversion prompted charges of duplicity that led him to compose one of the 19th-century's great autobiographical works, ``Apologia pro Vita Sua.''

Wilson replaces the admirable Florence Nightingale by the still more impressive figure of Josephine Butler, an intensely spiritual woman whose extraordinary courage and compassion led her to champion the cause of that unmentionable class of person most shamefully victimized by the Victorian double standard: the prostitute.

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The easily mocked figures of Dr. Arnold and General Gordon are replaced by those of Prince Albert and William Gladstone, both of whom have indeed been targets for mockery in the past. But both, Wilson reminds us, are well worth reconsidering: Albert reshaped the institution of monarchy in a way that would make it viable in modern times. Gladstone, for all his eccentricities, had a largeness of vision epitomized in his declaration, ``The ground on which we stand is not British, nor European, but it is human.''

Wilson's weakest portrait is of the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who is simply not of the stature of the other eminences he has chosen to portray. One suspects she was chosen because she was the great-aunt of another Bloomsbury figure, Strachey's friend Virginia Woolf.

Wilson is on surer ground in his portrait of Charlotte Bront"e. As a novelist himself, he understands the primacy of the writer's imagination in creating even a relatively realistic novel, let alone an impassioned, individualistic, near visionary novel like Charlotte's ``Jane Eyre,'' or Emily Bront"e's ``Wuthering Heights.''

Without a trace of the edifying solemnity traditionally associated with the Victorians, Wilson offers a strongly felt, instinctively sympathetic, and judicious look at the 19th century as embodied in its most impressive and appealing products: six great (or near-great) men and women, whom he sketches with something of Strachey's lightness and charm, but without Strachey's tendentious bias.

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