A giddy delight sometimes breaks through Mr Jackson’s sober researches, as if he is personally entranced by the Victorians’ passion for amusement. “I discovered that young working-class women in spangled dresses swirled gaily above public houses in South London, or practised the quadrille in Miss Kirby’s beer-shop in Preston,” he writes. “Gentlemen from Kent polkaed at Algar’s Crown and Anchor, and Mr WF Hurndall re-enacted the Battle of Mafeking at Holborn Town Hall through the medium of interpretive dance.” Readers of this scholarly but intoxicating book will share the author’s glee.
Jackson’s dense and ambitious book roundly dispels the myth of Queen Victoria’s puritanical, oft-quoted phrase: “We are not amused.” She probably never said it. On the contrary, he argues, and despite the formal photographs of the era, which depict grim, hatchet-faced people in dark funereal colours, the Victorians were very much amused.
By the time the Victorian age gave way to the Edwardian, music hall was becoming more corporate and more respectable. The first royal variety performance took place in 1912. Music-hall performers, once denigrated, were now respectable enough to perform in front of the King. Thanks to Cowell, Britain had talent.