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.
Lee Jackson’s authoritative and fascinating book makes a nonsense of the claim that the 21st century is the age of mass instant gratification. Jackson, who accurately describes himself as a “well-known Victorianist”, presents a panoramic social history of 19th-century entertainment, ranging from sedate affairs to the barking mad: here, one finds parachuting monkeys, the bawdiest of music-hall songs and even the swimming professor Frederick Beckwith and his family, known as the “Beckwith Frogs”. Every page has some diverting fact and Jackson is a fine guide.
In Jackson’s telling this is — initially at least — a typically British story of the perilous relationship between alcohol and probity. He shows how the basic gin shop gave way to the more salubrious gin palace, which, with gas lighting, gilding and seating, attracted a wider clientele, including women. ... Jackson extends the range of mass entertainment to seaside piers, sport (though he sticks to football) and modern exhibition halls such as Earls Court. He is wonderfully comprehensive and engagingly readable, having clearly benefited from an ability to digest online newspaper reports.
What’s new in Jackson’s book falls into two areas. The first is some fascinating background on the rise of London’s gin palaces, which created panic in middle-class observers when they noticed that the gaudy decor of these working-class venues – all shiny plate glass and flaring gas jets – was hard to distinguish from their own favourite West End shops.
The second original element is Jackson’s response to the metropolitan bias in many earlier histories. He discusses mass entertainment from other cities, such as the “Transvaal” shooting range installed in Liverpool’s Eastham Pleasure Gardens in 1900, featuring Boer figures “who flipped over when hit to reveal a white flag of surrender”.
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.