Wilson, Ben 1980-
Wilson, Ben 1980-
Born 1980. Education: Pembroke College, Cambridge University, B.A., 2001.
Writer; researcher for The Monarchy (TV series).
The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press, Faber & Faber (London, England), 2005.
Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant, 1789-1837, Faber & Faber (London, England), 2007, published as The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain, 1789-1837, Penguin Press (New York, NY), 2007.
Ben Wilson has begun to build a reputation as one of Britain's most admired young historians. Since completing a history degree at Pembroke College, Cambridge in 2001, he has written two well-received books that combine scholarship with a lively and accessible style.
In The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press, Wilson "finally does justice" to an eighteenth-century British journalist who has been largely forgotten, according to New Statesman reviewer Roy Hattersley. Hone (1780-1842) was a satirist, publisher, and bookseller who was a member of the London Corresponding Society, an organization suppressed by the government because of fears that its outspoken members might provoke the same sort of violence that had so recently engulfed France in bloody revolution. Hone and his fellow journalists frequently risked arrest and imprisonment for criticizing the British establishment. Wilson recounts that in May, 1817, Hone faced three separate indictments, defending himself—successfully—in trials occurring on three successive days. In Wilson's view, Hone became a true social reformer only after the London Corresponding Society was driven underground. As Hattersley summarized, "When his energy could not be employed in satirising the rich and powerful, he invented a scheme for relieving poverty. He called it Tranquillity." Though he was chronically bankrupt, Hone achieved considerable fame and, in Hattersley's words, "Literary as well as radical London mourned his passing." Calling The Laughter of Triumph an "adventure story," Hattersley praised the book as the biography that Hone deserves.
Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant, 1789-1837 (published in the United States as The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain, 1789-1837) received several glowing reviews. Focusing on the period from 1789 to 1837, the book examines the social changes that transformed English society from a notoriously fun-loving and even libertine culture to a fussy and moralistic one. Before the late 1700s, the English were known as boisterous and unruly; even their language was admired for its bluntness. During the period that Wilson examines, however, England faced deep anxieties associated with a rapidly growing population. In particular, the violence of the French revolution sparked fear of public disorder; behaviors such as public drunkenness, prostitution, bear baiting, and other entertainments were frowned on, and steps were taken to outlaw them. Wilson uses the word "cant" in reference to this transformation, for it connotes what reviewer Sara Bakewell, writing in the Independent, defined as "the hypocritical twaddling of self-appointed moral guardians." These puritanical types inspired an opposition that used the word "cant" to ridicule, and sometimes stop, reformers. This dynamic, in Bakewell's words, "has generated the miasma of distrust in which we live today. Anyone who now claims to be acting from disinterested motives in public life is taken to be canting: one reason we have lost faith in politicians."
Though Bakewell observed that Wilson does not explore his own prejudices in Decency and Disorder, she found this fault also to be a strength. The book, she concluded, "returns obsessively to material of importance to us, from how to deal with anti-social behavior to the problems of trust and moral leadership in a cynical age. In failing to approach the past on its own terms, Wilson forces it to speak to us on ours, to riveting effect." A writer for the Economist found that Wilson "succeeds triumphantly" in his aim to "bring to life the cultural texture of the time." The reviewer admired the compassion and vivid interest in humanity that Wilson communicates in the book, as well as his acknowledgement that, while many moralists were disgustingly hypocritical, many of the vices they campaigned against—such as child prostitution" were truly troubling. Wilson's material "is so rich and varied," wrote the Economist contributor, "that it might have overwhelmed a lesser writer," but Wilson's "elegant prose" maintains an effective balance. The book, the critic concluded, is "an impressive achievement."
Acknowledging that Decency and Disorder is based on "wonderful" sources, London Telegraph reviewer Claire Harman expressed disappointment that Wilson defers to this material without offering his own views. "I loved the access to material that this book allowed me," wrote Harman, "but feel that I've been left with the task of analyzing it with very little help or encouragement from its Olympian author." In a review in Slate, however, Michael Chase-Levenson praised the book as both "a conscientiously researched history that professionals can admire" as well as a work that is "as gripping as a heavily flogged, trashy page turner." Wilson, Chase-Levenson added, is "that hybrid we badly need: someone who believes in rigorous academic research … and at the same time believes that history should engage a wide audience with its need for cultural memory." Commenting on Wilson's sometimes ambivalent view of reformers and the masses they sought to control, the critic concluded that "[this] uncertainly is a virtue not a defect. It is a triumph over abstraction that lets us see why we need those Victorian ghosts—because they were never ghosts at all, but real lives, worthy of resurrection, defying the pat simplicities of generalization."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Economist, April 7, 2007, "An Interim Time of Great Confusion; English History," p. 81.
Independent (London, England), November 17, 2007, Sarah Bakewell, review of Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant, 1789-1837.
London Review of Books, April 21, 2005, John Barrell, "Like Unruly Children in a Citizenship Class," p. 23; July 7, 2005, review of The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press, p. 9.
New Statesman, May 2, 2005, Roy Hattersley, "Publish and Be Damned," p. 52.
New Yorker, May 14, 2007, review of The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain, 1789-1837, p. 149.
Publishers Weekly, January 15, 2007, review of The Making of Victorian Values, p. 42.
Spectator, May 5, 2007, Blair Worden, "The End of Merriment."
Times Higher Education Supplement, May 11, 2007, Phil Baty, "Author Sorry for Uncredited Debt," p. 8.
Times Literary Supplement, May 13, 2005, Kelly Grovier, "The Dumpling One," p. 25; July 27, 2007, L.G. Mitchell, "How Merrie Got Busy," p. 24.
London Telegraphhttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/ (December 4, 2007), Claire Harman, "Who Stopped the British from Being Lively."
Slate,http://www.slate.com/ (December 4, 2007), Michael Chase-Levenson, "Our Favorite Ghosts: Why Are We Still So Obsessed with the Victorians?"