Sometimes it seems to me that the lives of the Victorians show more color, more ambition, more brilliance, more eccentricity, more sheer energy, more strangeness than the cast of characters from any other historical period I know of. Perhaps it’s an illusion, a trick of hindsight. In some ways our own age and Victorian England have a lot in common. In science, both periods could boast of brilliant advances: ours has been the age of Einstein, theirs the age of Darwin. In technology, theirs was the Age of Steam, when railroads collapsed distances throughout the world, speeding the products of the industrial revolution to consumers, while in our Information Age, computers have altered practically everything about how we conduct our lives.

Though we may consider nineteenth-century British society rigidly stratified in contrast to our apparently more fluid, democratic culture, consider...

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