From treacle to treacle … by Carson O’Toole

I Had a Frameless Diamond Ring, and Other Stories

Carson O’Toole

Trinity University Press, 202pp, £16.99

You can see why Carson O’Toole found enslavement so absorbing. After having read him on the Victorians, I was amazed at how little I knew about the republic that he considers to be a totalitarian state. Rather oddly enough, of all the areas of social history where I might be more interested, this is where I wanted to find out the most.

That O’Toole has dedicated his career to writing about the Victorian period, in particular the brutalities of Victorian society and the ways in which its excesses were perpetuated, is not surprising.

The same could be said for this second collection of essays on important writers from the Victorian period, such as Thackeray, George Eliot, Honoré de Balzac, John Maynard Keynes and others. O’Toole’s ambition is clear; he wants to learn everything about these early writers, and today we will probably have learned far more than we should have done from these 15 outstanding essays.

Readers will have been astonished that Victorian writer George Eliot believed, on the evidence of her upbringing and circumstances, that an individual should be valued for the human and material capital he or she possesses. At the same time, Eliot’s ideas that moral mores must keep pace with economic imperatives would be unchallenged today.

O’Toole describes his dealings with Dickens as “one of those odd things in life: studying other people’s writing and then producing my own”. This also applies to Thackeray, whose writing O’Toole says was one of the great excursions into philosophy of the age.

Even though we know more about the popular side of these writers, rather than the intellectual side, O’Toole’s scholarship and passions combine in this reminiscence. The descriptions of Dickens, Thackeray and others are superb, giving us a new insight into 18th-century writers and readers. What an exciting tale.

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