The eccentric, prolific, multi-talented and forever interesting Victorian gentleman

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What is it about those Victorian Gentlemen that kept them so busy, doing so many things in their life that makes fast, modern day living look as though we’re going in slow motion like an animated Horse when looked at through the slits of a zoetrope? Steve Shepherdson investigates.

Written by Steven Shepherdson

Reading biographies really does leave one feeling incredibly lazy and talentless. Some biographies that is.

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Take that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Other than creating arguably one of, if not the most famous literary characters of all time in Sherlock Holmes he also wrote many other novels and short stories, including the series featuring Professor Challenger (such as The Lost World). He was also a medical doctor, which included working as a surgeon on a whaling boat and as a medical officer on a steamer. He was a sportsman playing football for Portsmouth AFC and cricket, including ten first-class matches (even taking the wicket of none other than W G Grace – another eccentric and multi-talented member of the club about which I write). Despite not being elected, he stood for Parliament twice and was a prolific campaigner. And he was a spiritualist and fan of the occult and paranormal. He did quite a bit then.

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Then there’s Charles Dickens? He began his career as a journalist for such publications as The Mirror of Parliament and The Morning Chronicle. He obviously wrote some of the greatest novels ever printed in the English or any other language but, I wager few people know that he also wrote travel books, periodicals and even plays. In fact, he was also an accomplished actor and indeed performed before Queen Victoria herself. His performances were known to be absolutely riveting reducing cast and audience alike to floods of tears or shrieks of joy. He was heavily involved in social reform and championed the lower classes. He set up and administrated charitable organisations for, among others, fallen women, children’s rights and education. He believed greatly in helping people help themselves for longer lasting benefit. And, like Doyle, he was also interested in the paranormal.

English: Portrait of English author and profes...
English: Portrait of English author and professor of mathematics at Oxford, Lewis Carroll (pen name of Charles Dodgson), from THE LIFE AND LETTERS OF LEWIS CARROLL by Stuart Dodgson. Español: Retrato del autor inglés y profesor de matemáticas en Oxford, Lewis Carroll (seudónimo de Charles Dogson), extraido de THE LIFE AND LETTERS OF LEWIS CARROL de Stuart Dogson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last one – Lewis Carroll. Carroll was not only the author of the beloved children’s books Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, he was also an accomplished photographer and well known in the field – enough to have made a career from it should he have wished to do so. He was a mathematician and logician gaining a first class degree from Oxford University where he went on to teach. He was an inventor, designing The Wonderland Postage-Stamp Case and the writing tablet called the Nyctograph. He invented games as well, including a word game very similar to the modern board game Scrabble, and Doublet which is still played to this day. He was also an ordained Anglican deacon of the church. And on top of this he expressed an interest in such things as mind reading. So, that’s the paranormal, then.

So why do these amazing people seem to defy the ‘not enough hours in a day’ excuse? How do they do so much more in a time when they had so much less?
And there’s the rub – less. They had less distraction by which I mean such things as televisions and computer games. And not just those two devices. Advertising wherever it can possibly be crammed. Choice after choice after choice resulting in decision after decision after decision as to what to buy, where to go and what to do. A world of possibilities which, rather than leaving things open for greater variety and more in depth discussions, instead leaves one feeling like the decisions of ‘what’ and ‘which’ and the never-ending desire to move on take up all one’s time. This doesn’t mean that watching wonderful television and reading wondrous books is not an important part of life but that, at some point, it is best to put down the remote and begin creating and learning oneself.
But this cannot be the only reason. What’s to say of that… Englishness of which the era is fondly remembered. Being in a time of great progress and dominance must have helped. Feeling that air whizzing around you like the draught in an open art gallery. Obviously, the Victorian era was far from perfect and nowhere near what some people, rose-tinted glasses firmly perched on the nose, see as absolute but still… It was like a whole period of the 1960’s – just with less drugs and therefore greater productivity. The pride, the dignity, the fear of idleness, the obsessiveness of control and winning at all costs. Dangerous qualities, for sure, but also, in the right hands, engagers of genius and everlasting achievements and triumphs. This was the Victorian age. This was the spirit. This was England.
So a picture forms. Less distraction. An air of change, conquest and creativeness. Also, perhaps, a drive towards adventure? Ah, what a lovely word: adventure. AKA ‘An unusual and exciting or daring experience’ (Oxford Dictionary). Or ‘An unusual, exciting, and possibly dangerous activity’ (Cambridge Dictionary). Alternatively ‘Something that is most likely a very, very bad idea, but sounds like it would be exciting, so you try it anyway’ (Urban Dictionary). This probably ties in with the spirit of the era but, I think deserves special mention: travelling overseas to fight in a cause one feels is just (or, more cynically, and to paraphrase Woody Allen, to meet interesting people, and kill them); to dream big and aim high like a hot air balloon that floats around the world; to try new things; taste new things; experience all things and everything. And to do them all with humility and that stiff upper lip.
So we have less distraction, Englishness and a sense of adventure being just three reasons for such amazing feats. To pack into one life so many avenues of expertise and accomplishment is just that – a feat. A gigantic feat of discipline and inspiration. Of work ethic and, I am sure often, great seclusion (there is always a price to pay). In the end it may just be down to the right person, in the right place and at the right time. That, and an interest in the paranormal seems to help as well. In fact, perhaps that’s the real secret…

To find out more about Steve and his interesting musings, you can connect with him on his website here: Steve Shepherdson website

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