The best books that will make you love Victorian Britain

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a historian. But I’ve never been interested in Parliamentary debates, or important politicians. I’m much more interested in things like gender and entertainment. I always say that a lot more people have sex than become prime minister, so it makes more sense to study marriage than high politics! I like to learn about ordinary people, living their lives and loving their families, working and surviving, and trying to have a little fun along the way. I also love history of more fun and glamorous things—celebrities and scandals and spectacles and causes célèbres, hit plays, and best-selling novels. I have history degrees from Harvard and Yale and I’ve been publishing on nineteenth-century British history since 2000.


I wrote...

Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain

By Susie Steinbach,

Book cover of Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain

What is my book about?

Starting with the Queen Caroline Affair in 1820 and coming up to the start of World War I in 1914, Understanding the Victorians paints a vivid portrait of an era of dramatic change, combining broad survey with close analysis. It focuses on social and cultural topics over politics and economics and emphasizes class, gender, and racial and imperial positioning as constitutive of human relations. This third edition is fully updated with new chapters on emotion and on Britain’s relationship with Europe. Attention to the current concerns and priorities of professional historians enables readers to engage with today’s historical debates. With a detailed timeline and suggestions for further reading, this is the ideal companion for all students of the nineteenth century.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of London's West End: Creating the Pleasure District, 1800-1914

Susie Steinbach Why did I love this book?

This book is my favorite historian, Rohan McWilliam, writing about his favorite thing, London’s West End.

It’s about actors and singers and dancers and the audiences that flocked to their performances. It’s about the West End being a place of extremes, where cutting-edge ‘high culture’ lived next to accessible popular culture and sex work. McWilliam’s notion of the West End as the first ‘pleasure district’ was the first time I understood how opera houses and theaters and department stores and nightclubs and restaurants and street performers somehow all go together and add up to more than the sum of the parts.

It’s a scholarly achievement and an entertaining read. 

By Rohan McWilliam,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked London's West End as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How did the West End of London become the world's leading pleasure district? What is the source of its magnetic appeal? How did the centre of London become Theatreland? London's West End, 1800-1914 is the first ever history of the area which has enthralled millions. The reader will discover the growth of theatres, opera houses, galleries, restaurants, department stores, casinos, exhibition centres, night clubs, street life, and the sex industry. The area from the Strand to Oxford Street came to stand for sensation and vulgarity but also the promotion of high culture. The West End produced shows and fashions whose…


Book cover of Britain's Black Past

Susie Steinbach Why did I love this book?

As some reactions to the first season of the television show Bridgerton have made clear, many people need to believe that Black people first arrived in Britain after World War II, and that Britain + the past = whites only. But it wasn’t so!

Black people have been British, and part of British history, for hundreds of years. I’m embarrassed how little I learned about Black Britons in studying British history in college and graduate school; this book has been a fantastic way to learn more.

By Gretchen H. Gerzina (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Britain's Black Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Expanding upon the 2017 Radio 4 series 'Britain's Black Past', this book presents those stories and analyses through the lens of a recovered past. Even those who may be familiar with some of the materials will find much that they had not previously known, and will be introduced to people, places, and stories brought to light by new research. In a time of international racial unrest and migration, it is important not to lose sight of similar situations that took place in an earlier time. In chapters written by scholars, artists, and independent researchers, readers will learn of an early…


Book cover of Empress: Queen Victoria and India

Susie Steinbach Why did I love this book?

I thought I had read enough about Queen Victoria to last a lifetime, but I was wrong! This amazing book offers a new perspective on Queen Victoria as “an Indian Maharani” as well as  “British monarch,”  and explores not just what India meant to the queen, but what the queen meant to Indians.

By Miles Taylor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Empress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An entirely original account of Victoria's relationship with the Raj, which shows how India was central to the Victorian monarchy from as early as 1837

"A widely and deeply researched, elegantly written, and vital portrayal of [Queen Victoria's] place in colonial Indian affairs."-Journal of Modern History

In this engaging and controversial book, Miles Taylor shows how both Victoria and Albert were spellbound by India, and argues that the Queen was humanely, intelligently, and passionately involved with the country throughout her reign and not just in the last decades. Taylor also reveals the way in which Victoria's influence as empress contributed…


Book cover of The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Susie Steinbach Why did I love this book?

Since the start of the COVID pandemic I’ve been thinking a lot more about pandemics, epidemics, and public health.

This book was a great way to learn about cholera, one of the major epidemic diseases of the nineteenth century. And it’s a great read that combines a detective mystery with a mismatched buddy story (except instead of being two cops, the two main characters are a doctor and a priest).

By Steven Johnson,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Ghost Map as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A National Bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and an Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year

It's the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure-garbage removal, clean water, sewers-necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.

In a triumph of…


Book cover of Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears

Susie Steinbach Why did I love this book?

I was looking for books on the history of emotions and this is one of the best!

Dixon demonstrates that the infamous British “stiff upper lip” is a lot more recent and a lot less timeless than most people think. I learned that until the late 1800s men could cry—in public no less—without anyone thinking less of them! Food for thought.

By Thomas Dixon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Weeping Britannia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There is a persistent myth about the British: that we are a nation of stoics, with stiff upper lips, repressed emotions, and inactive lachrymal glands. Weeping Britannia - the first history of crying in Britain - comprehensively debunks this myth.

Far from being a persistent element in the 'national character', the notion of the British stiff upper lip was in fact the product of a relatively brief and militaristic period of our past, from about 1870 to 1945. In earlier times we were a nation of proficient, sometimes virtuosic moral weepers. To illustrate this perhaps surprising fact, Thomas Dixon charts…


You might also like...

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Cholera, colonial India, and London?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Cholera, colonial India, and London.

Cholera Explore 12 books about Cholera
Colonial India Explore 10 books about colonial India
London Explore 797 books about London