Rethinking the Nineteenth Century 2

This guest post by Dr Charlotte Mathieson is the second of two reflective reports inspired by a recent conference hosted by the School of English: ‘Rethinking the Nineteenth Century‘. (You can read the first report here.) In this post Charlotte considers a general tendency — just as evident in University syllabi and academic studies as it is in popular culture — to make indiscriminate use of the term ‘Victorian’ when referring to the nineteenth century. One result of this is the misappropriation and colonising of pre-Victorian phenomena by an umbrella concept of ‘the Victorian’.

Here in the School of English we run two third-year core modules covering the nineteenth century (and beyond): LIT3100 ‘Romantic and Victorian Poetry’, and LIT3101 ‘Romantic and Victorian Prose’. This differs from other historical modules comprising our degree programme’s ‘chronological spine’. Other modules, such as LIT234 ‘Renaissance Literature’, choose to focus on one literary period, but LIT3100 and LIT3101 offer a combination of two. This enables our students to read and study texts published before the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) alongside those published after her accession to the throne. In other words, we study the ‘long nineteenth century’, from the 1790s (e.g. William Godwin’s Caleb Williams) through to the 1890s (e.g. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey). Students taking these modules (or who will take them in future years) may want to pause and reflect on this structure. What is gained? What is lost? And how do we decide where to start and finish our module reading lists?

Charlotte’s post reflects on the wider significance of such choices, interrogating how we select texts and draw (necessary? expedient? misleading?) lines in order to separate, demarcate and ‘label’ literary periods.

This post first appeared at Journal of Victorian Culture Online and is reproduced here with kind permission. If you would like to respond to Charlotte’s report, please direct your comments to this original posting.

— Amber Regis

Victorian or Nineteenth Century? Definitions and Positions

How do you see yourself: as a Victorianist, or as a nineteenth-centuryist?

This was a question that came to mind several times throughout the summer as I attended two conferences that both raised questions about periodisation, categorisation and researcher identity. At Neo-Victorian Cultures: the Victorians Today (Liverpool John Moores University, July 2013), the issue of our contemporary engagement with, and exploration of, the Victorian past initiated conversations about the distinctive qualities of ‘neo-Victorian’ as opposed to, say, ‘neo-nineteenth century’. One month later I went to Rethinking the Nineteenth Century (University of Sheffield, August 2013) which provided a welcome opportunity to think about the nineteenth century beyond the Victorian period and to consider the cross-currents that run throughout and across the Romantic/Victorian border.

Both of these conferences prompted a series of further questions: for those of us whose work is both Victorian and nineteenth century, when, why, and how do we use each term as our category of reference? How often do Victorianists use the terms interchangeably, or inattentively? Do you see yourself as a nineteenth-centuryist or as a Victorianist? And does it matter; does this impact upon the way in which we perceive and undertake the work we do?

As a prelude to this post, I initiated a short discussion on Twitter (Storified here) which immediately raised questions of disciplinary difference. It was suggested that historians may have more ambivalence towards ‘Victorian’ as a categorisation, and that periodisation is perhaps not the strongest point of reference anyway for historians, with other identifications overriding period of study.

In literary studies, the nineteenth century – or its more common form, the ‘long nineteenth century’ – doesn’t (necessarily) tell us much in terms of literary categorisation and the Romantic/Victorian distinction (often) serves as a more effective means of grouping; but this also posits the danger, particularly when used as a teaching framework, of iterating the stasis of ‘the Victorian period’ as an era of fixed values, and of overlooking the importance of cross-currents in the borderland between the two eras. Two papers at Rethinking the Nineteenth Century provided a useful reiteration of this: Fern Merrills (University of Sheffield) spoke about the legacy of Romantic poets later in the nineteenth century, focusing on Shelley’s influence on Matthew Arnold; and Erin Johnson (University of Oxford) discussed the trajectory of Charlotte Brontë’s writing from her childhood work of the 1820s through to her first novel Jane Eyre (1847), identifying thematic currents that reach their culmination in Brontë’s first novel and thus re-positioning one of the cornerstones of ‘Victorian’ literature as not so much a starting-point of the new era but rather an end-point of a Romantic lineage.

Literary influence across the nineteenth century is something I’ve been particularly aware of in teaching a course on The English Nineteenth-Century Novel which, despite its title, might look like a predominantly ‘Victorian novel’ module: of the 12 novels and 7 pieces of non-fiction taught, only Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) precede the Victorian period, leaving a noticeable gap between Austen and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). More than once in class have I found myself slipping into referring to ‘the Victorian novel’ when I really mean ‘the nineteenth-century novel’ – reflecting the way in which I’d more readily define my research specialism.

Why, then, not lose the two pre-Victorian texts and turn this into a Victorian novel module? Because, as I’ve found over the last two years, those two novels stand as the most frequently referenced texts throughout the remainder of the module, framing and making sense of so much of what comes next. Furthermore, although defining the century from 1800-1899 takes a rather rigid view of periodisation that is often resisted in favour of defining periods in relation to more significant historical turning-points, the artificiality of these cut-off points encourages discussion of the difficulties of periodisation, and to think about the ways in which periods are retrospectively perceived or defined.

Lastly, my summer conference-going had me wonder how much of the way in which we define or prioritise historical periods has to do with the research environments in which we work today: both Victorian and neo-Victorian studies are very active research communities with a large number of conferences, societies and journals that orientate research interests around the ‘Victorian’ as separate from ‘nineteenth century’. As the end of our Twitter conversation made clear, at least in so far as early career academics are concerned, the vibrancy of the Victorian studies community both online and off is such that identifying proudly as ‘a Victorianist’ goes a long way in how we perceive our own researcher identity, and how we establish ourselves in relation to the wider research community; in turn, this likely impacts upon the way in which we perceive and position the research we undertake and the frameworks through which we think.

So how do you see yourself: as a Victorianist or a Nineteenth-centuryist? Why, and how, does it matter? And what influences the way in which you position yourself and your research?

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