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Susan David Bernstein and Elsie B. Michie, eds. Victorian Vulgarity: Taste in Verbal and Visual Culture. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009. ISBN: 978075466405-5. Price: US$99.95/£55.00

  • David Kurnick

…plus d’informations

  • David Kurnick
    Rutgers University

In the introduction to this lively collection, Susan David Bernstein and Elsie B. Michie claim “vulgarity” as a keyword in Raymond Williams’ sense: one of those “strong, difficult, and persuasive words in everyday usage,” as Williams put it. The contributions to their collection bear out the wide dispersal of the term in nineteenth-century British culture, as well as the bewildering range of uses to which it could be put. Indeed, part of the interest of the volume lies in deciphering what precisely it is (or isn’t) about: so multifarious are the contexts in which vulgarity is mobilized that it can sometimes seem less a topic in nineteenth-century culture than a synonym for it. As Bernstein and Michie put it:

Once employed to define language use and class position, “vulgarity” ballooned over the course of the century, taking on widening social implications as it began to be associated with behavior and the possession of wealth, with different religions and races, with sexuality, with modern ideas of gender, with objects on display in homes, with clothing, with ways of thinking and feeling. In other words, vulgarity became a matter of style, taste, and comportment, a form of behavior whose definition shifted with fluctuating social boundaries and with the changing and unspoken rules of its obverse, refinement.


A strong word, then, but a maddeningly, instructively diffuse one as well. Bernstein and Michie justify the “Victorian” in their title by tracing vulgarity’s mutation from a purely descriptive term in the fifteenth century (signifying a vernacular language or the “ordinary” classes) to a pejorative, emotionally fraught one denoting coarseness and “pushing” behavior. According to Bernstein and Michie this gradual transformation starts in the seventeenth but reaches its zenith in the nineteenth century, a fact they reasonably ascribe to energies of democratization and massification that made Victorian commonness seem both more threatening and more … common. Thus Victorian vulgarity as it emerges here both was, and wasn’t just, an insult leveled at unrefined working-class people or ambitious middle-class ones; it could also target upper-class figures who too strenuously marked their social distinction. Women and Jews were other predictably easy targets for the label vulgarity (as attested here by Bernstein’s essay on women readers in the British Museum and Meri-Jane Rochelson’s on Jewish spirituality), as were, surprisingly, both the art of Indian craftsmen and the European-style mass-production of such crafts later in the century (as Julie F. Codell demonstrates in her piece on “imperial reversals”). Even the materiality of the artistic medium itself could seem suspiciously vulgar, a twist explored in Nancy Rose Marshall’s essay on the society painter James Tissot. By the end of this collection, vulgarity comes to seem less a specifiable quantity than what John Kucich, in his afterword to the collection, calls “a generalized cultural hysteria” (242). Vulgarity—and the accusation of vulgarity—emerges as the emotional fuel of rapid social realignment.

Some of the strongest pieces here are finely, even uncomfortably, attuned to the volatility of the projective dynamics that result. Beth Newman’s “The Vulgarity of Elegance” tracks the “counter-intuitive association of the vulgar with the elevated” (17) in several fictional and instructional texts of the period. Newman notes that “the indirect and allusive terms chosen by some speakers for their greater delicacy serve as red flags for those with greater symbolic or cultural capital, and euphemism becomes the marker of social insecurity—hence, of inferiority” (22); deliciously, Newman notes that the word “elegant” had become a marker of a lack of elegance by mid-century. At the center of Newman’s discussion is the conversation in Chapter XI of Middlemarch (1874) in which Rosamond Vincy objects to the vulgarity of her mother’s claim that her beautiful daughter commands “the pick of” the men in the town. When Mrs. Vincy offers to amend the statement to “the most superior young men,” her son Fred objects to the vulgarity of this new phrase (“Superior is getting to be shopkeeper’s slang”) and upbraids his sister for the superfine sensibility that has led to the conversation in the first place. Thus in a few exquisitely shaded lines of dialogue, expertly analyzed by Newman, George Eliot sketches the educational distinction separating both children from their cheerfully vulgar mother, the gender (and hence educational) distinction between the siblings, and the confounding sense that Rosamond’s vulgarity testifies at once to her perfectly rational strategies of self-presentation in a tight marriage market and to her essential smallness of mind.

The Bordelian agon playing out around the Vincys’ breakfast table features in another of this collection’s standout pieces, Joseph Litvak’s “Vulgarity, Stupidity and Worldliness in Middlemarch.” Litvak notes that Mrs. Vincy’s vulgar cluelessness and Rosamond’s vulgar sharpness about that cluelessness are only the first two terms in what he calls Eliot’s “tableau of vulgarity” (170): it is of course Lydgate’s vulgarity—what the novel famously labels his “spots of commonness”—that blinds him to distinctions among women and thus to the glaring flaws in Rosamond’s character. In Litvak’s analysis, vulgarity in Middlemarch becomes “nothing less than the ontological condition of characterhood as such” (171). Given the imperial reach of vulgarity in the novel, then, it is no surprise that Litvak ultimately finds Eliot not only warning her reader against being vulgarly anti-vulgar but also against “the vulgarity of a critical insight into the vulgarity of anti-vulgarity” (178). Rarely have the coiled moral and intellectual demands of reading Middlemarch been so concisely described. In the surprising conclusion to his essay, Litvak turns to a single sentence in Eliot’s description of Lydgate’s infatuation with the actress Laure to suggest that the novel also glimpses a way of living with—as opposed to being crushed by—our inevitable vulgarity. The suggestion dangles at the end of the essay, and Litvak associates this possibility more with Lacan and Badiou than with Eliot, who emerges here as an almost unbearably punitive figure. But the exhilarations of Litvak’s essay made me want to re-read the novel—less to undergo the ordeal of humiliation he describes than to seek out in Eliot’s prose more of the un-Eliotish energies he tantalizingly locates in this lonely scene.

Other contributors explore writers less inclined to punish vulgarity than to celebrate it or to slyly redefine and so manage it. James Buzard compellingly connects Dickens’ writerly vitality to his social role as a “striver and arriviste” (35)—and links both to the “witality” of the Wellers and especially of Jingle. Rosemary Jann offers a precisely calibrated account of George Gissing’s equivocal class trajectory (born into the lower-middle class as the son of a pharmacist, classically educated on family friends’ charity, prevented from taking up an Oxford scholarship because of a conviction for theft) as background to a reading of class aspiration in his work. Jann argues that “Gissing’s own self-justifications allied him with a eugenic rhetoric of biologized worth that confirmed merit by worldly success and recognition” (97). Anthony Trollope figures with notable frequency here, and is treated as having diametrically opposed takes on vulgarity: Carolyn Dever’s engaging essay reads The Small House at Allington (1864) as so ambivalent about Victorian marriage and domesticity as to earn the qualifier “heterophobic” (147), while Deborah Denenholz Morse’s reads Ayala’s Angel (1881) as a “fable in which the necessity of a certain kind of vulgarity—in the sense of recognizing sexual desire for a flesh-and-blood man—is the truth his heroine must learn” (161).

As these descriptions may indicate, not every essay addresses the titular topic frontally. Although of uniformly high quality, some contributions incorporate the term “vulgarity” in addressing concerns that seem only tangentially related. In places this uneasily involves the contributors in the performative vortex of vulgarity-attribution. Ellen Bayuk Rosenman’s essay on Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (published in three volumes in 1851) opens by claiming that the “city streets offer up plenty of appalling working-class vulgarity” (55), a formulation assuming what one would like to see argued; I was less convinced that vulgarity is a key concept in Mayhew than were styles of working-class self-presentation (on which Rosenman’s essay is perceptive). Similarly, Ronald R. Thomas claims suggestively that the narrative and stylistic peculiarities of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) anticipate the aesthetic logic of modern cinema—but the remark that this aesthetic (because oriented to visible surfaces) is “necessarily vulgar” (195) seems offered more in the spirit of politeness than argumentative necessity. Lastly, despite the collection’s subtitle, “taste” doesn’t quite emerges as a central topic here; while many essays refer glancingly to John Ruskin’s “Of Vulgarity,” the central tradition of Victorian aesthetic criticism, somewhat surprisingly, never really comes into sustained focus. (Michie’s excellent essay on “Vulgar Christianity” comes closest to filing this gap, compellingly weaving a discussion of the anxieties surrounding the 1828 repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts with an analysis of debates around the dubious taste—in both senses—of the act of communion). But Victorian Vulgarity is so convincing about the centrality of its organizing concept that its omissions feel like spurs to further work.

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