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Vanessa D. Dickerson. Dark Victorians. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-252-03256-1. Price: US$35.00

  • Laura Callanan

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  • Laura Callanan
    Duquesne University

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Vanessa D. Dickerson’s Dark Victorians presents an illuminating snapshot of the transatlantic exchange, both literal and discursive, between English Victorians and African Americans before, during, and after the American Civil War. This concise study seeks to create a picture of this relationship rather than present an exhaustive study of the literature, which is not to suggest that Dickerson does not do her homework. In the first two chapters in particular, where first we get the perspective of British Victorians visiting the United States and of African Americans traveling to England, Dickerson brings a wide range of voices into the discussion. She then chooses representative figures Thomas Carlyle and W. E. B. Du Bois to explore the discourses more deeply in the third and fourth chapters respectively. She finishes the study with a compelling survey of contemporary writers’ reflections on the legacy of Victorian England on both sides of the Atlantic.

Arguing that Thomas Carlyle was something more sinister than a curmudgeonly traditionalist in his writings on individuals of African ancestry is to be expected. More exciting is Dickerson’s argument in Dark Victorians that, using Paul Gilroy’s phrase, Victorian England served as “a parental culture for black Americans” (10). Dickerson describes Dark Victorians as a study of “the discursive and cultural cadences, kinships, and correspondences” (10) between the two cultures. The study’s major premise is

that the transatlantic travel, if not drift of bodies and discourse, ensured that the disparate worlds of the African American and the British Victorian did not, after all, lie so terribly far apart. Queen Victoria’s kingdom, in its formulations of nationalistic England and imperialistic Britain, would help unlock more social, cultural, and political doors for African Americans than the newly founded democracy in the United States, and African Americans, in turn, would factor into Victorian philanthropy and contribute to the shaping of Victorian discourse on reform and race.


However, even more valid is Dickerson’s observation that her study examines “black America’s romance with Victorian Britain” (4), for it is there that the energy of the book resides. The title is a bit misleading—Dickerson’s “dark Victorians” describes those Englishmen, such as Thomas Carlyle, who fed the intensifying culture of racism which developed after the emancipation of slaves in British colonies such as Jamaica. She terms “black Victorians” those African American individuals, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who embraced the culture and mores of Victorian England.

Building on the work of R. J. M. Blackett, Gail Bederman, and many others, Dickerson’s study explores the interdependent relationship between nineteenth-century African Americans and white Britons. Dickerson focuses on literal crossings, defining the latter to include forms of journey, encounter, change, “violence and extermination” as well as “writing” (4) which brought these two cultures into contact with one another. The first chapter deals with British travel to the United States and publications that resulted from the experience, setting the context for discussion of British encounters with African American slaves and American blackness more broadly. Rehearsing much work that has already been done, Dickerson surveys the major travel works of British men and women who visited America. Compelled by the great American democratic experiment in contrast to the use of African slave labor, English Victorians flocked to American shores. The study points out the ambivalence of those, like Charles Dickens, who criticized the brutality of slavery while, at the same time, asserting violent and derogatory ideas about Africans in general. At times, Dickerson’s examination of the surrounding contexts feels a bit simplified, as when she argues that “In light of the particular way British relations to Africans unfolded economically, geographically, literarily, and demographically, it was easier for Britain to emancipate its blacks” (20). The extensive work by abolitionists in the years between the Somersett case in 1772 and the emancipation of British slaves on English soil hardly speaks to an easy process. In addition, the vehement turn in public opinion away from abolition and towards a virulent scientific racism complicates, to say the least, the vision of a Britain eager to embrace African equality. The chapter ends with a reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” noting the Brownings’ connections, economic and potentially biological, to African identity. Dickerson argues that the poem provides imaginative travel of African Americans to English shores at a moment when such travel would have been almost inconceivable.

The strength of this book lies in the examination of African American travel to, and experience of, Britain. Beginning in the second chapter Dickerson hits her stride, presenting a rich picture of African American travel experience in Britain including celebration of free citizenship, of being embraced by the white abolitionist community as well as the fraught negotiation such reception triggered of each individual’s sense of homeland. Especially noteworthy is Dickerson’s discussion of how African American travel to Britain communicated the hypocrisy of white American bourgeois celebrations of the family. While white families enjoyed the reverence and support of American culture, African American families did not resulting in frequent damage to black domestic bonds. Thus, African American travel to Britain exposed the falseness of many American cultural myths.

The third chapter presents the first of two case studies of prominent voices in this transatlantic dialogue. The first is a discussion of Thomas Carlyle whose infamous 1849 Fraser’s Magazine article, “An Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” reappeared in pamphlet form in 1853 as “An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question.” Dickerson’s discussion adds little to a large body of work on Carlyle’s racist views and support of Governor Eyre except to push the view of the Victorian sage from racist traditionalist to virtually irrational and maniacal radical conservative in love with the sound of his own apocalyptic opinions and writings.

The main benefit of the discussion of Carlyle, however, is to set up an often fascinating portrait of W. E. B. Du Bois. Identified by Dickerson as “one of America’s consummate black Victorians” (95), Du Bois embraced the refinement and culture of Victorian Britain while at the same time criticizing European lack of support for African peoples. Dickerson writes that “[h]umanity, art, manners, interracial fellowship, and manhood were Europe’s gifts to Du Bois” (112) and his writing was indebted to the style and content of Carlyle’s works. Although the presentation of Du Bois’ embrace of Victorian values is interesting, it lacks the complexity of Dickerson’s broader discussion of African American experience of Victorian England.

The conclusion reflects on the legacy of this transatlantic dialogue today, looking at the early twentieth-century rejection of Victorian culture, as well as the Thatcherite (and Gingrichite) nostalgia for the Victorian era evident in the later-century writings of scholars like Gertrude Himmelfarb. Dickerson ends with the assertion that “the two cultures are no more separate than they were a century ago” (135). Although a bit uneven at times, Dickerson's examination of the African American relationship with Victorian Britain make for a valuable addition to transatlantic discussion. Dark Victorians provides a concise, and at times fascinating study of the interdependence of two seemingly disparate cultures beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing up to the present day.