In reflecting on Victorian studies and its publics, we must remember the peculiar history of the term Victorian—a historical characterization that emerged even while the queen still reigned, a derisive caricature on the part of early twentieth-century writers, and an academic definition of a field of study. Because the Victorians were the first to experience many of the changes fundamental to modern society, Victorian studies has a particular resonance for its many publics.
Long before inter-disciplinary became a buzz word and cultural studies came on the scene, scholars focusing on the history, the literature, the politics, the art of the decades of Victoria’s reign often approached their work through the framework of Victorian studies. The journal Victorian Studies began publication in 1957. The prefatory note to the first issue is surprisingly modest in its claims. It does not announce a new critical methodology, nor does it situate itself in opposition to other scholarly approaches. Rather, it talks about the peculiar character of the Victorian period and our relationship to it:
Victorian Studies has two distinguishing features: concentration on the English culture of a particular age; and openness to critical and scholarly studies from all the relevant disciplines.
Although the division of history into periods is an artificial procedure, certain times may have their own complex and individual characters; the Victorian period has such a character, and its importance can be seen more clearly now that the inevitable antipathies are passing. Victorian Studies hopes to capture something of the life of that era, to discuss its events and personalities, and to interpret and appraise its achievement.
This approach is more likely to be realized through the coordination of academic disciplines than in departmental isolation. It is the tradition for journals to devote themselves to particular disciplines, but Victorian Studies will publish work addressed to all students of the Victorian age.Appleman, Madden and Wolff 3
In the same year that Victorian Studies began publication, Walter E. Houghton published TheVictorian Frame of Mind. Houghton’s characterization of his work bears certain resemblances to the preface I have just quoted. Houghton also explicitly distances himself from the antipathies with which earlier twentieth-century writers viewed the Victorian period to argue that the age has a complex and individual character, best understood through a comprehensive analysis using texts with little attention to distinctions of field and genre.
Fundamental to Houghton’s definition of the Victorian frame of mind was self-consciousness of its own historicity. Today such historical self-consciousness hardly seems remarkable; we define the character of each decade as we live it. Houghton claims that such historical self-consciousness had its origin in the Victorian period: “For although all ages are ages of transition, never before had men thought of their own times as an era of change from the past to the future” (1). Houghton cites John Stuart Mill, who opens his essay “The Spirit of the Age,” by calling attention to the novelty of the expression: “The idea of comparing one’s own age with former ages, or with our notion of those which are yet to come, had occurred to philosophers; but never before was itself the dominant idea of any age” (228).
Houghton’s book was not the first to seek to define the character of the Victorian mind. G. M. Young’s Victorian England: Portrait of an Age was first published in 1936, although Young dates the beginning of the project to his efforts during the First World War to understand the Napoleonic wars. Like Houghton, he defines the kind of history he aspires to write as “not what happened but what people felt about it when it was happening” (vi). Both Houghton’s and Young’s attention to the historical self-consciousness of the Victorian age leads us to wonder about the term itself. When did the term Victorian come into common usage? When did people start to refer to the decades of Victoria’s reign as the Victorian period? When did the attempt begin to define it? And how is this related to the historical self-consciousness that Young, Houghton, and many subsequent scholars identify with the age?
The answer is surprising. The OED cites Clarence Stedman’s Victorian Poets (1875) as the earliest use of the term, but one can find uses of the adjective dating from the late 1860’s. By the 1880’s, almost two decades before Queen Victoria brought the period bearing her name to its end by her death, the term was in common usage, paradoxically both as a proud self-characterization and as a description of a past already seen as different from the present (Bristow, 5-9). The historical self-reflexivity embedded in the term’s origin and evolution perhaps explains how it so quickly became a term of derision in the early twentieth century, best exemplified by Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1917). Victorian came to mean what we were not—a self-conscious and critical distancing from the past—its values, its style, its mores, its character.
In reflecting on Victorian studies and its publics, therefore, we must remember the peculiar history of the term Victorian—a historical characterization that paradoxically emerged even while the queen still reigned, a derisive caricature on the part of early twentieth-century writers, and an academic definition of a field of study. In common usage, the word “Victorian” still maintains some of its negative connotations of prudish, stylistically ornate, stuffy, hypocritical, complacent. At the same time, there is a growing taste for Victoriana, a continuing enthusiasm for dramatizations of Victorian novels, as well as a readership for contemporary works set in Victorian times of all genres and levels of seriousness. This set of meanings and connotations that attach to the word “Victorian” suggests the continuing resonance and fascination that the Victorian world has for us. Cultural studies is now a dominant framework in almost every field, but Victorian studies, I believe, can have a wider public than, say, medieval or Renaissance studies. The Victorians, as they themselves were acutely aware, were the first to struggle with the huge social changes that the technological discoveries and innovations of the industrial revolution set in motion. Many of the fundamental characteristics of modern society had their origins in the Victorian period—the industrialization of production, the concentration of population in cities, the growth of business and working classes and the disparities of wealth between them, public education and the modern idea of the university, the extension of the franchise and the development of the democratic state, the standardization of time, the acceleration of transport—the list could go on and on. In the introduction to his reader, The Emergence of Victorian Consciousness, George Levine describes the modern world as one in which “society has thus far been unequal to our own growth and alteration” (1). The Victorians were there first, he tells us. This explains, I think, the continuing popularity of Victorian movies and TV series; we recognize ourselves in the financial scandals of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now or the prison-haunted world of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Perhaps we can learn from the more scholarly analysis of the Victorian world as well. At the end of his preface to The Victorian Frame of Mind, Walter Houghton asserts that “the intimate connection between literature and life is a significant feature of the Victorian age and one of its chief glories” (xvii). A more public voice for Victorian studies will help us learn from our forebears, strengthening this connection and the illumination it can bring us.
Carol Christ is the President of Smith College and Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of The Finer Optic: The Aesthetic of Particularity in Victorian Poetry and Victorian and Modern Poetics, and she is an editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
- Appleman, Philip, William Madden, and Michael Wolff. “Prefatory Note I.” Victorian Studies 1.1 (Sept. 1957): 3. Print.
- Bristow, Joseph. “Why ‘Victorian’? A Period and its Problems.” Literature Compass 1.1 (2004): 1-16. Web.
- Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind. New Haven: Yale UP, 1957. Print.
- Levine, George, ed. The Emergence of Victorian Consciousness. New York: The Free P, 1967. Print.
- Mill, John Stuart. “The Spirit of the Age” Collected Works. Vol. 22. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1986. 227-34. Print.
- Young, G. M. Victorian England: Portrait of an Age. London: Oxford UP, 1953. Print.