Christine Bolus-Reichert’s ambitious book opens by noting that in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, to be eclectic carried negative associations of dilettantism, mediocrity and, often, bourgeois misunderstandings of aesthetics and good taste. And yet, she argues, despite wide-spread condemnation of eclecticism, it provided the conceptual framework for some of the age’s greatest writers and thinkers about what it meant to be Victorian and to produce—or be unable to produce—uniquely Victorian arts and ideas.
In order to explore this interesting paradox, the first difficulty Bolus-Reichert faces is defining eclecticism, a shifting term with varying implications. Indeed, one sign of the slipperiness of the concept is that Bolus-Reichert offers evolving definitions throughout the first half of her book in a series of chapters that, while clearly reflecting the multiple influences on the idea of eclecticism, may nonetheless be somewhat confusing for a reader. Perhaps her best and briefest definition of eclecticism’s appeal comes in the book’s Afterward: “The eclecticism of the nineteenth century was, in large part, an answer to the dilemma of style—in what style should we build, paint, write?—but it was also a deliberate, philosophical turn of mind—balm on the deep wound of unbelief” (248).
Eventually, one comes to understand that the notion of an eclectic age was typically used derogatorily to identify a time with no clear artistic or ideological center, one in which there was no predominant aesthetic style, no singular philosophy underpinning people’s perspective. In this regard, the British Victorian period may certainly be called eclectic, and Bolus-Reichert makes clear that this lack of a strong aesthetic and ideological center was often taken to signify a lack of moral center as well. By contrast, an eclectic approach, as Bolus-Reichert explores in detail, might be either naïve or sophisticated, negatively or positively freighted. Naïve eclecticism is typically the province of the nouveau riche or dilettantes and involves the haphazard gathering together of objects, ideas, and/or styles that seem appealing without any regard for whether or how they work together, often privileging fashion over discerning assessment of value. Conversely, sophisticated eclecticism is purposeful in its choices, carefully selecting the best of the available options, bringing elements together not only for their individual merits but also for how they harmonize to create a whole greater than their parts. Though Bolus-Reichert does not explicitly say so, Victorians might have distinguished between naïve and purposeful eclecticism as a matter of taste, which was generally taken to be the natural manifestation of one’s class position. However, because eclecticism was not simply a marker of class (plenty of respectable people eschewed an eclectic sensibility or approach), the value of Bolus-Reichert’s work for its thorough attention to the ideological underpinnings of eclectic choices becomes patently clear.
In the main, sophisticated eclecticism required engagement with history. A purposeful eclectic typically presumes genius is not born but made; thus, history becomes a valuable teacher from whom one can learn much about technique, form, aesthetics or the development of ideas. Whether the milieu is philosophy, painting, literature, architecture, or religion, a purposeful eclectic carefully studies the past, adopts its best bits, and combines them into a model that suits the needs of the current age. Such eclectics argue that mastering the greatness of the past is the only path to becoming great in oneself. But critics claimed that such eclecticism produced little more than copying. The accusation of a lack of authenticity was compounded by tension over whether it is ever possible for a multiplicity of styles or aesthetic ideas to work successfully together.
Due to the layered complexity of defining eclecticism, Part I of Bolus-Reichert’s two-part book is devoted to tracing out the thinkers and movements that help delineate eclecticism, with particular focus on how the originally positive vision of eclecticism gave way to negative associations by the mid-nineteenth century. Her study is admirable in its thoroughly interdisciplinary use of religion, history, philosophy, literature, art history, and social/cultural criticism to work through her arguments. She seems as at home tracing how notions of eclecticism influenced Joshua Reynolds and the formation of the Royal Academy as she is examining the work of French philosopher Victor Cousin. Indeed, her careful comparison of French and American thought is a great strength of the study.
Bolus-Reichert deftly displays how the subtleties of an eclectic approach resulted in an age that at once rejected eclecticism and revered authors whose work depended heavily on it. She enumerates, for example, both how eclecticism developed as an influential theory of art which appealed to such critics as John Ruskin and why Charles Kingsley saw it as having the potential for solving the doctrinal crisis that provoked the Oxford Movement. Indeed, Bolus-Reichert is strongest in the chapters that analyze authors who struggled to define a purposeful eclecticism not only for their own work but also as part of a larger philosophical position that they advocated as right for the Victorian times.
She makes a compelling case for reading Alfred Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) as a purposefully eclectic poem that enables the elaboration of eclectic principles. Although Tennyson worriedly described The Princess as a “medley” Bolus-Reichert concludes, “the medley is anything but an indiscriminate collection of the age’s tropes and artifacts” (145). Usefully, she considers two opposing reviews of the poem, both of which assess Tennyson on artistic grounds. One asserts that Tennyson is a naïve eclectic who fails to unify the poem’s disparate elements through a central, great mind or idea; the other argues that Tennyson succeeds because his sympathy (that is, his ability to create poetry out of the materials of real, modern life) ultimately results in his creation of an individual style greater than the sum of its parts, an originality born of taking the best of disparate parts of the past. Such a case study is invaluable for clarifying the range of understandings of eclecticism in the period. However, Bolus-Reichert does not push to elucidate the significance of the unresolved tension between some readers’ belief that versatility produces a dabbling “collection of unrelated facts” (167), and others thinking it equals greatness because the poem’s” struggles with form are part of its importance.
While it is surely useful to understand the widespread influence of eclectic thought in the period—that “eclecticism was becoming as serious an issue in poetry at mid-century as it was already in architecture and philosophy” (142)—at points in subsequent chapters, Bolus-Reichert gestures toward issues that tantalizingly raise more provocative avenues for argument. For example, in emphasizing how eclecticism develops as a response to history, she largely leaves out contemporary events. Yet given eclectics’ hope to use the best of history to produce a particularly Victorian synthesis and response, it would seem useful to engage with, for example, the growth of empire, which facilitated the influx of ideas, arts and cultures that helped create the need for an eclectic approach.
Certainly, Bolus-Reichert acknowledges that eclecticism was appealing not only for its ability to draw together the best of the past but also for its potential to incorporate the great diversity of influences present in nineteenth-century Britain. However, the small sections of her book in which she addresses this leave a reader wanting more sustained discussion of the implications of eclecticism in an increasingly diverse cultural moment. One wonders, for example, whether a deep desire for cultural dominance, as evidenced by the hierarchy assumed by projects of empire, produce an age that outwardly had to eschew the philosophical foundation of eclecticism because its non-partisan inclusiveness threatened colonialism (even as eclecticism provided a means of synthesizing the diversity of ideas that resulted from imperial expansion). Assuredly, her study tackles complex philosophies of the nineteenth century with a level of detail that makes it difficult to ask for more. And yet, Bolus-Reichert does more in her Afterword by exploring the efficacy of eclecticism in today’s cosmopolitan academic world. It is a tribute to the breadth of her work and its provocative implications that a reader is left wanting even more concluding discussion about the significance of eclecticism in nineteenth-century thought.
Andrea Kaston Tange is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University, specializing in nineteenth-century British literature and culture. She is the author of Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature, and the Victorian Middle Classes (University of Toronto Press 2010) and is co-editor of a four-volume series of nineteenth-century documents on Children and Empire forthcoming from Routledge Press. Her new book project is tentatively entitled Palimpsests: Travel and Identity in the Age of Empire.