I approach the topic from an oblique angle. The most provocative statement I heard when I was an undergraduate at Oxford in the early 1980s came from the lips of the venerable Raymond Williams: wouldn't it be a good idea, he said, if students working towards a BA in English literature made their primary reading everything that had been published in the course of a single twelve month period – for the sake of argument, say 1847-48 (of course he stacked the deck) – wouldn't it be a good idea, he continued, if young people read not just Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Dombey and Son, and The Communist Manifesto, but as much else as they could get their hands on from that tempest-tossed time, and wouldn't it be a good idea if they devoted the remainder of their waking hours to finding out as much as they could about the circumstances of the world into which these printed words first burst?
When I was one-and-twenty I was a pitifully hide-bound little conservative, so I responded to this provocation in exactly the manner a little conservative would. "Harrumph!" I thought, "How ridiculous!" Back then, I firmly believed that the only way to study literature was from soup to nuts, which was to say, from Beowulf to Ted Hughes -- from Old English, to Middle English, and then, in term-sized chunks, from 1509 to 1660; 1660 to 1785; 1785 to 1832; 1832 to 1900; until you finally made it to 1900 to 1960, and, indeed, Ted Hughes. In other words, I thought the only way to study literature was exactly in the way my degree course at that time decreed.
Well, it's been many years since I stopped thinking "How ridiculous" and started thinking "What a wonderful idea," but here we all are now, over a quarter a century later and some several thousand miles to the west, convened to discuss how we might imagine bringing 1785 to 1832 into relation with 1832 to 1900. I am invoking Raymond Williams and questions of pedagogical practice because it's from this direction that I'll launch my own provocation today. It is an educational missile, and I am lobbing it primarily at the members of my own tribe, the Victorianists in the room, because I've become increasingly convinced that education is THE vital issue for literary scholars of the Victorian period.
I don't think this is hard to justify. In the first place, the period experienced the most astonishing expansion in educational access that Britain has ever known; arguably it is this development that constitutes the era's single most important feature. In the second place, the period also saw the widespread consolidation of our own practice, the study of English literature – not just in the university, the institution in which we earn our bread and butter today, but also within the curricular programs of educational establishments of various other types and levels. We know these facts, and we know something about the development of the academy's protocols, its canons, and so forth, but I think we need to know a great deal more. We need to explore the structuring battles and tensions within the complex evolutionary histories of the full array of Victorian educational forms.
My proposal, then, is this: let's see what happens if we redefine "the study of Victorian literature" as "studies of how and what the Victorians studied when they studied literature." Clearly I need a catchier slogan – but I put this out there for two reasons. (i), because a concerted engagement with these developments has the potential to yield dividends for literary investigations of all types and in all periods, but more particularly (ii), because such studies would make an especially beneficial contribution to the task which concerns us to day, that revisioning of the relationship between "the Romantics" and "the Victorians."
I have spent the best part of the last ten years investigating the macro- and micro-particularities of just one form of literary study that was rolled out to the bulk of the population in the last third of Victoria's reign – the memorization and recitation of poetry in the nation's elementary school system – but even from this partial engagement with the larger topic, I have discovered that my view of both Romantic literature and Victorian literature has radically changed. It was not perhaps surprising to discover that most of the poems that were assigned to children between 1880 and 1910 were written between 1785 and 1832, but the pecking order of poets in that group was to me at least a revelation – Thomas Campbell and Robert Southey reign; Keats and Shelley are mere also-rans. And the themes and topics of these poems were not what I expected to find either – not so much childhood, nature, or revolution, but war, war, war, (as indeed Mary's wonderful work has helped us to see more clearly of late) – the battles of the Napoleonic wars hung over the classrooms of Victorian and Edwardian Britain just as the poems of World War I continue to loom over the English lessons of British secondary schools today.
But these are just brief illustrations of how the contents shift when we alter the design of the box – I am more interested in making the general point that we have been remarkably good at ignoring the ways in which Victorian education has had long-lasting structural effects upon the academy's engagement with literature. Is it a romantic quest or a realist duty to dig into the history of the institutional forms which inspire and condition our imaginations and our labours? I think it might be both.
Catherine Robson is a professor in the English Department at New York University, where she specializes in nineteenth-century British cultural and literary studies; she is also a long-time faculty member of the Santa Cruz-based Dickens Project. Author of Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman and co-editor of The Victorian Age for the Norton Anthology of English Literature, she recently published a book on poetry recitation, Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.