MLA Cluster ''Romantic Realism/Victorian Romance''

Romantic Realism/Victorian Romance[Record]

  • Catherine Robson

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  • Catherine Robson
    New York University

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 …