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The Value of Victorian Studies: View from the Publisher

2011 October 7

Linda Bree is Editorial Director, Arts and Literature, at Cambridge University Press. Her own scholarly work is in the literature of the long eighteenth century, from Daniel Defoe to Jane Austen: among other projects she is editor of Defoe’s Moll Flanders (OUP, forthcoming) and Henry Fielding’s Amelia (Broadview, 2010), and co-editor of Jane Austen’s Later Manuscripts (CUP, 2008).

This post is one part of a four-part discussion on the value of Victorian studies. To read the other posts, visit http://myblogs.informa.com/jvc/2011/10/07/the-value-of-victorian-studies/.


A response to Shearer West

It seems to me that ‘value’ is quite a daring word to use here.  After all, the value of Victorian studies is questioned by different interest groups with a variety of motives. Government questions its value compared with other academic subjects competing for resources in higher education, and also compared with quite other areas of expenditure such as health or transport. Scholars and students weigh things differently.  They consider the question of value in two ways: (a) how important is it to recover, explore and analyse matters concerned with Victorian literature, history, art, culture etc.; and (b) how will such work benefit their individual qualifications and careers. For publishers the question is basically, how many books can we sell in this area of our lists?

That’s not as crass as is sounds.  Because in order to sell a book someone has to buy it. And people will only buy a book if they feel the purchase is worthwhile in terms of providing something they feel is useful – or valuable – enough to pay for.

In terms of the state of Victorian studies, from a publisher’s standpoint: it’s more resilient than most humanities subject areas at a time when all feel under threat. Though there are more people wanting to write books than to read them, or to buy books others have written, topics get ever more narrow, which also leads to fewer readers; I’m always looking for subjects to be more ambitious, bigger and broader

But value is more difficult to assess.  Overall Victorian studies is itself at a time of great opportunity. Recent move to digitize archives, particularly periodicals and manuscripts, is opening up whole new areas to academic scrutiny. Curiously the year 2000 did Victorian studies a favour. As it shuffled backwards in history, scholars perhaps find it easier to get perspective on a period that looks more ‘historic’, more different from our own.

For literary studies in particular, after a phase during which literature undertook its own colonizing enterprise (‘literature and …’ has been the most common frame for recent proposals for books) we have a new opportunity to look back from that broader context at literary works themselves.

I’ve been spending time at this conference, during panel sessions, reading a script on George Eliot in her own literary, social, cultural and political context, and I was struck by something quoted from one of her own essays. She was talking of the importance of learning how to value:

the treasure of knowledge, science, poetry, refinement of thought, feeling and manners, great memories and the interpretation of great records, which is carried on from the minds of one generation to the minds of another. (‘Address to Working Men’ by Felix Holt)

Now we might frame this differently.  We would probably replace the word ‘great’ with ‘significant’ – and (especially with Shearer’s comments in mind) we might well be thinking a bit more about what we do with these values once we have them – but nevertheless surely George Eliot’s main idea is as relevant now as it was in the 1850s, and if we are looking for the value of Victorian studies we could do worse than start with this Victorian writer and thinker.

What is remarkable however is that she was calling for these values in the light of the extension of the franchise – these were values that she thought needed to be appreciated before men could have the vote, let alone hold academic chairs in universities.

But that also provides a reminder that the political idea of value has quite as powerful an influence as the academic.  To quote from some more of my reading during the conference – in this case a TLS article citing George Orwell’s famous statement: – ‘He who controls the present controls the past; he who controls the past controls the future.’

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