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Victorian or Nineteenth Century? Definitions and positions

2013 September 11
by Charlotte Mathieson

By Charlotte Mathieson, University of Warwick

How do you see yourself: as a Victorianist, or as a nineteenth-centuryist?

This was a question that came to mind several times throughout the summer as I attended two conferences that both raised questions about periodisation, categorisation and researcher identity. At Neo-Victorian Cultures: the Victorians Today (Liverpool John Moores University, July 2013), the issue of our contemporary engagement with, and exploration of, the Victorian past initiated conversations about the distinctive qualities of ‘neo-Victorian’ as opposed to, say, ‘neo-nineteenth century’. One month later I went to Rethinking the Nineteenth Century (University of Sheffield, August 2013) which provided a welcome opportunity to think about the nineteenth century beyond the Victorian period and to consider the cross-currents that run throughout and across the Romantic/Victorian border.

Both of these conferences prompted a series of further questions: for those of us whose work is both Victorian and nineteenth century, when, why, and how do we use each term as our category of reference? How often do Victorianists use the terms interchangeably, or inattentively? Do you see yourself as a nineteenth-centuryist or as a Victorianist? And does it matter; does this impact upon the way in which we perceive and undertake the work we do?

As a prelude to this post, I initiated a short discussion on Twitter (which Lucie Storified) which immediately raised questions of disciplinary difference. It was suggested that historians may have more ambivalence towards ‘Victorian’ as a categorisation, and that periodisation is perhaps not the strongest point of reference anyway for historians, with other identifications overriding period of study. In literary studies, the nineteenth century – or its more common form, the ‘long nineteenth century’ – doesn’t (necessarily) tell us much in terms of literary categorisation and the Romantic/Victorian distinction (often) serves as a more effective means of grouping; but this also posits the danger, particularly when used as a teaching framework, of iterating the stasis of ‘the Victorian period’ as an era of fixed values, and of overlooking the importance of cross-currents in the borderland between the two eras. Two papers at Rethinking the Nineteenth Century provided a useful reiteration of this: Fern Merrills (University of Sheffield) spoke about the legacy of Romantic poets later in the nineteenth century, focusing on Shelley’s influence on Matthew Arnold; and Erin Johnson (University of Oxford) discussed the trajectory of Charlotte Brontë’s writing from her childhood work of the 1820s through to her first novel Jane Eyre (1847), identifying thematic currents that reach their culmination in Brontë’s first novel and thus re-positioning one of the cornerstones of ‘Victorian’ literature as not so much a starting-point of the new era but rather an end-point of a Romantic lineage.

Literary influence across the nineteenth century is something I’ve been particularly aware of in teaching a course on The English Nineteenth-Century Novel which, despite its title, might look like a predominantly ‘Victorian novel’ module: of the 12 novels and 7 pieces of non-fiction taught, only Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) precede the Victorian period, leaving a noticeable gap between Austen and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). More than once in class have I found myself slipping into referring to ‘the Victorian novel’ when I really mean ‘the nineteenth-century novel’ – reflecting the way in which I’d more readily define my research specialism. Why, then, not lose the two pre-Victorian texts and turn this into a Victorian novel module? Because, as I’ve found over the last two years, those two novels stand as the most frequently referenced texts throughout the remainder of the module, framing and making sense of so much of what comes next. Furthermore, although defining the century from 1800-1899 takes a rather rigid view of periodisation that is often resisted in favour of defining periods in relation to more significant historical turning-points, the artificiality of these cut-off points encourages discussion of the difficulties of periodisation, and to think about the ways in which periods are retrospectively perceived or defined.

Lastly, my summer conference-going had me wonder how much of the way in which we define or prioritise historical periods has to do with the research environments in which we work today: both Victorian and neo-Victorian studies are very active research communities with a large number of conferences, societies and journals that orientate research interests around the ‘Victorian’ as separate from ‘nineteenth century’. As the end of our twitter conversation made clear, at least in so far as early career academics are concerned, the vibrancy of the Victorian studies community both online and off is such that identifying proudly as ‘a Victorianist’ goes a long way in how we perceive our own researcher identity, and how we establish ourselves in relation to the wider research community; in turn, this likely impacts upon the way in which we perceive and position the research we undertake and the frameworks through which we think.

So how do you see yourself: as a Victorianist or a Nineteenth-centuryist? Why, and how, does it matter? And what influences the way in which you position yourself and your research?

Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick. She researchers the Victorian (or mid-nineteenth century) novel, with an interest in mobility, place and nation. She blogs on her website and tweets @cemathieson

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Andrew Grace permalink
    September 11, 2013

    I struggled with this question when I started writing my dissertation on the evolution of the Gothic novel from Walpole through Stoker. The bulk of my work focused on nineteenth-century authors like Bronte, Bronte, Bronte, and Le Fanu, as well as Machen and Stevenson, and I liked the easy terminology of Victorian Gothic Fiction, which is also the preferred phrasing in most of the secondary scholarship I read.

    However, I settled on “Nineteenth-century Gothic Fiction” for two reasons. First, I feel that the term “Victorian” carries too much ideological weight. Who were the Victorians? What did they think? How did they behave? Students and scholars alike make a lot of assumptions about the answers to these questions, and those assumptions are strongly colored by the lives of the wealthiest residents of England, especially for students (the name kind of sets us up for this).

    Second, as Charlotte noted the term “Victorian” can be associated with stasis, and I would suggest that this stasis can be witnessed both temporally and spatially. Although my work focuses specifically on British fiction, it looks at that fiction in relation to developments in the practice of science that were pouring into Britain from around the world. In other words, the literature may be Victorian, but much of the science was German.

    I’m interested in looking at how a genre/mode changes over time, and I find that the term “nineteenth-century” does a better job of setting the ground for discussing a span of time in which things occur than “Victorian” could.

  2. Benjamin Poore permalink
    September 12, 2013

    Hi Charlotte, thanks for addressing this issue. In my research, I sort of sidestep the question because I’m interested in what people *think* the Victorians were, rather than what they actually were like, or whether such a category of person/periodisation can justify its existence. So I suppose I’m a cultural historian (particularly, theatrical and dramatic) of the idea of ‘the Victorian’.
    As you note, there is a strong sense of academic identity being bound up with being a ‘Victorianist’ or ‘neo-Victorianist’ (and there’s a neat complementarity to those two terms that gets ruined if you go for my ‘cultural historian of the idea of the Victorian’ term instead of ‘neo-Victorian’. But on the other hand, I’ve just noticed that my phrase rhymes, which is rather pleasing).
    For me, the big problem is that when you try to make a term like ‘neo-Victorian’ travel, it can be read in very different ways that remind you of how difficult and contested the invocation of Queen Victoria’s name is. I’ve heard wildly differing views, for instance, on whether it’s OK to use ‘Victorian’ to refer to America and Europe. Choosing the term ‘neo-Victorian’ to refer to cultural products from outside the UK that reference Victorian or colonial history, runs the risk of coming across as neo-cultural-imperialist, appropriating other histories in the name of Victoria.

  3. September 14, 2013

    Really enjoyed this, Charlotte! Feel I’m having my cake and eating it by calling myself a Victorianist but blogging about anything else 19th century as it takes my fancy!

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