Peter K. Andersson, Real Victorians and False Margins

This post accompanies Peter K. Andersson’s Journal of Victorian Culture 2015 ‘How Civilised were the Victorians’. This article can be downloaded here.

An increasing interest in  “history from below” among Victorian scholars can be detected when looking at the contents of periodicals and books. The Journal of Victorian Culture is at the forefront of this evolution with articles on blood-sports, rat-catchers and the material culture of everyday city life. But although an ambition to encompass the “voiceless masses” has never been very far away in British historical research, there has always been some obstacles to integrating the “worm’s-eye view” into mainstream inquiries. In my JVC article I point to a number of contributing factors, including Victorianists reliance on the study of the literary canon and the dominance of discursive analyses in the Foucauldian vein. Ushashi Dasgupta showed in a recent entry for this blog that a history from below  approach can be fruitfully combined with literary studies. Like Dasgupta I have used the Old Bailey proceedings to shed light on people’s experiences in the nineteenth century.

Unknown group portrait from a Swedish farm, c. 1910. Author’s collection.
Unknown group portrait from a Swedish farm, c. 1910. Author’s collection.

But, there is still more that Victorianists can do to reclaim our historical subjects. Take a look at this photograph. Five agricultural labourers have been asked to pose for a picture in the garden of their employer’s house. Who are they? Where is the picture taken? Nobody knows. It is one of many unknown images that I have uncovered in antique shops and flea markets during my work researching body language at the turn of the twentieth century. What we can assume is that the picture is taken some time in the early years of the twentieth century, in high summer somewhere in the southern parts of Sweden.

Photographic historians, such as John Tagg and Suren Lalvani, would use this image as an illustration of the “head-on stare” pose that they claimed was the common way of posing for a portrait among lower-class people.[1] At least man number one and four from the left might fit into this description, but when you look at it for a while, forgetting for a moment what your theoretical framework, says about the oppression of the photographic “gaze”, you see that there is much more going on in these men’s poses than is apparent from a quick glance. Man number two, who might be seen as awkwardly posing with the same head-on stare, has his hands on his thighs in a specific gesture and is grinning. Man number three is standing in a broad-legged stance with one arm akimbo, trying to look strong and self-possessed. He and the other two on the left are wearing their caps in a special beret-like manner. Man number four is the most awkward-looking, but he is also evidently moving, while the picture is being taken; can we really draw any conclusions about his stiffness? Man number five has the most relaxed pose of the five, or at least that is what he wants us to think. In fact, his way of standing looks quite deliberately arranged to look relaxed and confident. What is going on between them, while the photographer was going about his business, we can only guess, but there is something in their faces that betray a certain cheekiness. This pause in their work undoubtedly instills some amusement in them. Considering all this, they look neither awkward nor disciplined.

Examining a photograph will never lead to as accurate conclusions as comparing the contents of a novel with the biography of its author, but we have to come to terms with this relative ambiguity if we want to take our research beyond the undoubtedly narrow scope of written culture in the past. What this photograph illustrates, to my mind, are two things; firstly, how scholars studying this period in history remain tied to the perspective of literary sources such as novels or journalism. They thereby reproduce the bird’s-eye view and cosmopolitan outlook that they sometimes criticise their sources for. Secondly, looking at an image like this photograph demonstrates the unquestioned urban and nationalistic viewpoint of scholars.

Victorianists are, perhaps unsurprisingly, mainly British or American, but does that mean they are excused from going beyond their own national borders to look for sources? Charles Dickens certainly did not write his books taking influence from exclusively British contexts! But perhaps more to the point is the division between Victorian scholars of literature or modernity and rural historians. Victorianists seldom go to the trouble of considering the peripheries of rural Scandinavia or Eastern Europe in their quest for relevant perspectives. The “margins” of Victorian culture are, at best, located in the East End of London or, even more fashionably, India. Need a dissenting Victorian voice? Why not dig up Hannah Cullwick for the umpteenth time and see what she has to say? Our contemporary interest in the Victorian period is too coloured by the agendas of the twenty-first century. We prefer to think of the Victorian period as the precursor to the modern world, forgetting that it was just as much, if not more, a product of the early modern world. Therefore the urban and modern aspects of the period are frequently brought to the fore while the aspects that evoke more premodern ways of life are set aside.

[1] John Tagg, The Burden of Representation. Essays on Photographies and Histories (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 1988), p. 36; Suren Lalvani, Photography, Vision and the Production of Modern Bodies (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), p. 66.

One comment

  1. As someone who regularly teaches about Victorian attitudes to gender, work and class and who, in the process, regularly ‘digs up’ Hannah Cullwick, I’d like to point out that Cullwick came from a rural background, with which she continued to identify (via her few holidays, her choice of clothing, some of her locutions) even as she worked in (mainly) urban settings. I’m not sure why I’m feeling so defensive of her (or of myself maybe?) but I think we need to put a little analytical pressure on the idea of a rural/urban dichotomy. Is it any more secure than that, say, between literary and ‘non’literary?

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