Lucinda Matthews-Jones, What is Victorian Studies for?: A Reply to Andersson’s article.

Lucinda Matthews-Jones is a Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research explores the roles of domesticity, gender and class in the British university settlement movement. As part of this, she is currently completing her first monograph ‘Settling: Domesticity, Class and Urban Philanthropy in the British University Settlement Movement’. Recent publications include Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) with Timothy W. Jones. Articles in ‘Journal of Victorian Culture’, and forthcoming in ‘Cultural and Social History’ and ‘Historical Journal’. She has been involved in of ‘Journal of Victorian Culture Online’ since 2011 and editor since 2013.

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

Victorian Studies is a broad church. Though committed to studying the same period, Victorianists bring different disciplinary viewpoints to bear on the Victorian past. Their languages and tools are distinct to the disciplines they have trained in. This is something that Peter Andersson’s article, ‘How civilized was the Victorian period’ sets out to reminds us. Andersson, nevertheless, notes that Victorian Studies has been dominated by a cultural history which prefers ‘literary and published texts as source material [which] has led to an inclination towards literate perspectives in Victorian scholarship, making it difficult for studies of living conditions and everyday life to break through’ [p.441]. The consequence of this has been to allow ‘the literary version of Victorian culture to define our image of the period’ [p.442], resulting in the marginalisation of working class and minority groups.

I am sympathetic to Andersson’s claims. As a historian committed to Victorian Studies, both as a field and as a community, there have been times when I have wondered if the perceived theoretical underpinnings of a literary Victorian Studies have been one of the reasons why fellow historians have stayed way. There has certainly been a dominance of literary studies in Victorian Studies. Personally, I am concerned by the push, especially in the US with V21, to introduce a greater theoretical component to our work in order to show the value of the humanities. I remember Judith Walkowitz once saying, in a workshop I attended as a PhD student, that a good cultural historian would never front load theory in their writings, but incorporate it into their footnotes instead. Her point has stayed with me ever since. Scholarship on the Victorian period should ideally be readable and enjoyable for all our academic, student and general readers. Political, sure, but densely theoretical in a way that only other literary scholars can understand? Probably best avoided.

Andersson’s assertion that we need alternative tools to uncover our historical subjects is therefore correct, in my view. I am excited by his proposal to work with photographs to explore embodied Victorian experiences. Since reading his work I’ve been buzzing with enthusiasm for embracing his suggestion that images reveal broader behaviours and relationships. Like Oliver Betts, I am keen to consider how cross-class relationships are exposed by the camera.


Figure One: Photos of Bethnal Green taken by St. Margaret's House for Harvard Social Sciences Fair

Take, for instance, the plaque at St Margaret’s House, a women’s university settlement, in Bethnal Green, London, sent to the Harvard Social Sciences Fair in 1903 (Figure One). These images were taken by a female settler who was working on behalf of a middle-class Anglican settlement house, which at this point had been working in Bethnal Green for 20 years. They show working-class people posed and in movement. I use these images in my teaching to get students to problematize and consider the stratification of the working class. The photograph of the five young boys against the wall illustrates this point well (Figure Two). Their clothes suggest a variety of social and economic positions ranging from lower middle classes to the poor. Three of the boys are wearing big white collars, while the two on the right hand corner show boys in collarless shirts; one of them scruffy in his opened jacket.

Figure Two: Photo of boys taken by St Margaret's House

Outside of the classroom, these photos enable me to reflect on the visualise gaze of the middle-class philanthropist. The growth of camera technology in the nineteenth century led to an expansion of photographs in settlement periodicals and publications. [1] Settlements used photographs to embed themselves in their communities and to project an image of themselves to a wider world. In doing so, they caught the working classes at play, leisure, work and in the settlement. If we return to the picture of the young boys, we are also shown what Andersson describes as the ‘co-existence of restrained and expansive behaviours’ displayed in front of the middle-class photographer [p.451]. The two boys at the end of the group stand apart looking away from the camera. One of the boys is shown crying, the scruffiest of the boys has his tongue out. None of the boys look very comfortable. But they reveal an intimate and touching element of boyhood. The three boys in the middle are holding hands.

But, in setting up this exciting alternative model, has Andersson not created several strawmen? Firstly, Victorian Studies, according to Andersson’s definition, privileges two subject areas, English and History. As a historian, I know that Victorian Studies is led by English scholars. But, historians should acknowledge that they are also at the forefront of the Victorian Studies community. Discussions about interdisciplinarity and inclusivity need to consider all the subject areas that make up Victorian Studies not simply reproduce the binary of them (English) and us (History).

This leads me to the second point on scholarship. Andersson’s piece invites us to consider non-verbal sources. Why then was art history ignored in his article? How could Andersson’s approach have been informed, strengthened even, by engaging with this disciplinary area? Similarly, why were certain works by historians overlooked? A notable example is Julia Laite’s highly innovative monograph Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London, 1885-1960, which has pushed our understanding of the prostitute from the social commentators and novelists to consider the spaces and experiences of prostitution by examining court and police records.[2]

Finally, Andersson should have considered how civility was linked to notions of respectability in the Victorian period. As a concept, it is respectability that has informed both social and cultural historians’ work on civilised Victorians.[3] Civility was s a lived experience. Understanding the malleable notions of civility therefore means that Victorianists need to look not only at the back stages of the working classes but also of the middle classes. They too have been dogged by a canon that has come to speak for them too.[4]

Additional responses can be found here:

Oliver Betts, ‘How Civilized Were the Victorians?: A Reply’

Sophie Franklin, ‘Beyond the Civilising Process: A Response to Peter K. Andersson’s ‘How Civilised Were the Victorians?


[1] For a discussion of camera technology and it’s growth see Lynda Nead, ‘Animating the Everyday: London on Camera c.1900’, Journal of British Studies, 43, no. 1 (January 2004), 65-90.

[2] Julia Laite, Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London, 1885-1960, (London; Routledge, 2011).

[3] See, for instance, F. M. L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, (London; Harper Collins, 1998). Mike Higgins, ‘Culture, class and respectability: racing and the English middle classes in the nineteenth century’, International Journal of the History of Sport, (1994). Andy Croll and Martin Johnes, ‘A heart of darkness? Leisure, respectability and the aesthetics of vice in Victorian Wales’, in Mike Huggins and J. A. Mangan (eds) Disreputable Pleasures: Less Virtuous Victorians at Play (Routledge, London, 2004), pp. 153-171.

[4] As a historian of the British University and Social Settlement Movement I am struck by the dominance of histories on Toynbee Hall, the foundation house of the movement.


  1. At the end of the 1990s Alan Mayne attempted to develop a material culture approach using archaeological finds from sites in South Australia. He was keen to cut through the language of slum land by utilising people’s possessions to demonstrate their ‘normality’. This hasn’t really taken off in Britain though the Hungate digs in York did attempt to record nineteenth century material. Mayne, A. and Murray, T. (eds.), The Archaeology of Urban Landscapes: Explorations in Slumland, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

    1. I agree Barry. I think we need to think more about approach not only because of Mayne’s work but also because Owens et JVC article shows the richness of archeological for understanding working-class material cultural in the Victorian period. I’ve just excitedly printed off Crewe and Handley’s article! The non-verbal should certainly be extended beyond the visual and textual.

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