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

2016 January 3

Sophie Franklin is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate in the English Department at Durham University. Her research focuses on the various violences in Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s respective writings, and the ways in which the three authors worked within and outside of nineteenth-century perceptions of violence. She also has an interest in print culture, material culture, and windows in Victorian fiction. You can find her on Twitter @_sophiefranklin and contact her on

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

Peter K. Andersson’s article is a gauntlet thrown down to Victorian scholars everywhere. It challenges nineteenth-century researchers to reassess and reconfigure the recurring approaches to and assumptions of the field of ‘Victorian studies’, with Norbert Elias’s civilising process and the Foucauldian concepts of disciplining discourses as the primary offenders. This is not an attempt to denigrate current research, however; nor is Andersson trying to discredit the usefulness of these popular approaches. He states clearly that ‘a disciplinary and civilising discourse existed’ (451). Yet, as he makes plain throughout the article, it existed alongside more transgressive, unruly practices that are harder to trace through the ‘literate perspectives’ that continue to dominate the field (441). What Andersson is really identifying is a scholarly blind spot or, as he terms it, a ‘skewed perspective’ (444). Instead of emphasising the importance of extra-verbal phenomena, such as body language and unofficial photography, scholars reach for the reliable and well-worn pages of a bourgeois novel or an autobiography with an agenda. In other words, we seek the representations of Victorian lives over the everyday reality. Andersson wants us to redress the lopsided focus of the discipline; and this article is his call to arms.

The question of ‘how civilised were the Victorians?’ becomes, then, a meditation on Victorian studies’ preoccupation with viewing literary discourses through the civilised paradigm at the detriment of non-verbal and theoretical alternatives, such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s ‘carnival’ theory (450). Andersson identifies an imbalance that exists in Victorian studies, one that leans towards the ‘metropolitan, elitist, and […] exclusively British sources’ and away from the ‘peripheries, deviances, and misbehaviour’ from which ‘a historical diversity can be acquired’ (452). His own position on this tipping scale is unambiguous and he helpfully outlines the ways in which his own research on Victorian streetlife and, currently, nineteenth-century body language seeks to challenge long-held expectations of the period. The turn towards material culture is also rightly recognised – although rather quietly in a footnote – as an ‘exception’ within the field (444). It is an area that accommodates while also defying disciplinary boundaries. Yet Andersson also notes that essays on commodity culture still open with quotations from poems, such as Elaine Freedgood’s ‘Culture of Commodities, Culture of Things’ in The Victorian World (2012).

There are aspects of the essay that are contentious, though. Andersson makes the rather generalised statement that the ‘literary version of Victorian culture’ (445), as well as its official photography and governmental reports, shows the Victorians on ‘their best behaviour’ (452). This is a somewhat reductive argument, as it fails to account for the subversive possibilities of novels, however fixed in middle- and upper-class circles they may be. It is also questionable as to whether most novels of the period were ‘generally presented in a form or language fit for the public eye’ (445). The early readers and reviewers of Emily Brontë, Oscar Wilde, and George Sand might disagree. While literature’s predominance in Victorian studies should rightly be reappraised, the literate perspective is not always the safe option that Andersson suggests.

As someone whose research revolves around some of the ‘usual suspects’ of Victorian literary studies (specifically the ‘Brontë’ in Andersson’s list of well-researched novelists; presumably, he means Charlotte, as Emily and Anne so often sit on the periphery of the canon in one way or another), I am undoubtedly part of the article’s target audience (444). Here, Andersson points out the fact that twenty-first-century Victorian studies still revolves around Dickens, Thackeray et al, instead of focusing on now lesser known but contemporaneously popular writers such as Margaret Oliphant and Jerome K. Jerome. Andersson is not claiming that these latter authors have been neglected entirely; and neither is he seeking to suggest that working-class or non-bourgeois experiences have been universally ignored (445). He is more concerned with the fact that scholarly work on the everyday lives of workers or prostitutes, for example, have been ‘pigeonholed’ into disciplines outside of the very literary ‘Victorian Studies’ like ‘labour studies’, as though Victorian labourers were not really part of the period (445). For Andersson, the term “Victorian’ […] has become intimately linked with restrained middle-class culture’; and “Victorian culture’ is an extension of this, continuing to exclude or devalue lower-class vernacular culture’ (450). It is this uneven distribution of attention that he is encouraging Victorianists to rectify.

Researching the various violences of Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontës’ respective works means that I need to be especially vigilant in my assumptions. So much has already been written on the three authors, particularly the latter two. Beyond this cacophony of voices, my focus on violence in both its represented and empirical manifestations means that my research has to engage with the literary and the physical realities of early-Victorian lives. With this in mind, it is little surprise that I found myself nodding in agreement when Andersson advocated for more research into ‘Victorian nonverbal culture’ (446). More attention needs to be paid to the violent and taboo subcultures that have been obstructed by a persistent fascination with the civilised veneer of the Victorian age. Yet it is equally important that any shift away from the civilising process does not automatically move towards its opposite, resulting in a never-ending tug of war. So often research (and not only in Victorian studies) is predicated on dichotomous relationships, whether it is the civilised versus the coarse or the verbal versus the non-verbal. I am just as guilty of this as anyone. Andersson’s measured, diplomatic approach, however, shows that there is room for every contradictory view of the Victorians. Indeed, there is a necessity to be more inclusive of history from below in order to contest the status quo.

How do we account for and track undocumented nineteenth-century experience without simply accumulating information or reverting to verbal examples? For Andersson, this process involves tracing the experiences of everyday Victorian bodies, through mobility, sport, crime and protest, and through court records, amateur photography, and handicrafts (452). By ceasing to compress Victorian lives and society into a handful of valuable yet well-used frameworks, and by embracing previously unorthodox approaches, we will rebalance the scales of Victorian studies and come closer to understanding the diversity of the period. Moving forward, only this is certain: it is a demanding and exciting time to be a Victorian scholar.

Additional Responses can be found here:

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

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

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