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Katrina Navickas ‘Of Cultural History and Class: A Reply to Andersson’

2016 January 8

Dr Katrina Navickas is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Hertfordshire. Her latest monograph is Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848 (Manchester University Press, 2015), which has an accompanying website of data and maps of protest sites in northern England, http://protesthistory.org.uk. She tweets at @katrinanavickas

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 deliberately challenges complacency and established norms in Victorian studies. The number of views that the article has had (over 1000 to date) and responses on the JVC blog shows how this is a ripe time to discuss where Victorian studies is going as an (inter)discipline. The debate is also testimony to the power of online access and social media to raise historical debate to a new level.

On one level, the article takes a critical shot at the dominance of Elias’s civilising thesis in accounts of nineteenth-century crime and society. Andersson also picks out some common culprits that seem to hold a particular attraction for Victorian scholars, including the development of modern policing, representations of prostitutes, the romantic ‘flaneur’ wandering round London and Paris. I particularly agree with Andersson’s critique of the latter. Romantic literary studies in particular are infused with interpretations of the city derived from Foucault and Baudelaire, and they are fond of making historical actors engage in a dérive around the West End of Regency London. They offer a picture of, as Barry Doyle has shrewdly identified, a ‘new and unproblematically unified middle class remaking the city in their own form’.[1] The nineteenth century city is seen through bourgeois eyes, both of literary sources and of the historian. Yet even if certain parts of Regency London did resemble revolutionary Paris, most of the city, and the rest of Britain did not, as French industrialist Leon de Faucher realised very quickly when he visited the slums of Manchester in 1844.[2]

The other central point of the article concerns how Victorian scholars present the working class in their research. Andersson states, ‘my point is not that the lower classes are neglected in Victorian research. The problem is rather scholars’ inability to look beyond discourse and the tendency to view “Victorian Studies” as an exclusively literary discipline, while research on everyday life and non-elites tends to be pigeonholed in the disciplines of labour history or social history, thus cultivating a scholarly division’ (445). Why is this? Partly, as I have explained elsewhere, the older grand narratives of Whiggish progress or Marxist models of class formation have been overtaken and rendered out-dated by postmodernist literary and historical study with the rise of cultural history. Andersson’s comment also brings to mind Emma Griffin’s widely-lauded study of over 350 working-class autobiographies, Liberty’s Dawn: a People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, which attempts to break this divide.[3] Peter Gurney has nevertheless criticised Griffin’s book for neglecting the politics of class, and also for presuming that literary scholars have treated ‘working-class autobiographies “as a form of literature, even fiction”, rather than straightforward reflections of historical reality, “freely-narrated” (9-10)’.[4]

So at a deeper level, Andersson’s article is not about ‘civilising’ or ‘the lower classes’ at all. It is rather another contribution to wider debate about the purpose and methods of cultural history as a whole. In one sense, he makes a similar challenge as Peter Mandler’s provocative introduction to the opening issue of Cultural and Social History journal, ‘The Problem with Cultural History’.[5] Mandler critiqued the postmodernist methods that consumed much of historical and literary studies in the 1990s, in which culture and text were presented as pre-eminent sources and investigations into the experience of class became subsumed among studies of representations of other forms of identity. Yet, unlike Mandler, Andersson does not reject the value of cultural sources. Rather, he argues that Victorian scholars should examine a much wider range of cultural sources. His own particular counter-source to text are photographs of body language, which he uses to argue for the physicality and cross-class contact that literary sources neglect to identify.

Andersson notes that Victorianists remain wedded to literary sources and ‘discursive forms of “gender” or “class” as opposed to “women” and “workers” (445). What he hasn’t addressed however is the issue of experience. In Hegelian terms, experience is the counter-part to representation. Selina Todd has eloquently explored the primary of experience in shaping working-class identity and life in 20th century Britain, although she takes her cues from E. P. Thompson, the foremost exponent of a cultural understanding of Marxist class relations.[6] In this model, class is relative to social groups’ positions in social relations in particular economic circumstances and therefore situated in particular points in time. Class is therefore relative and changing over time, not just in relation to other classes but also dependent on groups’ experience of previous economic circumstances, a desire for autonomy or stability during periods of economic distress, and economic and political policies of the government.

I argue that Victorianists should not shy away from using or discussing ‘class’ as a term. Certainly it is more reductive to talk about ‘workers’ instead, because the term does not encompass the socio-economic structures as a whole that undoubtedly (whether you subscribe to a Marxist model or not) shape relations between the different classes in Victorian society. I’m therefore less convinced that looking at photos provide a completely viable alternative: are they not just another form of posed, deliberate and indeed public record of behaviour, taken by someone else (again, bourgeois enough to have access to a camera in this period)? Where did structures other than culture fit into the causes of unrest and political change? What about the law and custom? What about the poor law, enclosure, working conditions, and indeed the vote? One cannot unpick these relations from deconstructing the body language of posed photographs.

In my own work on popular protest and Chartism, I have found answers to the thorny issue of class in labour geography. Labour geography is a still vibrant and developing field, which uses a wider range of sources and records of events and actions by the working classes rather than simply representations of them. Recent work by David Featherstone and others for example demonstrates that working-class collective action had and continues to have many and varied forms, including marginal migrant and domestic work.[7] Victorian scholars therefore should indeed look to other sources, as Andersson suggests. Though I would suggest, they should do so in spatial directions.

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?

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


[1] Barry Doyle, ‘Review of Chris Otter, The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800–1910 (Chicago, 2008)’, Urban History, 37 (2010), 109.

[2] Leon de Faucher, Manchester in 1844 (London, 1844).

[3] Emma Griffin, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution (Yale University Press, 2013).

[4] Peter Gurney, ‘Review of Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, by Emma Griffin’, History, 99: 337 (October 2014), 704.

[5] Peter Mandler, ‘The Problem with Cultural History’, Cultural and Social History, 1: 1 (2004), 94-117. See the retort by Colin Jones, ‘Peter Mandler’s “Problem with Cultural History” or is Playtime Over?’, Cultural and Social History, 1: 2 (2004), 209-215.

[6] Selina Todd, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 (John Murray, 2014); Selina Todd, ‘Class, Experience and Britain’s Twentieth Century’, Social History, 39: 4 (2014), 490.

[7] D. Featherstone, Resistance, Space and Political Identities: the Making of Counter-Global Networks (Blackwell, 2008); David Featherstone and Paul Griffin, ‘Spatial Relations, Histories from Below and the Makings of Agency: Reflections on The Making of the English Working Class at 50’, Progress in Human Geography, online only (April 2015), 3, http://phg.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/04/07/0309132515578774.abstract

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