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Susie Steinbach, Who owns the Victorians?: A Response to Peter K. Andersson’s ‘How Civilised Were the Victorians?’

2016 March 14
by lucinda matthews-jones

Susie Steinbach is a professor of history at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota currently living in York, England. Her work focuses on gender, performance, and the law during the Victorian period. The second edition of her textbook, Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture, and Society in Nineteenth-century Britain will be published by Routledge later this year.

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

Acland Servants 1897 by Sarah Acland via Wikimedia Commons

In his essay “How Civilized Were the Victorians?” Peter K. Andersson challenges scholars of the Victorian period to work differently and better. Specifically, he asks us to stop focusing on a small handful of texts (canonical novels), theories (those of Elias and Foucault), and people (the civilized bourgeoisie), and to broaden our remit to include works beyond, theorists beyond, and people beyond. He calls for more attention to “unconventional sources” and for a “definitive break with older notions” of the Victorian. In particular, he suggests that we consider ‘nonverbal’ sources such as photographs.

I am grateful for Andersson’s sally. Of course I take issue with some of his specifics. Like Lucinda Matthews-Jones, I found myself scribbling ‘straw man?’ in the margins as I read. Andersson despairs of a Victorian Studies that focuses almost exclusively on middle-class life and morals, but there are many works that are on working-class life or that acknowledge that the middle class and middle-class values were only one small slice of the population and the culture.[1] He sees a Victorian Studies dominated by literary sources and literary-critical methods, but historians of the period use a very wide variety of sources (mostly texts), and tend to be suspicious both of literature as unproblematic source and of literary theory as intellectual framework. I find some of his word choices troubling. His use of ‘bourgeoisie’ rather than ‘middle class’ seems off to me, as does ‘civilised’ where ‘respectability’ would be more relevant and more helpful. Nevertheless his call for a better Victorian Studies is invigorating.

Of course, Peter Andersson is not the only scholar concerned about the state of the field. Recently we heard from another group, the v21 collective, whose manifesto also reflects on the state of the field (and who Andersson sees as illustrative of the problem he identifies).[2] Strangely, v21 sees—and attacks—a very different Victorian Studies. To v21, the problem is not that Victorian Studies is too dominated by literary studies, but that it is too dominated by history. Indeed, the very first statement in the v21 manifesto is that “Victorian Studies has fallen prey to positivist historicism: a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past.” In other words, not only is Victorian Studies too heavy in history, but it’s too heavy in stupid, boring, antiquarian history. Another big problem, #4, is that Victorian Studies is too resistant to theory. It needs more theory, and more theories. So where Peter Andersson despairs of a field too literary and too theoretical, v21 attacks the same field for being too historical and not theoretical enough.[3]

What is going on? There is disagreement not only over what Victorian Studies should be but about what it is in the first place. To v21, Victorian Studies is currently dominated by the very worst kind of history, or perhaps by history, which is the worst. To Peter Andersson, Victorian Studies is dominated by literary studies. In the United States, people who describe themselves as doing ‘Victorian Studies’ usually work in English departments. The American journal Victorian Studies is primarily a literary-critical journal, and the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA), established only fifteen years ago with interdisciplinarity as its goal, has become dominated by those who work in English departments. In Britain, this is supposedly less the case, so that Victorian Studies is allegedly interdisciplinary. This journal is admirably multidisciplinary, but the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) conferences, too, tend to be dominated by scholars of literature.[4] At the same time, there is a large and vibrant community of historians (and others, such as historians of art and archaeologists, for whom I cannot speak) who work on the Victorian period. While historians are more likely to refer to their chronological field of study as “the nineteenth century” than as the Victorian period, there are plenty of historians of the Victorian era. Some of them (us) are even willing to use the term: witness Routledge’s Victorian World (2012). But overall I would have to agree with Andersson that the term Victorian Studies is more closely linked to literary criticism than it is to history or other disciplines.

What should Victorian Studies be? Where should it go next? V21 wants Victorian Studies to be more formalist; Peter Andersson wants Victorian Studies to be multi/interdisciplinary, with less text and more stuff. I suggest that we ought to vigorously pursue a truly multidisciplinary—not interdisciplinary—Victorian Studies: the study of the Victorian era by scholars trained in history, history of art and architecture, history of science, formalism, poststructuralism, archaeology,[5] musicology, digital humanities, and whoever else can make a contribution. We should not aim for interdisciplinarity. It is of course a good thing: who among us has not heard (or made) umpteen pleas for interdisciplinarity, whether in essay prompts, mission statements, or job postings? I suggest that we eschew interdisciplinarity in favor of multidisciplinarity because I believe interdisciplinarity to be extraordinarily difficult to achieve. There have been many efforts to render Victorian Studies interdisciplinary, most of them the founding of a new society, journal, or annual conference. But this interdisciplinarity is rarely maintained over the long haul: apparently we can recruit it more easily that we can retain it. Most scholars are trained inside of disciplinary boundaries, and call a single discipline home. Interdisciplinarity requires that individual scholars become equally expert and comfortable in two or more disciplines, and then produce works that draw equally on those disciplines. The number of interdisciplinary scholars and works is extremely small, and the expectation that many people will pursue such career paths is unrealistic.

But I do think that we could achieve multidisciplinarity, in which diverse disciplinary approaches to topics, events, and texts are juxtaposed so that various approaches can challenge, provoke, and enrich one another. Journals, conferences, departments, and programs should strive to be multidisciplinary by including and giving real authority to people trained in a wide variety of disciplines, and by checking frequently that this is still true. This, I think, would be plenty difficult enough. Multidisciplinarity, maintained over the long term, would be enriching—and might actually be attainable.

To return to Andersson’s essay, we might consider how productive a juxtaposition of works from various disciplines on Victorian photography might be. Andersson sees in the photographs he has worked with “‘alternative’ body practices.” But of course there are other readings (and of course ‘readings’ is the wrong word). I suspect that historians of art might take a quite different approach and produce different interpretations; the same would also be true of those who focus on gender, theatre, material culture, or formalist readings. And rather than seeing such differences as proof of a house divided, we can choose to take them as evidence of a fertile field and a way forward.

[1] Almost at random, examples include Emma Griffin, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution (2013), Brad Beaven, Leisure, Citizenship and Working-Class Men in Britain, 1850-1945 (2005), Andrew August, Poor Women’s Lives: Gender, Work, and Poverty in Late-Victorian London (1999) and The British Working Class, 1832-1940 (2007), Susan Barton, Working-class Organisations & Popular Tourism, 1840-1970 (2005), Rohan McWilliam, Popular Politics in Nineteenth-Century England (1998) and The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation (2007), Ellen Ross, Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918 (1993).

[2] http://v21collective.org/manifesto-of-the-v21-collective-ten-theses/. See also many responses, in particular Talia Schaffer’s, at http://v21collective.org/responses-to-the-v21-manifesto/#response2.

[3] See also historian Martin Hewitt’s response to the v21 manifesto, declined by the collective “because it was by a historian,” http://profmartinhewitt.com/2015/03/26/v21-manifesto-ten-alternative-theses/, only to be accepted and posted once Hewitt made the v21 rejection public on his blog, http://v21collective.org/martin-hewitt-10-alternative-theses/

[4] But see the work of historian and recent BAVS president Rohan McWilliam.

[5] See for example the Victorian artefacts revealed by the York Archaeological Trust’s Hungate dig (2006-2011).

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