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Peter K. Andersson, Victorian Diversity: A Response to Responses

2016 July 1
by lucinda matthews-jones

I am delighted and humbled by the fact that so many fellow Victorian scholars felt called upon to respond to my article in JVC. I have read all of the responses here on the blog with much interest and am pleased to see how so many have an understanding of my opinions and how the criticisms of some of my finer points are presented with sensitivity and sympathy. The last thing I wanted to do with my article was to offend or alienate, and so I am only too glad that it has been received in a spirit of collegial debate. Having had so many replies to the piece, I feel I should respond to some of the remarks and criticisms directed at it. An overall impression seems to have been the notion that I am creating ‘straw men’ in my arguments, and that the perspectives and methods I would like to see more of are actually out there. I concede this, but I also think that one cannot really write a think-piece of this type without creating at least some straw men, and I reiterate what I said in my article that I am not criticising a dearth but only pointing out what I see as an imbalance.

Many of the replies call attention to the danger of viewing the working class of Victorian Britain as too separate an entity when attempting to get at their culture and life-worlds. I sympathise with this, and tried to make it clear in my article that although approaches like those I advocate often have a goal of paying more attention to the impecunious sections of society than other approaches, the phenomena that are targeted by a “history from below” or a “decentred history” approach should be defined more by their marginality or their separation from hegemonic discourses than by their connection to a certain class. They can just as much be about the private lives of wealthy women and the drunkenness of university students as about gambling dens and bank holiday dances. As Mike Huggins so rightly points out, the rowdyism of the upper classes is just as neglected an area of study as the vices of the lower classes. In my monograph, Streetlife in Late-Victorian London, it was an explicit aim to steer clear of class terminology as much as possible in order to see the practices of the time as defined by factors other than social standing. Although one might run the risk of missing some obvious class signals, this approach can be necessary in order to reveal how some phenomena are characterised by factors other than class, such as space, age or state of mind. Incidentally, in our inclination towards interpreting everything in terms of class, gender or race, I think we have forgotten the vital factor of age. The difference between how an upper middle-class lady of seventy and her granddaughter of twenty behave can be just as great as the difference between a barrister and a chimney sweep.

Much of the disagreements and misunderstandings emerging from this debate might derive from the fact that I am not a native English-speaker. Susie Steinbach points out my careless use of some terms such as ‘civilised’ and ‘bourgeois’, and this is probably because my outlook and experience incorporates both English and continental perspectives. The term ‘respectability’, for instance, is a very English concern, and it corresponds with similar, but differently labelled, cultures in other countries at the same time. My picture of the period is thus made up both of my investigations into Victorian popular culture and everyday life and my research on Swedish and continental history of the same period. A transnational perspective means trying to find transnational ways of expressing and explaining one’s findings. English-language scholars tend to forget this because non-English scholars are bad at reminding them of their narrow vision and good at learning and adopting the English viewpoint. So many works on facets of the Victorian period leave out a potentially fruitful international outlook. Anyone who studies Charles Booth needs to know about Hans Ostwald; anyone who studies Edward Lear should look up ‘Falstaff, fakir’; and those who investigate Aubrey Beardsley could do worse than to read up on Vsevolod Maksymovych. There are clear signs that the nationalist tendencies of Victorian studies and related disciplines are being thwarted, however, as evidenced by the forthcoming conference ‘Forgotten Geographies in the Fin de Siècle’ at Birkbeck College this summer.

The lack of transnational perspectives is also something that might have bearing on the point that Lucinda Matthews-Jones makes in her response, namely that I left out art history in my advocacy of nonverbal material. Incorporating the development of art in the nineteenth and early twentieth century into the type of research that I am supporting is difficult in that it joins together a highly specialised discussion with the spheres of popular culture and everyday life. Art of the late nineteenth century can, however, shed light on many of the doubts and challenges inherent in nineteenth-century culture, and much of it emerges from the eccentric and absurdist worldviews otherwise mainly found in marginal cultures. The most challenging artists in western Europe at this time come not from Britain, however, but are to be found in most other countries: Edvard Munch of Norway, Leon Spilliaert of Belgium, Henri Rousseau of France, Vilhelm Hammershøi of Denmark, Ivar Arosenius of Sweden, and Hugo Simberg of Finland. Studying such artists in relation to the dominant discourses of their age will truly open up new perspectives.

In her eloquent and intelligent response to my article, Sophie Franklin remarks that my suspicion towards ‘the literary version of Victorian culture’ might be a bit exaggerated, and reading her defence of literary scholarship, I heartily agree. Written sources do not only show us the Victorians as well-mannered and politely courting, but also as fighting, drinking, cursing and fucking. In my article I do make mention of the Victorian writers that were exceedingly popular in their day but are not devoted much attention by scholars today. Apart from the writers of novels and poetry, there are also the writers of penny dreadful fiction, of comic writing and the artists of the early comic strips, but as Franklin makes clear, there is a definite danger in separating the world of the comic strip and the world of the novel. When you write an article like mine, you run the risk of sounding as if the research you want to see more of is completely separate from the research you think there is too much of. My intention was quite the opposite. The incorporation of new perspectives and sources might rekindle the starting points of Victorian studies, starting points that all too easily become stultified by a lack of originality and theoretical independence. Opening up for new aspects will ensure that the diversified world experienced by the Victorians will correspond with the diversity of the research.

Having acknowledged all these nuances and reservations, I do believe the imbalance that I speak of in my article to be a fact, and well worth pointing out from time to time, so as to poke the research community into action. That was the main purpose of my endeavour, and if I have managed to confound or even annoy one or two Victorianists, I consider my mission accomplished.

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