The Cambridge Companion to the Victorians

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1740-1830, edited by Thomas Keymer and Jon Mee, The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830-1914, edited by Joanne Shattock, and The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture (2010), edited by Francis O’Gorman is yet another useful collection of smart, lucid, and engaging essays by British Victorianists.

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1740-1830, edited by Thomas Keymer and Jon MeeKeymer and Mee’s volume covers, in two parts, the context and modes, the writers and their circles of correspondence, and other traditions of English literature from 1740-1830. In part one we are introduced to readers, writers, reviewers and the professionalization of literature (Barbara M. Benedict); to criticism, taste, and aesthetics (Simon Jarvis); to literature and politics (Michael Scrivener); to national identities and empire (Saree Makdisi); to sensibility (Susan Manning); to English theatrical culture (Gillian Russell); and to the Gothic (James Watt). Part two focuses on different writers and their works, such as Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Sarah Fielding (Pater Sabor); Johnson, Boswell, and their circle (Murray Pittcock); Sterne and Romantic autobiography (Thomas Keymer); Blake and the poetics of enthusiasm (Jon Mee); Barbauld, Robinson, and Smith (Judith Pascoe); Wordsworth and Coleridge (Paul Magnuson); the invention of the modern novel (Kathryn Sutherland); Keats, Shelley, Byron, and the Hunt circle (Greg Kucich) and John Clare and the traditions of labouring-class verse (John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan).

Shattock’s volume offers “fresh perspectives on a literary period bounded at one end by the Romantic movement and by Modernism at the other.” The volume begins with a consideration of the status of authorship and the gradual professionalization of writing from the 1830s (Josephine Guy), then turns to the reader and the consumption of literature (Mary Hammond). The following essay emphasizes the variety of “life writing” in the period 1830-1914 (Alison Booth). As Shattocks notes in her introduction, “biography as we know it was largely the creation of Victorian biographers.” The growth of nineteenth-century periodicals are linked with the “increased opportunities offered to women writers” (Susan Hamilton). Another essay reminds us that “‘the past as we know it was largely created by the Victorians,’ that historical terms and concepts and the idea of periodicity were invented in the nineteenth century” (Hilary Fraser). There follows an essay on “radical writing,” covering the literature against the Poor Laws of the 1830s, the impact of Chartism, and the emergence of the Socialist movement in the 1880s (Sally Ledger). An essay on “popular culture” looks at the ways artists, critics, and audiences responded to a “fractured and contentious” Victorian national culture (Katherine Newey).

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830-1914, edited by Joanne ShattockIn another section, one author writes about the “new cultural and political importance which science acquired during the nineteenth century” (Gowan Dawon). Another focuses on the ways in which medical discourse “influenced the work of novelists and also poets, in their attempts to render legible the inner, emotional life” (Jenny Bourne Taylor). The growing acceptance of gradual evolutionary processes, moreover, led to an increasing fascination with the “other,” particularly in terms of religion, and is widely displayed in the religious diversity of nineteenth-century novels (Andrew Sanders). A final essay in this section focuses on Victorian “visual culture,” the “creative cross-over” between literature and painting, and the “desire to be able to picture, and consequently observe, every detail of the physical environment” (John Plunkett).

The remaining essays in Shattock’s volume traces the concepts of empire and nation in Romantic and Victorian writing (Patrick Brantlinger), the interchange of literary texts and cultural models on both sides of the Atlantic (Bridget Bennett), and the ‘European exchanges,” particularly France and Italy, that challenged the “Anglocentric disciplinary formations” of Victorian literature (Alison Chapman). “Readers of the Companion,” Shattock concludes in her introduction, “will find fresh interpretations and perspectives on well-known authors and texts, together with an introduction to less familiar authors and writing in a range of genres, reflecting the constant revision and reconfiguration of the canon which has been, and continues to be, an ongoing process in nineteenth-century literary studies, and one which signals its intellectual health and vigour.”

As another reviewer has noted, many of the essays in Shattock’s volume complement the collection of essays in Gorman’s. In his introduction, Gorman considers various arguments in favor of and against the label “Victorian,” as well as the limits of “culture.” “The facts of the past,” he says, “have a habit of confounding intellectual speculation.” “It is as well to test the grandest theory against the humblest of facts,” he goes on, “to make some space for the sudden and strange and unpredicted; to remember that grave argument and deep thought are hardly the only motivations of human behavior; and that intellectually coherent analyses of the past are not guaranteed merely because they are intellectually coherent.” Gorman offers good advice for any historian:

We must not claim to know too much; we must retain some scepticism and readiness to change; be doubtful of what look like accepted terms that have not been thought about for a long time; in particular be doubtful about metonymy, about making single events or instances stand without qualification for larger wholes; be doubtful of coherence that persuades only because it is coherent; be wary of plausibility that resides only in rhetoric and not in the concepts and the rhetoric is struggling to describe.

The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture (2010), edited by Francis O'GormanTo this end, Gorman argues that his collection of essays assume that “‘Victorian’ is defined as a post hoc category, an idea that exists in the critical analysis of critics subsequent to its end.” It is a continually redefined label, by “critics examining different aspects of an exceptionally diverse set of possible knowledges.” The first essay aptly begins with the “age of scientific naturalists; the shift of authority in University education form the Anglican establishment to the men of science; the assertion of the experimental method; [and] the professionalization of science and its division into the disciplines and sub-disciplines that are still familiar today” (Bernard Lightman). There follows appropriately an essay technological innovations, particularly in the realm of communications technology (Nicholas Daly). Another essay discusses Victorian business and economics (Timothy Alborn). It is also worth remembering that “warfare…was an almost constant feature of Victorian life” (Edward S. Spiers). Just as prevalent was music, both public and private (Ruth A. Solie), and the theater (Katherine Newey). A related essay discusses how the notion of “popular culture” arose as a “realm of strategic contest through which the masses themselves were shaped in accord with middle-class interests and values.” But by the end of the century, “Victorians saw this edifying conception eroded not only by the acknowledged influences of the lower classes on English culture but also by the boom of consumerism” (Denis Denisoff).

Two essays on print culture focus on satire (John Strachan) and journalism (Mathew Rubery). Another considers the nature of Victorian painting (Elizabeth Prettejohn), and a subsequent essay examines the development of domestic crafts and arts, or, the “art of living” (Nicola Humble). An essay on “Victorian Literary Theory” concentrates on reviews and reviewers, and here we find such familiar names as Francis Jeffrey, George Henry Lewes, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Walter Pater appear in both, but also the less familiar John Woolford, John Morley, Walter Bagehot, and Anthony Trollope. Gorman’s own essay “considers the retreating authority of Christian ideas of eternal life and resurrection, and examines how they were re-imagined and re-created in literary and visual texts and in ideas about how literary texts were, literally, readable” (Francis O’Gorman). A final chapter describes “our multiple appropriations of Victorian themes, images, texts, characters and material remains” (Samantha Matthews). “In the Victorians we find what we seek, and fabricate or ‘discover’ what we need.”

All three Companion volumes further illuminates the “varieties of the Victorian.” How one understands the Victorian derives from sustained research, and, as Gorman points out, research means “not only the tracking down of facts or sources in archives or online: it means reading and thinking.” “It may be that the best thing for a reader to do,” he concludes, “is to set this volume [and others] aside at once and turn to a novel, a poem, a play, a diary, a volume of correspondence, a biography from the nineteenth century.”