- The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture, and: The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830-1914
The growing list of Cambridge Companions offers teachers and graduate students a series dedicated to useful, short overviews of important issues, authors, and critical trends. At their best, individual essays delineate current critical controversies and point the way to further research. These two volumes, edited by leading British Victorianists, more than meet these criteria. Both include a useful chronology of major events, though only The Cambridge Companion to English Literature pairs these events with key works of literature. Priced to sell, they are invaluable for any teacher who has assigned an unfamiliar book and then has too little time to work up the necessary background. Teachers might want to assign Francis O'Gorman's thoughtful introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture, which delineates the pros and cons of the label "Victorian," as well as what limits to place on "culture." While not every essay is equally strong, both books can be recommended for their intelligent analyses of key issues; they provide precisely the kind of information needed to navigate the many different intellectual tributaries of Victorian studies. [End Page 717]
The best essays in Victorian Culture either examine an overlooked subject, such as Edward M. Spiers's assessment of Victorian wars, or provide a compelling theme, such as Timothy Alborn's analysis of conflicting economic theories. Others perhaps rely too heavily on past research; Denis Denisoff focuses entirely on the late nineteenth century in his essay on popular culture, which leads to the neglect of such key figures as G. W. M. Reynolds, the Chartist author of The Mysteries of London (1844-48) and numerous other radical novels. John Strachan's essay on satirical print culture surveys the afterlife and gradual decline of eighteenth-century political satire, but skimps the consequent rise in social satire so effectively caught by George du Maurier in Punch. Read together, however, they cover the entire century. Nicola Humble's essay on the domestic arts is a fascinating consideration of why and how Victorian homes became so crowded with material things. She astutely notes how cookery books and guides to household economy consistently assumed a greater wealth than the probable reader possessed. They obfuscated the hard, physical work involved in running a middle-class household. Few families could afford a cook and the daily labor of providing the simplest meals was significant, even with a servant to do the more onerous tasks. I would have liked an essay dedicated to imperialism and colonialism, however ably touched on by Strachan and others, but I can recommend Patrick Brantlinger's essay in English Literature.
Elizabeth Prettejohn's spirited defense of Victorian art as avant-garde in Victorian Culture is most impressive. Her essay provides an excellent overview of Victorian artistic trends and a strong argument for a new appraisal of English narrative and historical art. She notes that for too long we have been in thrall to the notion that the French were the first to break with European academic art. The Pre-Raphaelites were their precursors, in part because they had fewer ties to this tradition and because they lacked church or state patronage. English artists depended upon private patrons from the industrial and mercantile classes. French critics thus were unable to understand such unfamiliar genres as animal painting; instead of seeing them as responsive to market demand, they fell back on the well-known English love of horses and dogs. Counterintuitively, Prettejohn argues that "literary subject-matter was a prolific source of innovation" (202). She sees John Everett Millais's Mariana (1850-51) as an example of sophisticated pictorial reference not only to Alfred Tennyson's poem, but also to John Keats's "Eve of St. Agnes" (1820) and...