Nostalgia and Recollection in Victorian Culture by Ann C. Colley (review)
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Reviews Ann C. Colley. Nostalgia and Recollection in Victorian Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998. ? + 218. Speaking of Baudelaire's poetry, Walter Benjamin once highlighted two kinds of remembrance in the light of Freud's notion of the unconscious. x One kind traces the past in sequential time and in consciousness. It filters out aspects of past experience, thus avoiding derailing one's mental balance; the past can then be turned into a memorable and retrievable experience. The other kind invades one's unconscious. It disrupts the sense of continuous time, captures the intensity of past conditions and restores what consciousness tends to screen out. The sensations generated can be distressing, shocking and traumatic. Nostalgia, one would assume, leans towards the security of the first kind. When a familiar past is evoked, it may generate a sad but reassuring longing, not necessarily comfortable, but most likely comforting enough to be indulged in. The merit of Ann C. Colley's recent book lies in its understanding of nostalgia to be more than just such a longing. Through close analyses of a range of Victorian writings and paintings, Colley explores how nostalgia for the Victorians not only offers reassurance but also gestures towards the unexpected and the undesirable. The sensibility that detects such dual and often antithetical impact of the past is both subtle and astute. The focus of Colley's book, though, is not on nostalgia as an unconscious (in Freud's sense), non-referential, or pathologically traumatic manifestation. She goes back to a pre-Benjaminian time to uncover forms of nostalgia that, in her view, do not "necessarily expose the antitheses and ironies imbedded in our postmodern sensibility" (4). Unlike our own age that "promotes a nostalgia without memory" (4), she sees her chosen writers and artists as belonging to "a culture that finds in [the past] a means of resolving (rather than creating) tension or difference. The past gives them a way of discovering synthesis" (4). The role of nostalgia is thus "an organizing force in the imagination and memory" (1). Colley's framing of the issue may help us to understand better her principle of selection: "I have selected a group of Victorian British Victorian Review1 23 Reviews writers and artists whose work emerges from recollection and whose texts consciously take their shape from a sense of loss and a yearning for home" (1). She further clarifies, "I concentrate . . . upon their longing for a past that is confined to the span of their own lifetime" (1), a "more immediate nostalgia" (2). The book is mainly structured around the cause of nostalgia physical and psychological displacements - through themes such as voyages, exile, and the recollection of childhood. Part One concentrates on "Voyages and Exile." Individual chapters are devoted respectively to Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, Ford Madox Brown's painting The Lastof England, Robert Louis Stevenson's letters and Elizabeth Gaskell's fiction. The chapter on TheLastof Englandis particularly thorough and persuasive. Part Two ("Childhood Spaces") examines Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (an excellent chapter), John Ruskin's Praeterita, and Walter Pater's "The Child in the House." It explores how these writers "let their memories resuscitate the dialogue their bodies had once had" with their childhood spaces, through "the invisible body" in Ruskin, "the aesthetic body" in Pater, and "the ubiquitous body" in Stevenson (125). The first chapter of Part Three ("The Idea of Recollection") analyzes the illustrations, drawings and optical metaphors in Stevenson's essays, letters and other writings; the remaining chapter traces the evolution of J. M. W Turner's engravings in the light of Henri Bergson's theory that "memory does not consist in a regression from the present to the past, but, on the contrary, in a progress from the past to the present" (qtd. in 192), showing how remembrance manages to "initiate, develop, and modify his pictures' images" (197). With an outstanding command of details, the book offers a crossgenre study of the various representations of nostalgia. The generic range is admirable - novels, poetry, autobiography, letters, travel literature, paintings and engravings - conjuring up a converging discourse on the subject. Instead of placing the works in their generic histories and...


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