- An Interlude:We Have Never Been Modernists
What a difference a sovereign makes. Who knows how the nineteenth century, and consequently nineteenth-century studies, would have fared differently had the young Queen Victoria, recently married and expecting her first child, not been tragically shot and killed in 1840 by the insane Edward Oxford while she was riding with her husband on Constitution Hill? It is against the backdrop of the ensuing sixty years' worth of contentious regencies, short undistinguished reigns, and agonistic successions that we still recognize the nineteenth century for what it was: a time of political and economic volatility, radical technological innovation, scientific revolution, massive urbanization, spasmodic imperial expansion, and elaborately reticulated geopolitical and geocapital networks; a time of working-class migration, subjection, and unrest, and of epochal reforms; a time of tectonic shifts in male enfranchisement, female labor and mobility, and multiplying sexual discourses, communities, and ontologies. Without the camouflage of a single, stable monarch, the paroxysms of nineteenth-century culture, too, have long been vividly clear to us. We know the nineteenth as the birth century of the manifesto in England—not only the Communist manifesto, translated into English in 1850, and the points and petitions of Chartism but also realist manifestos such as chapter seventeen ("In Which the Story Pauses a Little") of George Eliot's Adam Bede and, ten years previously, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's literary manifesto in the Germ, which announced the arrival of avant-garde realism. In comparison to these detonations, the dime-a-dozen manifestos of the Georgian period look like the belated exercises they were.
The Georgian period was named for George V, who was distantly related to the slain Queen Victoria and who finally ended the dog's breakfast of regents and unremarkable monarchs by ruling, steadily and as a moral exemplar, from 1901 to 1965. To be sure, this was a [End Page 201] period not short on cultural and technological change, mass political movements, economic volatility, world war, genocide, and imperial contraction. Nonetheless, it was given continuity in England by a single unbroken reign—so much so that historians until recently used the term "Georgian" to refer to the same period in United States history.
In literary studies, where we have a high tolerance for the miscellaneous, we name one of these periods after a mode, the other after a monarch: the realist period followed by the Georgian. We may debate how much before 1840 realism started or whether it makes sense to divide the Georgian period into early and late Georgian. But in our job descriptions and our curricula, we generally cleave to the conventional way of compartmentalizing and naming Anglo-American time. We do the same thing in our journals and professional societies. I am, for instance, President of the RSA, or Realist Studies Association, whose affiliated journal is the house organ of what we've come to call the New Realist Studies. (The journal's called realism/reality.) There's the Realist Journals Project, which makes the great works of nineteenth-century serial fiction available in the contexts in which they originally appeared, yet stops around 1901 despite the fact that little magazines were important for early Georgian literature. For its part, scholarship on the long post-1901 period continues, despite intermittent challenges from within the scholarly community, to sail under the flag of the longest-reigning British monarch, with its journals Georgian Studies, Georgian Poetry, the Journal of Georgian Culture, the Georgian Periodicals Review, Georgian Literature and Culture, etc., etc. The odd exception—Twentieth-Century Literature, run out of UCLA by Michael North, for example—merely proves the rule.
I'll confess, there are days when I feel I've surfeited on realism—really just had enough. Days when, if I see one more book with the title (adjective)-Realism or Realism-and-(noun) I'll simply start raving: Late Realism, Green Realism, Bad Realisms, Realism and Imperialism, Realism and Copyright. Days when "realism" seems to me a term at once indispensable and indefensible, clung to out of habit and the strong self-perpetuating energies of professional categories and associations. By requiring every book in the field to...