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  • Guide to the Year's WorkGeneral Materials
  • David Riede (bio)

As I suggested in last year's review, much of the best work in recent Victorian studies by Lauren Goodlad, Warwick Slinn, and others has focused on two issues, the problem of reconciling individualism and sociality in Victorian liberal culture and the increasingly urgent contemporary sense of a need to return from new historicist insistence on politics and ideology to aesthetic concerns with form. In Cultivating Victorians: Liberal Culture and the Aesthetic, David Wayne Thomas addresses both of these problems, especially as they have been raised by George Levine, Elaine Scarry, and Amanda Anderson. As Thomas points out, in the wake of such influential thinkers as Althusser and Foucault, it has been difficult to affirm the notions of autonomy, originality, and authenticity central to post-Romantic aesthetic values and to affirm individual aesthetic achievements rather than, or in addition to, analyzing the politics and ideology of the Victorian liberal hegemony. While sympathizing with the "recent movement" to return to aesthetic questions, Thomas argues that "aesthetics cannot be reclaimed . . . until we reassess the character of modern liberal culture, inclusive of ourselves as well as the Victorians, especially in terms of the scope and limits of 'liberal agency'" (p. ix). As his title indicates, Thomas is concerned with two distinct but overlapping "scenes of cultivation . . . liberalism and aestheticism" (p. x) and particularly with how to strike a balance between "understanding persons and classes as cultivating or as cultivated, as subjects or objects of cultivation" (p. x). Do individuals cultivate themselves to attain greater autonomy along the lines of self-help manuals, or are they pruned and pollarded like topiary to fit the patterns of liberal cultural values? New historicist critics have frequently examined whether the programmatic liberal cultivation of George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, and others is educational and liberating or disciplinary and coercive, so it is not surprising that Thomas' opening chapter focuses on these particular liberal champions. As Anthony Trollope might say, however, Thomas gives these authors their due in ways that more insistently ideological and political criticism often has not, and his historically contextualized and carefully nuanced readings of sections of Middlemarch and of Arnold's and Mill's struggles to reconcile autonomous self-reflection with social engagement [End Page 333] effectively make the case that Victorian liberals were more conscious of the paradoxes and contradictions in their thinking about agency than they are often given credit for, and consequently "that reductive and overly casual accounts of human agency in current literary-historical work have obscured the richness of individual and collective engagements with the idea of agency in Victorian Britain" (p. 47). The vaguely identified "reductive and overly casual" accounts have the look of straw men, but Thomas is surely right to suggest that the ideological and aesthetic issues that current criticism has tended to separate from one another were already distinct but overlapping concerns for the Victorians and that we might now profitably explore "modern (i.e. ,Victorian to New Historicist) critical self-consciousness in specific historical frames" (p. 48).

The central chapters of Cultivating Victorians range with remarkable resourcefulness from individual engagements with agency in Ruskin's writings about Venice, Rossetti's replications of his own paintings, and Wilde's paradoxes to studies of "collective engagements with agency" in the clamorous public debate about the Tichborne claimant's authenticity and the replication of historical Manchester and Salford for the 1887 Manchester Exhibition. The diversity of the case studies in itself underscores the pervasiveness of anxieties about agency throughout Victorian culture. As the chapter on Ruskin convincingly shows, the Victorian critic found himself in much the same difficulty that besets criticism today—wanting to make a thoroughly historicist argument about collective aesthetic production and simultaneously wanting to make the case for the individual accomplishments of Venetian artists and of his own autonomy as a critic. The paradox explored here and in each of Thomas' case studies is most emphatically stated in an epigraph from De Profundis for a section in the Wilde chapter: "To be entirely free, and at the same time, entirely dominated by law, is the eternal paradox of human life that...


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pp. 333-340
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