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  • Why the Notion of Victorian Britain Does Make Sense
  • Martin Hewitt (bio)

From its very outset, Victorian studies has been marked by evasiveness and embarrassment about the chronological limits that define its identity. No one, Richard Price observed in 1990, has ever taken the period qua period seriously. 1 From the foundational classics of the field to the recent surveys of Philip Davis and K. T. Hoppen, the Victorian period has been shaped by a scholarship that has either molded the terminal dates of Victoria's reign to its own ends, or prefaced studies of the period with the apparently obligatory admission that it doesn't really exist. Significantly, Victorian Studies has never been able to publish a defense of the period to balance observations like Morse Peckham's in 1967: "If we think that there once actually existed 'Victorian culture' we shall for ever be hopelessly confused" (277). There are some signs that scholars are finally prepared to begin a more thorough interrogation of the category of the Victorian, although hitherto such work has been largely from the perspective of literary studies rather than cultural history. 2

No doubt in some respects this skepticism is sensible and beneficial. All historical periods have only partial validity. Periodization may, as Hoppen has suggested, be "a mischievous conception" (2); historical boundaries are permeable, and questioning the nature and positioning of chronological markers helps to avoid closing off fruitful lines of inquiry. But periods are also, as Hoppen concedes, "a methodological necessity" (2), for they structure our attempts to understand the past. At present we seem determined to have our cake and eat it—to resist any attempts at synthetic interpretation while clinging to the "Victorian" not just as an organizing framework for courses and journals, but as a framing device for our analyses, a convention against which we can read individual examples. This is not a productive ambiguity. Our unwillingness to define period coherence or distinctiveness vitiates deployments of the "Victorian," whether denotative or connotative, and lays open to question the whole idea of "Victorian studies" as a scholarly [End Page 395] endeavor. If we want to do more than hide lazily behind a badge of convenience, we must either abandon "Victorian" as definitional or seek to construct the boundaries of its meaningfulness, not least by establishing the meaningfulness of its boundaries.

As a question of cultural rather than more narrowly literary history, it seems, on the face of it, counterintuitive not to think of the Victorian as a period, whether conceived of as lodged between the profound transformations of the Romantic era and the emergence of Modernism, or situated between a long eighteenth century and the twentieth-century world. Despite the predictable challenge posed by the chronological divisions imposed on the new Oxford History of England series, readers of both Boyd Hilton's A Mad, Bad, Dangerous People: England 1783–1846 (2006) and G. R. Searle's pointedly titled A New England? War and Peace, 1886–1918 (2004) will find it very hard to escape a sense not just of the inevitable transformations of each substantial period, but of the concentration of these changes around the margins of Victoria's reign. In contrast, it is difficult to evaluate the case against the Victorian as a cultural period. With the exception of Price, whose analysis, by his own admission, pays only limited attention to culture, skeptics have rarely sought to do more than chisel away at the margins. Where hostility to the Victorian period goes beyond dislike of periodization per se, or dismay at some of its dangers, it appears to rest on a number of unnecessary assumptions: that to claim a Victorian period is to propose a significance for the reign of Victoria itself; to identify abrupt caesurae at the period's beginning and end; to ignore any changes that took place during the intervening years; and perhaps, above all, to see the timeframe as possessing a series of unique and universally applicable characteristics usually defined in terms of "zeitgeist," "temper," or "spirit of the age."

None of these propositions are advanced here. The boundaries of the Victorian period are fuzzy, but even so, the years around the mid-1830s and...


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pp. 395-438
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