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Reviewed by:
  • The Victorians and Germany
  • Michael Ledger-Lomas (bio)
John R. Davis , The Victorians and Germany (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), 419 pages, illustrated, paperback, £45 (ISBN 978-3-03911-065-0) DOI: 10.3366/E1355550208000210.

'It is of Prussia that I write, but it is of England that I think!' Edward Bulwer's exclamation, which concludes his review of Prussian education in England and the English (1833), might serve John Davis as an epitome of The Victorians and Germany. In it he argues that the interest shown by the Victorians in Germany was uniquely intense and motivated by a desire to reform their own society. His book is offered primarily as a synthesis of existing research on the manifold forms this interest took, which 'only injects new and original research where it is felt that it is needed' (19). Interlinked chapters examine interest in and borrowings from German literature, religion, historical scholarship, art and music, education and social policy. After a lively chapter on travel, Davis examines British reactions to German unification, ending his book with a cursory assessment of relations between the Victorians and Imperial Germany. Indeed, despite its title, the book mainly concentrates on patterns of cultural exchange in the mid-nineteenth century, bookended by assessments of their roots in the long eighteenth century and survival into a new context of economic and strategic rivalry. [End Page 147]

The Victorians and Germany has considerable virtues as a survey of the 'German idea'. It goes some way to fulfil its aim of drawing connections between previously unrelated fields of research, showing how impressions of German mysticism formed, say, by reading German poetry could spill over into assessments of German theology (384). Davis draws perceptive parallels between the enthusiasm for Nazarene art and German music (237) and rightly draws attention to cultural fixers like the Prussian ambassador Bunsen, who was simultaneously active as a diplomat, patron of the arts, ecclesiastical politician and controversial philologist. Davis has some interesting reflections on the persistence of interest in Germany. He sees the Victorians as a people in thrall to 'modernisation' who were intent on importing the 'goods' – a doctrine of history, artistic styles, or whatever – which could help them harmonise economic and social rationalisation with the spiritual and the ideal (22–3). The goods in demand changed over time too, from fantasy to facts. Romantic infatuation with the land that harboured the last enchantments of the Middle Ages mutated into envious appreciation of hard scientific and industrial achievement (98). Davis has a keen eye for detail, noticing everything from Victorian queasiness at the German predilection for smoking and social kissing (327–8) to Dickens's lampoons on the bluff opponents of German schooling, who consider that the 'man ought to be knocked down who ruminates' (279).

Yet this book is ultimately neither sophisticated or daring enough in its analysis of an extremely important and complex phenomenon. Its chief failing is methodological. When examining the interaction between Victorian Britain and other cultures, it is doubtful whether it is either valid or profitable to speak of the 'Victorian mind' (9). As previous historians of Anglo-German intercultural transfer have rightly emphasised, it is tempting but overly simplistic to think of this process as a natural flow of information from one homogenous national culture to another, or to berate those who opposed that flow for ignorance or misunderstanding.1 One must rather concentrate on the British networks that formulated perceptions and transferred information about other countries and ask what domestic objectives they followed in doing so. When they either held up ideas or institutions as liable to improve, or conversely as repugnant to, national character, they were not so much voicing an existing consensus about what Victorian Britain was as attempting to reshape it through loaded comparison with or borrowing from other countries.

To his credit, Davis recognises the importance of this approach. Although he often resorts to a simplistic model of cultural osmosis, [End Page 148] in which German ideas are 'soaked up' by Britain (192) or in which 'Victorians were ready to drink in the new ideas and methods being produced by the Germans' (161), he also wants to concentrate our attention on...


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pp. 147-152
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Archived 2009
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