- The Crimean War in the British Imagination
Many readers will never look at a balaclava or a cardigan the same way after reading this engaging study about the Crimean War’s underexamined legacy in mid-Victorian novels, poetry, visual culture, and journalistic practices. Stefanie Markovits asks why this significant military conflict seems to have left little visible impress on mid-Victorian culture besides the figure of Florence Nightingale, Lord Cardigan’s name, and the woollen souvenir from the Balaklava battlefield. Answering the question shows how a vexed public sentiment produced a complicated, troubled response toward what ultimately became a failed war, and how a new journalism gave voice to this ambivalence.
Markovits provides an extensive treatment of the Times, especially in the first chapter, while the subsequent chapters use the Examiner, the Illustrated London News, and Punch to present the new interactive journalistic practice influencing authors and artists attempting to capture the conflicted patriotism and wrestling with the implications of a stillborn British military masculinity at midcentury. The first and third chapters are notable in their ability to reexamine texts for their responses to public discourse about the Crimean War’s problems within a newspaper context. This is not to say the other chapters are not periodical-oriented, but that these two chapters offer instructive ways of performing work with periodicals and are impressive in persuading readers to reconsider the long but previously hidden reach of Crimean war discourse.
The first chapter presents a compelling examination of how the Crimean War changed journalistic practices by situating it firmly within a mutual participatory relationship with its reading public, boosting a democratic journalism and the editorial power to influence policy (or to motivate individuals, such as Nightingale, to act). Markovits details how readers’ letters to the editor in the Times took on increased significance for their ability to supply much-needed information about conditions in the Crimea from soldiers’ letters, complementing war correspondents’ reports and responding to the imagined conditions. This dynamic is echoed in the third chapter, where Markovits shows how difficult it was for Tennyson to sympathize with Lord Cardigan’s “blunder” at Balaklava in his poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Markovits sees his hesitation as resulting from a belief that “a journalist is the Homer of this age . . . . The poet’s ‘frenzy’ is thus simultaneously a mark of excess and of sham” (126). The creation of Tennyson’s iconic poem was an exercise in negotiating the credibility [End Page 448] and relevancy gaps, as well as solidifying the troubling wartime identity. It would have been interesting to hear more on Markovits’s thoughts about the famous recording of Tennyson’s reading of this poem in relation to these reflections.
After consistent close readings of numerous texts and newspaper articles in her chapters, Markovits achieves her goal of arguing persuasively that “the influence of the war on the literature and art of the day was broader than has been recognized . . . and that the relative paucity of more straightforward responses to the conflict may have owed something to the difficulty in embodying its ‘incidents’ and ‘details’ in a suitably patriotic fashion, not to mention a ‘picturesque’ one” (212).
May Caroline Chan is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Her specialties lie in travel literature and Rudyard Kipling. Her most recent essays are “Orientalism Multiplied: Rudyard Kipling’s View of Easternness in India and East Asia” in On and Off the Page: Mapping Place in Text and Culture (2009) and “Canton 1857” in the upcoming Victorian Review special forum, “Beyond Britain.”