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VICTORIAN STUDIES AND THE HISTORY OF THE BOOK: OPPORTUNITIES FOR SCHOLARLY COLLABORATION LESLIE HOWSAM University of Windsor Victorian Studies, that exciting and promising interdisciplinary field of study, developed in the 1960s when scholars began to take seriously the novels and poems and essays of the nineteenth century. New editions of die letters and diaries of authors were undertaken, editions adhering to rigorous editorial principles; major projects such as the Mill, Darwin, Disraeli, Tennyson and Gladstone editions got under way. The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals was initiated. Victorian Studies at tiiat time were self-consciously interdisciplinary, and die two chief disciplines were literature and history, with significant contributions from art, music and architecture, and sometimes from the social sciences. The linkage of literature and history was part of a recognition that the historical context for those literary works was more than just "background" — tiiat the political and social turmoil of decades like the 1840s and 1870s, for instance, were intrinsic to the preoccupations of writers. At the same time, social historians learned to look into literary works for subtle evidence of contemporary attitudes to what the Victorians termed "questions": the woman question, the drink question, the "condition of England" question. And biographers used a combination ofevidence that was traditionally literary as well as historical. A recent article by Richard Altick, entitled "Eminent Victorianism", is a provocative play on Strachey's Eminent Victorians; the subject is the significance of biography to Victorian Studies. Altick says that "It was under the auspices of biography that the redemption of the Victorian age began" (84). While the writing of nineteenthcentury lives remains an important scholarly pursuit, I want to argue that in the 1990s "Victorianism" may need another dose of "redemption" and that the source of that redemption might be the history of the book. Victorian Review 22.1 (Summer 1996) 66Victorian Review The enthusiasm of the 1960s and 1970s has waned a little in recent years. The Wellesley Index and die Mill project are finished, and die Darwin has got past the publication of The Origin and into the almost uncharted waters of Darwin's study of botany — but foundations and research councils are not looking widi particular favor on the initiation of equivalent ventures. It is difficult to envision an Alfred Rüssel Wallace Letters project on the same scale as the Darwin industry in Cambridge, for example. And die hurdles are not merely financial: the application of literary theories, rather than research methodologies, to die texts die Victorians produced may have diminished die demand for indexes and for bibliographical and textual analyses. Victorian Studies is not yet in trouble; but it is no longer the innovative "scholarly industry" whose "productivity" Altick celebrates. Another newly articulated, if not altogether newly constituted, field of study began to appear in the late 1980s: the history of the book. A number of scholars who had formerly regarded themselves as literary historians, bibliographers, and textual critics found tiieir work cited by people working in something translated from me French "histoire du livre" as "die history of the book", or sometimes simply "book history". Perhaps we were reacting to one too many doomsayers prophesying "the death of die book" in the wake of new electronic technologies (just as Altick suggests that his generation of Victorianists reacted to Strachey's "cheap shots" at Horence Nightingale and die rest). In any case, starting in the early 1980s, the history of the book began to be heard of. Historians of France, notably Robert Darnton and Natalie Zemon Davis, and their studies of "print culture" were mentioned; Anglo-American analytical bibliographers commented on die subject from the perspective of their work. When D.F. McKenzie did this in his British Library Panizzi Lectures in 1985, his thoughts on "the sociology of texts" were elevated by his admirers almost to die status of high theory. He called for an understanding of books as physical objects, objects tiiat convey in their physical form much of the meaning of the text they incorporate. It is his view that: In the pursuit of historical meanings, we move from the most minute feature of the material form of the book to questions of authorial, literary and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 65-70
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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