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Reviews Elaine Freedgood, Victorian Writing about Risk: Imagining a Safe England in a Dangerous World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. xii + 216. $54.95. Elaine Freedgood's engaging examination of a diverse group of nineteenth-century non-fictional texts marries the historicist and interdisciplinary scholarship for which Victorian studies has long been reputed with recent theorizations of modernity, and specifically, of modernity's relationship to risk. The aim of her study is two-fold: she invokes a body of literature that emerges in the Victorian period, and that addresses itself to conditions of risk particular to "modern" society, in order to correct late twentieth-century understandings of modernity. The book's second objective is to take the articulation of this theoretical corrective as the occasion for a detailed analysis of an eclectic, largely non-canonical array of Victorian texts that all strive to negotiate the escalating cultural anxiety which this tumultuous historical moment produced. By examining texts that helped Victorians "imagine that danger could be banished from the domestic scene and relocated in the world outside British borders" (1), Freedgood means to challenge the contention of various contemporary theorists that "modernity is characterized by an unprecedented acceptance of the permanence of risk" (2). Arguing against this premise of modernity's wholesale resignation to conditions of risk, she maintains that the proliferation in the Victorian period of new discursive forms of risk management attests to the fact that "the 'modern' attitude to risk [can be] distinguished from past attitudes more by its strategies of containment than by a new acceptance of the inevitability of risk" (2). Freedgood organizes her book around five different fields in which these historically-specific discursive strategies of risk management manifest themselves: her study considers popular economic analyses of the British empire, early public health treatises, memoirs of balloon aeronauts, mountaineering travelogues, and ethnographic studies of Africa. Acknowledging the critical disrepute into which many of these texts quickly fell in the nineteenth-century, she defends their extended Victorian Review1 07 Reviews analysis by positing the concept of literary "ephemera." "Ephemeral texts," she claims, "work like short-acting drugs in that they take effect quickly but also wear off quickly—both in terms of die effect they have on their individual readers and in their historical reach" (3). Unlike the longer-lasting solutions to complex social problems articulated in, for example, Dickens's novels or Ricardo's economic writings, the ephemeral text, she maintains, offers a quick fix by positing "unashamedly prescriptive" (3) strategies to deal with the growing uncertainty and danger of Victorian society. The terms in which she thus frames her project constitute one of the book's most promising contributions: Freedgood posits this alternative taxonomy not to make claims for the aesthetic value of what she admits are often rhetorically belaboured texts, nor to press necessarily for further canon revision, but rather to interrogate the cultural and ideological work that these comparatively marginal texts perform. Of the five socio-discursive fields considered, the book's first two chapters exemplify and critique this cultural and ideological work most effectively. Beginning with the popularization of classical political economy in the writings of J. R. McCulloch and Harriet Martineau, and examining in the subsequent chapter the sanitation and hospital reform treatises of Edwin Chadwick and Florence Nightingale, Freedgood analyses the theories of laisse^faire economics and anticontagionism, respectively, as "two specific systems of 'laws' . . . that promised to predict and locate risk, and thereby eradicate it" (43). She argues that each of these systems attempts to delineate a set of "supra-human laws" (43) that governs modern society, and that, when diligendy observed, will guarantee society's utterly safe and efficient functioning. Particularly compelling is Freedgood's demonstration of the surprising complementarity of these two discursive regimes. McCulloch's prolific statistical documentation of Britain's inexhaustible resources and prosperity, and Martineau's Utopian economic fables (in her IllustrationsofPoliticalEconomy) both articulate a "vision," Freedgood explains, "of an entirely self-regulating economic system that placed no burden of action or intervention on the middle and upper classes; indeed, their 108volume 27 number 2 Reviews representations authorized inaction in the face of increasingly evident social problems" (46). Seemingly at odds with this alibi...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 107-110
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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