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  • "King Romance" in Longman's Magazine:Andrew Lang and Literary Populism
  • Julia Reid (bio)

Andrew Lang, late-Victorian man of letters, champion of romance, and authority on classics, anthropology, folklore, mythology, and psychical research, has fallen far since his days of grace. Even at the fin de siècle, his energetic and apparently ubiquitous defense of the Romance Revival in the press attracted some censure from critics. In 1898, Blackwood's described him as "a dictator of letters" who did not "use his power advisedly."1 Lang's detractors objected to his influential ridicule of realist novels and felt that he abused his position to acclaim romances by his friends. Henry James also condemned his endorsement of supposedly uncultured tastes: he lamented that he used "his beautiful thin facility to write everything down to the lowest level of Philistine twaddle, the view of the old lady round the corner or the clever person at the dinner table."2 In the century since Lang's late-Victorian heyday, James's judgment that his writing was damagingly superficial and anti-intellectual became the standard critical view. In 1955, for example, Oscar Maurer charged him with widening the gulf between the general reader and "the serious or experimental artist in fiction."3 As late as 1984, Harold Orel deprecated his populist taste for "second-rate romances," asserting that the "common reader's approach" which he supposedly embodied cut him off from sympathy with the "narrative art of the best writers of his time."4

However, in recent years, the growing interest in interdisciplinary connections between science and literature has drawn attention to Lang's significance. For Anna Vaninskaya, his dual role as romancer and anthropologist is "symptomatic of the intense interdisciplinarity of fin-de-siècle intellectual life."5 Historians and literary critics have become increasingly alert to his role in the cross-fertilization of anthropological and literary disciplines, though this has not yet been the focus of sustained investigation. [End Page 354] As George Stocking has judged, romance functioned for Lang as a "kind of sublimated anthropology."6 He famously promoted romance in evolutionary terms, nowhere more so than in his work for Longman's Magazine. His support for romancers also initiated a dialogue between science and literature: he acted as an informal anthropological adviser to H. Rider Haggard, for instance, plying him with anthropological suggestions for novels.7 Yet despite renewed interest in Lang as a figure for fin-de-siècle interdisciplinarity, his membership of a late-Victorian educational élite has cast doubt on his populist credentials. Educated at Edinburgh Academy and at St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Oxford Universities, he became a Fellow at Merton College, Oxford, in 1868: his friend Robert Louis Stevenson described him as a "lady-dady Oxford kind of Scot."8 Accordingly, Margaret Beetham, despite acknowledging the scientific beliefs which informed Lang's literary populism, views his "anti-intellectualism" as disingenuous, charging that it was "articulated with all the resources of the scholar whose education had been anything but popular."9 Beetham valuably demonstrates that Lang's populism was compromised by his own élite position. The tensions in his demotic rhetoric are, however, important for scholars seeking to understand the historical relationship between science and conceptions of popular culture.

This essay contends that his work illuminates the ambivalent ways in which emergent scientific ideas underlay fin-de-siècle attempts to redefine popular culture. I scrutinize his championing of romance in Longman's Magazine, especially in his causeries, the short, conversational essays which appeared in the magazine from the 1880s onwards. He wrote similar columns for, among other publications, the Illustrated London News and the Pilot.10 Nonetheless, his Longman's column was particularly influential (according to Marysa Demoor, it inspired other periodicals to run causeries).11 Lang's journalism was, of course, only a small part of his contribution to late-Victorian culture's growing interest in anthropology. Critics including Stocking and Antonius de Cocq have conventionally regarded his academic work, from Custom and Myth (1884) to Magic and Religion (1901), as his most important contribution to anthropology.12 Certainly, it was these works that, as testified by R. R. Marett, Reader in Anthropology at...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-526X
Print ISSN
0709-4698
Pages
pp. 354-376
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-29
Open Access
No
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