- The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830–1914 ed. by Joanne Shattock
In the past two decades, Cambridge University Press has issued nearly two hundred Companions to authors, genres, and literary periods. For Victorian studies, the list includes Companions to poetry, theatre, and the novel; to literary figures such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Brontës; and to related topics such as children’s literature and the actress. Given that the major literary genres of the Victorian period have already received independent treatment, one might wonder what remains to be covered in The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830–1914.
The volume addresses this dilemma by focusing on important non-fiction prose genres (the essay and the review, biography and autobiography, history and journalism); radical and popular literature; and the cultural and political contexts in which literature participates. It includes three parts: “Modes of Writing and their Contexts,” “Intersections and Incursions” (science, medicine, religion, and visual culture), and “The Centre and the Periphery” (imperial, transatlantic, and European contexts). Despite the title of part 1, this companion dedicates no chapters to poetry, drama, or fiction, though several contributors discuss these genres under other rubrics—notably, poetry and fiction in Hilary Fraser’s chapter, “Writing the Past”; melodrama in Sally Ledger’s “Radical Writing”; drama and fiction in Katherine Newey’s “Popular Culture”; and poetry in Alison Chapman’s “European Exchanges.” This multi- (or cross-) genre approach works well when an able scholar such as Fraser ranges over literary manifestations of “the heightened awareness of history in the nineteenth century” (123) or an expert on transatlantic and trans-Channel networks such as Chapman teases out the connections among [End Page 211] American, British, and European women poets on Italian independence. As an approach to literature, it represents, I think, a robust way of thinking about writing of the period, as authors respond to each other and to the concerns of the day. Yet this gain also brings a loss: a diminishment of literary thinking about major Victorian genres covered in other Companions. On a practical level, it means that a student (or a library) would need to buy copies of the Companions to Victorian poetry, the Victorian novel, and Victorian and Edwardian theatre, as well as this new Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830–1914, to achieve an overview of the field.
This Companion, perhaps like all such collections, negotiates another dilemma: how to achieve a balance between state-of-the-field information and new, original scholarship. Joanne Shattock, the editor, introduces the essays by highlighting the fact that they “offer fresh perspectives on a literary period bounded at one end by the Romantic movement and by Modernism at the other” (1). Indeed, they do, especially those on non-fictional prose forms underrepresented in other Companions. Yet fresh perspectives are more difficult to achieve than one might think, given that a principal objective of the Companion series (certainly the primary reason Cambridge UP markets them to university libraries) is to introduce students to current scholarship in the field and to dominant approaches to its topics and genres. Readers of this Companion, whether undergraduate, graduate, or beyond, need to know where thinking in Victorian studies stands, not just what is fresh or new. Among the best chapters are those that balance a broad overview with new material, as does Josephine Guy’s “Authors and Authorship,” which traces major trends in the professionalization of authorship and illustrates them from a rich store of case studies, or Shattock’s own “The Culture of Criticism,” which uses George Saintsbury’s 1896 commentary on periodical literature as the “distinctive and characteristic” feature of the Victorian age (71) to explore how the review essay emerged along with the profession of letters. Susan Hamilton’s “Women’s Voices and Public Debates” negotiates the dilemma in a different way, by providing, after preliminary generalizations, case studies of “five prominent and successful women writers in this period” (91): Anna Jameson, Margaret Oliphant, Frances Power Cobbe, Eliza Lynn...