- Introduction:The Victorians and Risk
Since the publication, over twenty years ago, of Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society (1992), scholarship about economic, industrial, and environmental dangers in the modern world has at times perpetuated a one-dimensional image of the Victorian era that should trouble those of us who have spent years in the archives of Victorian history, literature, art, and culture. Our period of study, it seems, was a triumphant age: an age of progress, empire, and jingoistic faith in industrial development. Scholars of risk tend to characterize the Victorian era as having instituted a positivist faith that risks of all kinds could be eliminated, or at the very least mitigated, through the accumulation of wealth. When major disasters did happen—so the narrative goes—they were merely “local” and thus limited to their immediate time frame and geography as opposed to major industrial disasters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (oil spills, nuclear waste, and toxic gases, for example), the consequences of which sometimes last for decades and impact regions of the world beyond the immediate disaster sites. Beck himself perpetuates this vision of the Victorians as part of his central thesis about today’s risk society, arguing that nineteenth-century modernization “took place against the background of its opposite: a traditional world of mores and a nature which was to be known and mastered” (10). The risk-society thesis suggests that, in today’s Western world, modernization departs from nineteenth-century confidence in industrial progress and the expansion of democratic freedoms through a process of “reflexive modernization” that initiates a rupture in the very idea of modernity. In our reflexive modernity, Beck writes, we are witnessing “not the end but the beginning of modernity—that is, of a modernity beyond its classical industrial design” prior to the twentieth century (10). In our risk society, we reflexively undermine our own faith in science, technology, and progress. This stratification of modernity into “classical” and “reflexive” has dominated sociological and anthropological thought in recent years, producing the vast field of risk studies. While diagnosing the macro-historical dimensions of modernization, scholars in the social sciences often reinforce Beck’s thesis that while the nineteenth century may have been a dangerous period of modernization, it pales in comparison to the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. History, in this way [End Page 47] of thinking, is a pileup of bigger and more catastrophic risks—increasingly global and transgenerational in scope—that the Victorians could not have foreseen as a consequence of their “primitive” industrialization.
Certainly, scholars in the humanities cannot claim to have the clearest insight into this kind of macro-theorization about modernization. We tend to leave such thought to the sociologists while we pursue questions about narrative, representation, textuality, and the lived experiences of the Victorians. Because of this distinction, our perspectives are often very different as we search for meaning in the quotidian and textual fabrics of British culture. We see the Victorians as profoundly troubled and anxiety-ridden about secularization, global trade, and the accumulation of wealth. We see them as both overwhelmed and exhilarated by developments in the most emblematic instantiations of risk: urbanization, laissez-faire economics, transportation and communication networks, factory systems, and workhouses. However, our various emphases on local cultural narratives within our immediate disciplinary fields of study often prevent us from analyzing the larger speculative concerns embodied by the concept of risk.
This issue of Victorian Review addresses how research in the humanities can contribute to critical thought about risk in its historical, cultural, and literary dimensions. While the following essays in no way insist that we can document every instance of risk and its consequences in the Victorian era, they do suggest that risk’s nineteenth-century permutations are far more complex and reflexive than the sociological risk-society model might suggest. Jonathan Simon has observed that “some of the best work on risk taking in the sociological and anthropological traditions has treated risk as an oddly ahistorical category” (204). Even definitions of risk often have an ahistorical dimension, despite the frequent charting of the term’s historical usage in a variety of sociological overviews...