- Virtual Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies ed. by Veronica Alfano and Andrew Stauffer
Virtual Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies offers a set of startlingly good essays by notable scholars addressing just the right aspects of the conversation summoned by its theme. The book reads like a report from a conference you couldn’t get to and now completely regret missing. Its chapters contain milestones in digital humanities, history of visual media, literary research methods, transatlantic scholarship, media studies, and more. All mark the “virtual” as an unsettled encounter, a condition of mediation that describes, as Andrew Stauffer explains in the introduction, the “imaginative commerce between technology and presence” for the Victorians as well as the changing literary research environments in Victorian studies (2). The book sustains its own version of this unsettled encounter by compassing subjects past and present, from panoramas, illustrated periodicals, and early cinema to semantic markup, network analysis, and computational discovery.
Virtual Victorians thus raises an interesting problem: how to negotiate the appeal of analogy with the challenge of anachronism. From its outset, the book identifies features of our own media landscape to use as heuristics for understanding the past. As contributor Ruth Brimacombe explains, “the digital advancements of the current age have provided the conceptual apparatus needed to retrospectively comprehend the full impact of the mimetic developments of the nineteenth century” (199). While Virtual Victorians knowingly risks a kind of presentism, it also manages those risks with each chapter’s methodological self-scrutiny and the book’s own division into two sections. The first, “Navigating Networks,” explores the analogical opportunities of digital projects. The second, “Virtual Imaginings,” identifies the historical construction of virtualities including, as Brimacombe herself emphasizes, those which refuse to easily transpose onto the present. [End Page 775]
As a whole, Virtual Victorians is also a timely contribution to the field’s ongoing renovation of form. Many of its chapters report on changing ontologies in the lives of literary researchers: what are the boundaries, scales, and movements of our objects of study? While scholars like Caroline Levine have expanded notions of form to encompass complex interactions among aesthetic, political, and cultural structures, the contributors to Virtual Victorians pursue how forms might be reconceived amid shifts in historical and contemporary media. In this way, the “virtual” also describes ontological uncertainties within our scholarly ecosystem, largely provoked by digitization, as the status of research objects changes and demands, in turn, we question our access to and methodological purchase upon them.
Methodologies are a key concern of the book’s first section, which collectively proposes at least three different approaches to digitally-enhanced literary research, including “continual switching,” “mid-range reading,” and “digital reading,” each attempting to refine how we approach digital collections and/or “distant reading” for specific goals (23, 87, 122). Catherine Robson opens the book with a deeply felt chapter about discovery and recognition, offering a biography of a search for allusions to Charles Wolfe’s poem “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna” (1817) across electronic and paper-based collections. Among Robson’s finds are the poem’s resonances in the journals of military chaplains sometimes a hundred years later, almost unwittingly invoking the distant past in their search for consolations in wartime. Ryan Cordell’s chapter offers a contrasting approach to textual reuse, directed instead by algorithmic text matching software running against a huge collection of digitized nineteenth-century U.S. newspapers. Still, very like Robson, Cordell deftly maneuvers through different scales of interpretation, from the unit of a single reprinted article to intriguing models for virality and information networks within the collection at large. Natalie M. Houston’s chapter pursues network analysis at a different scale, using metadata from library catalogs and poetry anthologies to consider how Victorian poetry publishing constructs itself as what Bourdieu would call a “cultural field” (122). Houston is also keen to call attention to the constructedness of data—better conceived as “capta” for being selectively captured—to underscore our complicity in building the virtualities we use to...