- IntroductionA Roundtable on “Teaching 1874”
The Northeast Victorian Studies Association (NVSA) 2013 conference at Boston University took as its topic a single year of the Victorian period, selected at random. The program committee wrote down each year of the period—1832–1901—on slips of paper and then literally picked one out of a hat. The year chosen was 1874.
Our aim was to explore the consequences of thinking about Victorian texts, objects, and events in relation to the specific year in which they were produced. We wondered whether considering in detail a single year, which had not been chosen for its significance, would alter our sense of the works produced in that year, the period, or even periodization itself. As we put together the list of possible topics for our call for papers, drawing on texts and events conventionally regarded as significant, 1874 began to look like an astonishing year (as perhaps would any year closely examined). Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now was serialized in monthly numbers, John Tyndall delivered his infamous “Belfast Address” on scientific materialism, and Benjamin Disraeli was appointed prime minister for the second time. The year was particularly significant for developments in psychology. Thomas Huxley, W. B. Carpenter, Henry Maudsley, George Henry Lewes, and James Sully all published major texts on the sciences of the mind that year, and the important Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease was also founded in 1874.
On the other hand, articles in periodicals also reported that 1874 had been a good year for certain flowers to flourish, that roses had bloomed one week later in England than usual, that red replaced green as the standard [End Page 321] color for pillar-boxes of the Royal Mail. On New Year’s Day, 1875, The Pall Mall Gazette published “A Chronicle of Events in the Year 1874.” On July 11 the Eton and Harrow cricket match was won by Eton by five wickets. On December 16 there was a heavy snowstorm in London. Are we as scholars and teachers interested in all of the preserved traces of the past? Would those events also look important if placed in the right context, or are they too minor to matter today?
The conference featured a panel on “Teaching 1874,” organized in collaboration with the journal Pedagogy, whose editor Jennifer Holberg attended the meeting. The panel focused on the pedagogical and conceptual issues involved in teaching texts and events from a particular year. Two of the papers from that panel follow in this roundtable. Historian Timothy Alborn discusses his use of a particular year—here 1874—as a “pivot” in the classroom. Alborn asks students to examine both an event from one year of the period that has been accorded great significance in history textbooks and another that has received fairly scant attention and whose study requires close examination of primary sources. Literature scholar Anne Humpherys considers the reorganization of the teaching of Victorian literature over the past decades, particularly the shift away from a comprehensive historical period approach to a topic- and largely novel-centered approach. Humpherys describes a graduate seminar she devised with the goal of giving students a fuller sense of literary context through their examination of clusters of texts published in a single year. Those two essays delivered at the conference are joined here by a third essay on teaching Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, by Vincent A. Lankewish, the NVSA program committee member who suggested that our conference topic should be a year picked from a hat. Lankewish makes a case for teaching In Memoriam in its entirety, rather than in the form of excerpts typical of anthologies, and for attending closely to the differences in editions. It was noted at the time of the conference that one benefit of the experiment with the year as theme was that it potentially gives the group sixty-nine more topics for later annual meetings. Tennyson’s poem, published in 1850, provides a good starting point for the examination of another single year in the period. [End Page 322]
Suzy Anger is associate professor of English at the University of British Columbia...