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The Victorian World


Edited by Martin Hewitt


London: Routledge 2012

Hardback. 758 pages. 60 illustrations. ISBN 978-0415491877. £150.00


Reviewed by Ingrid Hanson

University of Hull



As the Preface to The Victorian World notes, ‘the idea of “Victorian” is itself a concept freighted with contested meanings and usages’ [xviii].  It is the strength of this book as an introductory reader in the period that it acknowledges these contested meanings, both in relation to periodisation and to wider critical concerns such as the relationship of the metropolis to the empire and beyond, while nailing its colours firmly to the mast of a revitalised and expanded concept of Victorianism. If it goes against the grain of much recent critical anxiety in its determined use of the monarchical label, it nonetheless makes a coherent argument for doing so, both in Martin Hewitt’s informative introduction and – implicitly or explicitly – in the essays included in it. At the same time, the title The Victorian World evokes the move in historical analysis to consider ‘worlds’ of various kinds as interlapping spheres of influence and so to shift the discussion from one of centre and margins, monarch and empire, to something more mutual and interrelated. Recent historiography has developed analytical approaches that go beyond the idea of nation states or narrow periodisation to consider broader paradigms of identity and affiliation; this book contributes to that shift in approach by recognising the ways in which the idea of the ‘Victorian’ is not formed in Britain and exported to other parts of the world, but is itself shaped by a network of relationships and interactions.

This recognition is achieved in part through the wide, multidisciplinary scope of its forty chapters. Each of the book’s six sections draws attention to interrelationships, not only in the formation of power, discourse and culture but also in the mobility and transfer of material goods, ideas, and beliefs. In ‘The World Order’, ‘Politics’ and ‘Varieties of Victorianism’, these connections are primarily between Victorian Britain and the rest of the world, while ‘Economy and Society’, ‘Knowledge and Belief’ and ‘Culture’, explore the links between people, things and ideas within Britain. Many of the chapters that make up these sections are contributions from well-established academics, covering in condensed form material they have developed in detail elsewhere: Pamela K. Gilbert on disease and the body, Anthony Howe on free trade, Katherine Newey on the Victorian theatre, Elaine Freedgood on commodity culture. There are some new and fruitful connections between and within sections, however: Timothy Alborn’s cultural history of money is matched by a deft and lively analysis of the visual language of graphs in the changing practices of Victorian economics by Harro Maas; the attention to the intersection of the senses and the wider culture evident in Maas’s account also runs through Alison Inglis’s discussion of art exhibitions across the empire and Patrick Brantlinger’s account of the impact of imperialism on British popular culture; it is further developed in John M. Picker’s fine account of varieties of ‘Victorian aurality’, which pays attention to interconnections between science, literature and culture. Alongside these and other close discussions of aspects of material culture are essays offering a wider geopolitical view, including a conceptual overview by Lauren Goodlad of the manifestations of submerged Victorian geopolitics in the work of Harriet Martineau and John Stuart Mill.  Extending the reach of the collection still further than this and other important essays on empire, migration and settler experiences is the persuasive accountby Víctor Macías González about the ways in which middle-class Mexicans engaged with ‘informal empire’ [693] through participation in the education system of Stonyhurst College.

Among the most interesting and insightful of the essays for the purposes of this collection are those that provide metacritical accounts of the ways in which scholarship has changed over the years, or that acknowledge deficiencies as well as strengths in the reconstruction of the concept of Victorianness to which the book is anchored. Lynda Nead’s essay on gender and the city discusses changing critical trends in relation to city spaces, women and masculinity, complementing Richard Dennis’s attention to late Victorian literary representations of the city in his account of urbanisation; Jeffrey Cox, in ‘Worlds of Victorian Religion’, demonstrates a central revisionist approach of the book by challenging dismissive accounts of Victorian religion and instead finding within it varieties of expression and motivation that grant it value in its cultural moment as well as beyond. While Barry Godfrey’s chapter on the much-discussed question of discipline largely concentrates on practicalities of policing and crime prevention rather than engaging in detail with Foucauldian ideas (whose appeal Godfrey acknowledges but also challenges, explicitly in passing and implicitly in his approach), it concludes by making unequivocal connections between today’s surveillance apparatus and the disciplinary innovations of the Victorian state. Parallelling Godfrey’s chapter on the grass-roots effects of the law is one by Rohan McWilliam on citizenship and political radicalism, focusing primarily on early-Victorian movements including Chartism. This, along with Alex Tyrrell’s chapter on voluntarism, offers a nuanced account of class relations at the level of culture as well as political discourse, noting differing ways in which these have been interpreted by scholars. Analysis of late-Victorian British political movements is rather thin across the collection as a whole, however, and even McWilliam’s account only mentions the socialism and anarchism that characterised the end of the century in passing.

A particular strength of the collection is the number of essays that formulate new understandings of the relationships between nationalism and internationalism: this is the pivot on which its reclamation and re-imagining of Victorianism turns. As Margrit Pernau notes, ‘if Victorianism was a colonial category, it was a colonial category that marked the coloniser and colonised in the same movement’ [652], an argument echoed by Margot Finn in characterising colonial settlers as both ‘objects and agents of colonisation’ [659]. Krishan Kumar’s brief but trenchant consideration of varieties of nationalism suggests some points of convergence between the commonly distinguished ‘ethnic’ and ‘civic’ conceptions of the nation, but also suggests the need for new thinking about nationalism that recognises its essential and mutually formative connections with empire. Alan Lester offers a more minute account, drawing on similar convictions to trace changing ‘intra-colonial’ views of racial difference across the period, highlighting the ways in which changing ideas of race led to the extension of the franchise to settlers but not indigenous people in colonies such as South Africa, New Zealand and Canada; but he also points out that settler citizenship fuelled debates about the franchise in Britain. Simon Gikandi’s ‘Afro-Victorian Worlds’ offers further analysis of the mutual formation of identity in his examination of the various ways – including both resistance and mimicry –  in which Africans in British colonies negotiated relationships with the missionary project, the Victorian middle class and the ideologies of empire. Like many of the essays in the collection, Gikandi’s makes connections between the complexities of the Victorian period and its mixed legacies, noting that ‘one of the great paradoxes of postcolonial identity in Africa is that what had once appeared to be the slavish imitation of Victorian ideas could lay the groundwork for black nationalism in Africa and the Caribbean’ [686].

If, as Pernau argues in relation to India, ‘to be reassured about its future destiny, the nation needed a history’ [649], this book not only offers a thorough and engaging overview for students and scholars, but also contributes to the shaping of future thinking about British identity through its refocusing of the past and its reclamation of historical terms that have come to be regarded as limiting.


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