A History of Victorian Literature
eBook - ePub

A History of Victorian Literature

James Eli Adams

  1. English
  2. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  3. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

A History of Victorian Literature

James Eli Adams

Book details
Book preview
Table of contents

About This Book

Incorporating a broad range of contemporary scholarship, A History of Victorian Literature presents an overview of the literature produced in Great Britain between 1830 and 1900, with fresh consideration of both major figures and some of the era's less familiar authors. Part of the Blackwell Histories of Literature series, the book describes the development of the Victorian literary movement and places it within its cultural, social and political context.

  • A wide-ranging narrative overview of literature in Great Britain between 1830 and 1900, capturing the extraordinary variety of literary output produced during this era
  • Analyzes the development of all literary forms during this period - the novel, poetry, drama, autobiography and critical prose - in conjunction with major developments in social and intellectual history
  • Considers the ways in which writers engaged with new forms of social responsibility in their work, as Britain transformed into the world's first industrial economy
  • Offers a fresh perspective on the work of both major figures and some of the era's less familiar authors
  • Winner of a Choice Outstanding Academic Title award, 2009

Frequently asked questions

How do I cancel my subscription?
Simply head over to the account section in settings and click on “Cancel Subscription” - it’s as simple as that. After you cancel, your membership will stay active for the remainder of the time you’ve paid for. Learn more here.
Can/how do I download books?
At the moment all of our mobile-responsive ePub books are available to download via the app. Most of our PDFs are also available to download and we're working on making the final remaining ones downloadable now. Learn more here.
What is the difference between the pricing plans?
Both plans give you full access to the library and all of Perlego’s features. The only differences are the price and subscription period: With the annual plan you’ll save around 30% compared to 12 months on the monthly plan.
What is Perlego?
We are an online textbook subscription service, where you can get access to an entire online library for less than the price of a single book per month. With over 1 million books across 1000+ topics, we’ve got you covered! Learn more here.
Do you support text-to-speech?
Look out for the read-aloud symbol on your next book to see if you can listen to it. The read-aloud tool reads text aloud for you, highlighting the text as it is being read. You can pause it, speed it up and slow it down. Learn more here.
Is A History of Victorian Literature an online PDF/ePUB?
Yes, you can access A History of Victorian Literature by James Eli Adams in PDF and/or ePUB format, as well as other popular books in Literature & English Literary Criticism. We have over one million books available in our catalogue for you to explore.


“The Times are Unexampled”: Literature in the Age of Machinery, 1830–1850
Constructing the Man of Letters
“The whole world here is doing a Tarantula Dance of Political Reform, and has no ear left for literature.” So Carlyle complained to Goethe in August of 1831 (Carlyle 1970–2006: v.327). He was not alone: the great stir surrounding prospects for electoral reform seemed for the moment to crowd aside all other literary interests. The agitation, however, helped to shape a model of critical reflection that gave new weight to literature. The sense of historical rupture announced on all sides was on this view fundamentally a crisis of belief – what a later generation would call an ideological crisis. Traditional forms of faith that undergirded both the English state and personal selfhood were giving way; the times required not merely new political arrangements, but new grounds of identity and belief. Of course, that very designation reflected a skeptical cast of mind. New myths, it seemed, could no longer be found in sacred texts and revelations. They would be derived from secular writings and experience – something that came to be called “literature” in our modern sense of the term. And the best guide to that trove of possibility would be a figure known as “the man of letters.”
The most resonant versions of this story were honed through an unlikely literary exchange. In 1831 Carlyle (1795–1881), struggling to eke out a living as an author in the remote Scottish hamlet of Craigenputtoch, came upon “The Spirit of the Age,” a series of articles in the London Examiner by John Stuart Mill (1806–73). Carlyle wrote to Mill, praising his analysis (in mocking echo of Voltaire’s Pangloss) as “the first … which he had ever seen in a newspaper, hinting that the age was not the best of all possible ages” (Mill 1963–91: xii.241). Both men understood the political crisis in historical terms, but Carlyle recognized in Mill’s analysis of the situation more psychological complexity than the young Mill himself was yet able to appreciate. The present age, Mill pronounced, was above all “an age of transition. Mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones” (Mill 1963–91: xxii.230). But Mill’s analysis allows for little sense of ambivalence or self-division: “Mankind are then divided into those who are still what they were, and those who have changed: into the men of the present age, and the men of the past” (xxii.228). Such was Mill’s faith in the irresistible logic of reform – “The superior capacity of the higher ranks for the exercise of worldly power is now a broken spell” (xxii.231) – that he overlooked a third category in his partition of mankind: those men at home in neither the present nor the past, who are themselves in a state of transition.
Carlyle’s diagnosis emphasized precisely this middle state. “The Old has passed away,” he wrote in “Characteristics” (1831), “but alas, the new appears not in its stead; the time is still in pangs of travail with the New” (Carlyle 1869: ii.373). This burden of baffled self-consciousness and suspended allegiance – “wandering between two worlds, one dead, /The other powerless to be born” as Matthew Arnold put it a generation later (“Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”) – would echo throughout the period. Mill’s faith in the power of logic afforded him a relatively secure ground of value, but Carlyle understood the moment as a more inchoate crisis of belief. Benthamism and its affiliated ideologies – most notably, laissez-faire economics – offered no source of value outside the self, save the various forms of “machinery” designed to further competing self-interests. In pressing this point, Carlyle launched a searching critique of liberal individualism, and ultimately of Enlightenment rationality. The goal was an ethical ground apart from material rewards, a source of value beyond contract and exchange, which Carlyle associated with deeply personal, intuitive modes of understanding. In this emphasis Carlyle is an heir to Burke and Coleridge, and aligned in important respects with more conventional religious thinkers. His position would be echoed by, among others, the theologian John Henry Newman, who in a riposte to secular schemes of progress (“The Tamworth Reading Room”) attacked their spiritual impoverishment: “Wonder is not religion, or we should be worshipping our railroads” (Newman 1965: 106). But whereas Newman resisted “liberalism” by urging the reassertion of clerical power and a return to a purer, more primitive Christianity, Carlyle was convinced that traditional modes of faith had lost their hold.
Carlyle’s personal history made him better prepared than Mill to appreciate the struggle for new belief, which became the focus of his greatest work. Mill was born into a radical, free-thinking, middle-class intellectual community in London, and from his father he secured comfortable employment at the East India Company, a position that provided him a steady income and abundant time for writing. Carlyle, the son of a stonemason, had to struggle for nearly two decades to make a living by his writing, and to hammer out a faith to replace the strenuous Calvinism of his parents, who had hoped he would become a minister in the Scottish Kirk. The barbed irony so distinctive of his mature writings emerged in his early letters, largely as mockery of his own sense of failure, which led him to see the very fact of self-consciousness as an index of corrosive doubt. Even after his lapse from orthodox belief, Carlyle envied the preacher’s authority, both spiritual and social, and he aspired to endow the author’s career with its own “sacredness”: “Authors are martyrs – witnesses for truth, – or else nothing. Money cannot make or unmake them” (Froude 1882: ii.264). Yet his own circumstances made this an unusually strenuous demand. “We have no Men of Letters now, but only Literary Gentlemen,” he complained (Carlyle 1869: iii.104). Unlike literary gentlemen, however, men of letters had to live by their writing.
This burden had been a recurrent theme of Samuel Johnson (on whom Carlyle wrote an early, admiring essay), but Johnson at least possessed a firm Christian faith. Carlyle in his years of struggle came to envision himself as a latter-day prophet of a new dispensation, straddling Jewish and Christian Testaments. At once Jeremiah and John the Baptist, he excoriated the failings of England and foretold its imminent collapse, while at the same time heralding “a new mythus” that would rescue the country from its bewilderment – although the form of that redeeming faith remained elusive. Hence the appeal of figures of radical alienation: St John the Baptist, Ahab, Ishmael. Yet Carlyle’s growing audience ultimately embraced such estrangement as a warrant of integrity. As his admiring biographer J. A. Froude put it, “He called himself a Bedouin, and a Bedouin he was, owing no allegiance save to his Maker and his own conscience” (Froude 1882: ii.402). The “free-lance” writer, in other contexts vilified as an unprincipled hack, became a model of detachment from party, tradition, and unreflective “allegiance” of all kinds. Here was the realm of the man of letters – a space that would come to be associated with the work of “culture” and criticism generally. In the meantime, Carlyle’s prophetic mantle offered a consolation to many over the century who shared his large ambitions: the prophet is always unappreciated in his own country.
The struggle towards new forms of belief could best be understood within an emblematic personal history. Carlyle derived this insight from Goethe, whose work he translated and would influentially celebrate. In 1831 Carlyle undertook a work of his own in the broad vein of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, a central example of the German Bildungsroman, or novel of development. But that was not quite how Carlyle put it: “I am writing nonsense,” he wrote in his notebook; “a book about clothes” (Carlyle 1970–2006: 5.174). The book began as an attack on the dandy, the icon of an enervated aristocracy oblivious to the suffering around it. But Carlyle also saw in the trope of clothing and fashion a figure for the force of history, in particular, the incessant transformation of human beliefs and institutions. Humankind is always struggling to find adequate vesture, in Carlyle’s terms, for its beliefs – vesture which culminates in their conception of divinity. “The thing Visible, nay the thing Imagined, the thing in any way conceived as Visible, what is it but a Garment, a Clothing of the higher, celestial Invisible?” (Carlyle 1908: 49). The trope has a long literary history – witness King Lear – but it took on added topicality through the revolutionary sans-culottes in France, a precedent still haunting England in 1832. Here was a radical questioning of the existing fabric of belief gone horribly wrong. How could present-day England envision a new set of clothing nobler, more truly spiritual, than that of the dandy? Hence the enigmatic title of Carlyle’s volume: Sartor Resartus, the tailor retailored.
Sartor Resartus is a rare amalgam of genres: sentimental romance, autobiography, sermon, Bildungsroman, theological treatise, all subjected to withering parody yet cohering into a deeply felt, multi-layered narrative of spiritual crisis and resolution. The struggle for belief is refracted through two embedded narratives, whose depictions of intellectual life still can sting. The peripatetic career of the late Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (“God-born Devils’-dung”), Professor of Things in General at the University of Weissnichtwo (“Who knows where?”), is being reconstructed from random scraps of writing, contained in a dozen large bags bequeathed to the bewildered editor, Sauerteig. The interplay of these two narratives generates dizzying ironic play captured in the radical dualisms of Carlyle’s language (God and Devil, spirit and dung): “The grand unparalleled peculiarity of Teufelsdröckh is, that with all this Descendentalism, he combines a Transcendentalism, no less superlative; whereby if on the one hand he degrades man below most animals … he, on the other, exalts him beyond the visible Heavens” (Carlyle 1908: 48). As Carlyle sends up both Goethe’s The Sorrows of Werther and his own early efforts as a reverent biographer of Goethe, he also locates in Teufelsdröckh an archetypal struggle for belief. The most frequently excerpted section of the book is a conversion narrative – or “Baphometic Fire-baptism,” in Teufelsdröckh’s eccentric idiom (128) – in which Teufelsdröckh moves from “The Everlasting No” through “The Center of Indifference” to “The Everlasting Yea.” He must overcome an “unbelief ” epitomized in utilitarianism, which for Carlyle exemplifies the reduction of human experience to mere appetite, a notion that he mocks incessantly: “what, in these dull unimaginative days, are the terrors of Conscience to the diseases of the Liver! Not on Morality, but on Cookery, let us build our stronghold: there brandishing our frying-pan, as censer” (123). Only by rediscovering the “higher, celestial Invisible” can Teufelsdröckh recognize that the universe is not a godless mechanism but a divine organism, within which he can realize a genuinely moral existence.
The result was too much even for the wits at Fraser’s Magazine, where Sartor was first published in installments in 1833–4. Mill was puzzled; even Ralph Waldo Emerson, who came to know Carlyle through the work and arranged for its American publication as a book, complained of the willfully obscure style (Carlyle 1970–2006: 5.196, 8.135). It was published as a book in England only after the success of Carlyle’s next major work, The French Revolution, in 1837. Yet within a generation Sartor Resartus had become something like a guide to the perplexed. In keeping with its skeptical historicist treatment of religious doctrine, the book shies away from a specifically religious credo. But its special appeal lay in a consoling vagueness. As T. H. Huxley put it in a letter some 30 years later, “Sartor Resartus taught me that a fervent belief is compatible with an entire absence of theology” (Irvine 1972: 131). In effect, Carlyle conjured up a divinity shorn of doctrinal specifics, a sense of indwelling spiritual presence evoked most suggestively in what he called “Natural Supernaturalism.” Over against what Max Weber would later call “the disenchantment of the world,” Carlyle struggled to evoke a world of all-encompassing mystery, and a correspondent awe and reverence in the beholder who can recognize this as the index of a spiritual dimension in mankind. Carlyle thus offered a sanctification of the everyday, in which sheer self-denying devotion to one’s labor became a form of worship – and a means of putting down the gnawing pangs of doubt. “Doubt of any sort cannot be removed except by Action” (Carlyle 1908: 147). Hence Carlyle transforms the Platonic injunction, “Know thyself” into the more palpable, “Know what thou canst work at,” and proceeds to generalize the imperative from John 9:4: “Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work” (149). The “gospel of work,” as it become known, was perhaps Carlyle’s most influential contribution to Victorian thought – along with his celebration of those heroic individuals who most fully embody it. In this way Sartor pays symphonic tribute to the power of sublimation: one escapes from the burdens of doubt, even self-consciousness, through utter immersion in duty. The nature of that duty remained vague, as innumerable commentators pointed out, and when conjoined with the deification of heroic will, Carlyle’s exhortations opened the way to a cult of great men. But for at least a generation this hint of authoritarianism was obscured by the hunger for authority itself.
Mill and Carlyle would later part company in bitter political disagreement, but Mill took to heart the example of Sartor. When in the 1850s Mill believed he was dying, he felt impelled – much against the instincts of his own reticence – to set down the development of his thought in the form of an autobiography. Within that volume (published posthumously in 1874) the pivot of Mill’s narrative became “A Crisis in My Mental History,” an event he located in the late 1820s. The analytic habit of mind inculcated by the example of Bentham and his father’s rigorous training (Mill began learning Greek at the age of three) had eroded his capacity to feel – so much that he could not find pleasure even in the imagined triumph of Benthamite reflection. In effect, he had come to Carlyle’s conclusion that Logic is always saying No. His emergence from the depression, Mill recalls, gave him a new appreciation for what he calls Carlyle’s “anti-self-consciousness theory”: “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life” (Mill 1963–92: i.145–7). Mill drew from this ordeal a new appreciation for “the internal culture of the individual,” which Bentham had failed to recognize. Later in the 1830s, Mill would incorporate his new attention to emotional life in a revisionist view of Benthamism, which he most fully developed in pendant essays on Bentham and Coleridge. What had seemed a sharp antagonism became a more subtly modulated dialectic, pointing to a synthesis that Mill would pursue in his own writings. Stereotyped as a model of unfeeling rationality, Mill in fact would provide especially resonant understandings of anxiety and emotional need. And he paid fulsome tribute to the influence of Carlyle, “the mystic,” in guiding him towards a newly exacting analysis of human feeling and education.
The Burdens of Poetry
Mill’s mental crisis led him to an unusually suggestive account of the situation of poetry in 1830. Poetry tended to be disparaged by both evangelicals and Benthamites; the former as part of a more inclusive suspicion of imagination; the latter as a source of pleasure no more exalted than pushpin, in Bentham’s dismissive phrase. Mill, however, had discovered during his mental crisis “a medicine for my state of mind” in reading Wordsworth. His poetry “seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of” (Mill 1963–92: 1:151). In rethinking his utilitarian inheritance, Mill came to emphasize the imagination that Bentham had neglected, “the power by which one human being enters into the mind and circumstances of another” (Mill 1963–92: x.92). For much of the century, the power to arouse sympathetic understanding was the special virtue of literature generally, and of poetry in particular. And critics came to define the work of culture along the lines of Mill’s “culture of the feelings,” as a force which guided and constrained instrumental reason, the logic of means and ends, the mental “machinery” associated with an increasingly mechanized world.
When Mill described the work of poetry, however, it seemed at once terribly fragile and deeply anti-social. In an essay of 1833, he defined poetry in sharp contrast to eloquence: “both alike the expression or utterance of feeling,” but “eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard.” Poetry is distinguished above all by “utter unconsciousness of a listener”: in true poetry, there will be “no trace of consciousness that any eyes are upon us” (Mill 1960–93: i.348–9). In this ideal of pure effusion, awareness of an audience necessarily subverts the integrity of feeling. This striking antagonism (reminiscent of Carlyle’s wrestling with self-consciousness) suggests a deep anxiety about selfhood and subjectivity. True poetry is not merely a warrant of emotional authenticity, it also suggests that such integrity can exist only in resistance or oblivion to society at large. Mill’s individualism made this fear of social mediation an unusually vexing issue, one that he would engage most fully in On Liberty. But the tension resonates throughout early Victorian poetry, in which the poet’s relation to an audience becomes a standing problem. Inherent in this emphasis, moreover, is the possibility that poetry will be reduced to an emotional balm, and will lose its purchase on a wider world of thought and value that had traditionally been the burden of the epic. This became a recurrent burden in Victorian quarrels with romanticism, such as Henry Taylor’s Preface to his historical drama Philip van Artevelde (1834), which complains that “the popular poetry of the times” (Byron in particular) valued feeling and “external embellishments” at the expense of reflection and understanding, the poet’s obligation of “seeing ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Series page
  3. Title page
  4. Copyright page
  5. Preface
  6. Note on Citations
  7. Introduction: Locating Victorian Literature
  8. 1 “The Times are Unexampled”: Literature in the Age of Machinery, 1830–1850
  9. 2 Crystal Palace and Bleak House: Expansion and Anomie, 1851–1873
  10. 3 The Rise of Mass Culture and the Specter of Decline, 1873–1901
  11. Epilogue
  12. Works Cited
  13. Index