Victorian Studies: some historical and historiographical ruminations

In a piece I wrote over a decade ago, I began with the observation that ‘As a scholarly enterprise, Victorian Studies has a deficient sense of its own history’ (Hewitt 2004). The manifesto of the V21 Collective and the response it has generated prompt me to return to this point of departure, not least because they raise fundamental questions about the identity of ‘Victorian Studies’ in which questions of history are implicated at more than one level.

A number of these questions are addressed in my recently published essay reflecting on the place Asa Briggs and his writings had in the evolution of Victorian Studies, ‘A little bit of a Victorian? Asa Briggs and Victorian Studies’, in Miles Taylor, ed., The Age of Asa: Asa Briggs and the shaping of History and Higher Education in Modern Britain (2014). Briggs’ scholarship, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s, not least Victorian People (1954) and Victorian Cities (1964), made him the leading British Victorianist of his generation – at least from the perspective of historical scholarship. The architectural historian Reyner Banham joked at the start of the 1970s that his ‘imaginary Oscar for Victorian Studies’ was an ‘Asa’.

Inevitably, it was to Briggs that Michael Wolff and his collaborators turned in 1956/57 when they were forming the wider editorial team for Victorian Studies.   Briggs served on board of Victorian Studies from its inception in 1957 until 1973. For the first decade he was probably the most important point of contact between the Bloomington editorial team and British scholars.

Briggs shared many of the instincts of the founders of Victorian Studies/Victorian Studies, including a powerful sense of Victorian persistence and relevance, a fundamental commitment to interdisciplinarity, and a belief in holistic approaches to questions of culture and society. For Briggs it was impossible to understand ideas without seeing the institutions and processes in which they were embedded, nor institutions without studying them within their operating contexts, and he aimed at what he saw in Bagehot, a ‘recognition of the significance of the social shell, of habits, institutions, ways of thinking, feeling and behaving’ (Briggs 1966). All of which contributed to the urban studies flavour of Victorian Studies in its early years, culminating in the publication of Dyos and Wollf’s The Victorian City: Images and Reality (1973).

The Victorian City remains one of the foundational texts of Victorian Studies as a field, even if its contemporary readers are probably few. It also marks the end of its first phase. The volume (and the Victorian Studies approach it was taken to exemplify) was subjected to trenchant criticism, even from potentially sympathetic commentators such as E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. Critics argued that a combination of narrow urban focus and a perspective confined almost entirely to middle class observers created large exclusions of gender, empire, science and technology, partial perceptions of agency and victimhood, and an attenuated capacity to deal with issues of process and dynamic. The contributors were accused of conservatism of theoretical and methodological approach, and of skirting critical questions about constructions and interrelationships of the ‘image’ and ‘reality’ of its sub-title. Williams in particular, was strongly critical of what he saw as the attempt to reconstruct the Victorian period through an accumulation of quotation and citation, (a particular characteristic of Briggs), which he dismissed as ‘a kind of editing’ (Williams 1973).

In the 1970s, under the editorship of Martha Vicinus, Victorian Studies moved away from urban history, and towards a history of popular culture which gave greater prominence to literature, music and the intellectual life, and in particular to the place of women, challenging the dominance of class as foundational category and form of Victorian self-definition; just as under the influence of Hillis Miller and others there was a pull away from historicism and a renewed attention to form, intertextualities and discursive relations, which looked to the effacing of generic boundaries rather than disciplinary ones. Later Said’s Orientalism also encouraged a shift to imperial preoccupations which also had little resonance in Briggs’ work. The ‘infection’, in George Levine’s phrase, of historicism with textualism exerted tension on the relationships established between literary and historical scholarship.  The critical response to Briggs’ work of the 1980s, and especially the final instalment of his trilogy, Victorian Things (1988), indicated how far approaches had moved on, and not just in literary studies. Even for an old-school historian like J. H. Plumb, there was only so far this ‘facts embedded in common sense’ approach could go (Plumb 1982).

Yet through these reorientations and refashionings, Victorian Studies never lost its fundamental commitment to creating spaces of interdisciplinary exchange. Gender, imperial and linguistic turns in History ensured that as a discipline it was never entirely detached from the evolving preoccupations of literary scholarship of the nineteenth century. In the 1990s and 2000s the reinvention of journals such as Victorian Literature and Culture and the appearance of new ones, including the Journal of Victorian Culture, along with the extension and reinvigoration of the spaces of scholarly exchange, which culminated in the establishment of NAVSA in 2002 ‘to provide a continental forum for the discussion of the Victorian period, [and] to encourage a wide variety of theoretical and disciplinary approaches to the field’, all maintained the field’s impulse to openness and dialogue.

And so, with the V21 Collective manifesto, here we are again. Far be it from me to impose any particular ‘version’ of Victorian Studies, any particular methodology or epistemology.  By all means let us consider what a critique of historicism can offer at this particular juncture. But let’s not pretend that this is not a discussion that has been ongoing in various guises for 40 years and more, or that historicism or positivism have ever been hegemonic in any exclusionary sense. And above all, let’s not use the debate as a pretext for abandoning the fundamental  premise of many scholars who have contributed to Victorian Studies throughout its nearly 60 years existence as a recognisable field: that it should aspire to be more than merely a fragment of Literary Studies.


A. Briggs, ‘Taylor’s Own Times’, review of A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945, Encounter, (February 1966), 65-6.

M. Hewitt, ‘Culture or Society? Victorian Studies 1951-1964’, in Miles Taylor and Michael Wolff, eds, The Victorians Since 1901 (2004), 90-106.

J.H. Plumb, review of Briggs, Social History of England (1983), The Times, 15 September 1983.

R. Williams, review , New York Times, 5 November 1973, 442.

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