Victorian Generations

I’m starting to think about the Victorian ‘generations’ for my plenary lecture at the BAVS annual conference in Leeds this August. (I know, I’m starting rather late, but I was diverted by the invitation to give one of the inaugural BAVS talks; see here). I’m coming to think that the concept of the ‘generation’ has huge potential for probing not just Victorian historical sensibilities, but our own. I realise that at first sight this will seem bizarre if not perverse. Not because the word wasn’t a favourite of the Victorian lexicon. It was – increasingly so. Nor because it is a term that has fallen out of current favour. It hasn’t – indeed scholars seem blithely insistent on using it. If anything recent attention to family relationships in the nineteenth century, in the work for example of Joanne Bailey, Trev Broughton and Julie Marie Strange, has intensified use, although in safer contexts of kinship rather than as a description of wider temporal cohorts where the term offers most but often delivers least.[1] And of course Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees has pointed to the potential of the generation for explaining the apparent cycles of novelistic genres.

But bizarre because outside narrow familial or genealogical contexts, as Moretti’s discomfort registers, it’s just such a protean and problematic term.  The Victorians used it as a unit of time of uncertain duration, as a metaphorical marker of historical distance, as a metaphor for almost any constituency of opinion, and in a whole series of clichéd phrases. Recent usage has largely followed suit. Efforts to champion the generation as a credible analytical tool, for example T.G. Otte’s The Foreign Office Mind: The Making of British Foreign Policy, 1865-1914 (2011), have generally failed to convince. And that’s without addressing the grand narrative building of William Strauss and Neil Howe, who have in the context of American history attempted to trace a series of four stage generational cycles, each stage/generation of around 20 years, in which periods of confidence, prosperity and stability (a ‘high’) are succeeded in turn by periods of intellectual challenge (‘awakening’),  socio-political change (‘unravelling’), and then of ‘crisis’, a pattern that Strauss and Howe have mapped back through American and then British history to 1433.[2]

And yet, somehow the concept of the generation continues to fascinate. It’s even difficult to resist the temptation to play with Strauss and Howe’s model. After all a four-phase account of Victorian Britain in which the phase of ‘crisis’ of the 1830s and 1840s gives way to the ‘high’ of the 1850s to the 1870s, and thence to the ‘Awakening’ of the 1870s to 90s, and the Unravelling of the 1890s to the First World War, doesn’t do a bad job of mapping onto our understandings of the period.

Even if we set aside such provocative grand narrations, both contemporary and Victorian usage embodies in many respects precisely the sorts of limitations that have been at the heart of recent critiques of historicism:  over-confidence in characterising a single mood or zeitgeist for a period narrowly particularised to a specific nation or region, rhetorical construction of cleavages between distinct generations which vanish on closer inspection, unconvincing identification of historical turning points, deep-rooted whiggism, and an apparent insistence that thought and action are significant only as far as they align with the exigencies of their moment.

But what is beginning to become clear to me is that notwithstanding the promiscuity of their generational rhetoric, Victorian writers offered the ingredients of an unexpectedly fruitful and flexible approach. In the first place Victorian commentators were surprisingly reluctant to offer coherent characterised generational identities of the sort that became common in the later twentieth century (no ‘generation Xers’ or ‘children of the sixties’ here). Apart from scattered references to the generation of Thackeray or Dickens, or (slightly more frequently) of Byron and Wordsworth, generations seem to have been used overwhelmingly to offer historical shading, rather than to construct black and white distinctions . If we cannot look for precision, in the hands of more reflective commentators such as Walter Bagehot, Victorian deployments of ‘generation’ produced a frame for more delicately nuanced analysis, less a matter of rupture than of modulation. The dynamics of politics, or diplomacy or culture at any moment or period involved the interplay of multiple inheritances, formative experiences, reactions and dilutions. Above all, a figure like Bagehot was attentive to the ways in which generational shifts, however fuzzily defined under close scrutiny, lie across each other in constantly shifting imbrications of language, experience, memory, and historical record. As he observed, in terms strikingly resonant with one of Marx’s own most famous historicist axioms, ‘each generation describes what it sees, but it describes in words inherited from the last … every generation inherits a series of inapt words — of maxims once true, but of which the truth is ceasing or has ceased’.[3]

Context, from this perspective was distinct, but it was never discrete; the present was not just interlaced in the past and the future, but a layering of different collective pasts and various orientations to the future. As far back as the 1950s Asa Briggs reminded us that ‘The debate between age groups in any period is as important as the debate between rich and poor or between Liberals and Conservatives’.[4] It’s an insight that was overwhelmed by the class-based analysis of Thompsonian Marxism, and then the linguistic turn, as well as by the sheer complexity of delineating the constantly shifting composition of inter-generational engagements. In the context of an attack on historicism which insists on its inherent drive to compartmentalisation and reductionism, and in light of calls for an interdisciplinary approach to the nineteenth century which broadens the conversation (more sociology anyone?), and with the possibilities of new digital tools for analysis and presentation, this seems like an approach to which it is timely to return.

We’ll need a more stable and less tautological definition or definitions of the ‘generation’ than has sufficed to date; but that in itself would be no bad thing.

[1] Trev L Broughton, Men of Letters, Writing Lives: Masculinity and Literary Auto/biography in the Late Victorian Period (1999), Joanne Bailey’s Parenting in England, 1760-1830: emotion, identity and generation (2012), Julie Marie Strange’s Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914 (2014).

[2] W. Strauss and N. Howe, Generations (1991).

[3] W. Bagehot, English Constitution (1867), 1-2.

[4] Asa Briggs, Victorian People (1954), 8.


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