Aspects of Platform Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Article excerpt

This Introduction provides background to the more focused essays that follow. It calls attention to the continued neglect of the nineteenth-century platform, and especially--in the wake of Meisel's recent study of the political platform--of the lecture, pointing out that the extent to which oral performance underpinned written text in the Victorian period is still too little understood. It attempts a chronological survey designed to emphasize the significance of public speech in the era before the 1860s. It also seeks to provide context for a number of the key themes of the essays in the rest of the issue, arguing for the importance of the platform for transatlantic cultural exchange, and suggesting that despite the pressures, women were not completely banished from the mid-century platform as has sometimes been suggested.

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The platform culture of nineteenth-century Britain was so ubiquitous that its omnipresence has helped to render it strangely invisible. We look through it in search of material on all aspects of the period, but we fail to look at it, to interrogate it as a cultural form in its own right. As is illustrated by the smattering of references in G.M. Young's Victorian England: Portrait of an Age superficially, the importance of the platform in Victorian intellectual culture is well established. Historians had recognized the importance of public speech in the conduct of nineteenth-century politics long before Colin Matthew's suggestive survey of the rise of extra-parliamentary politics in the last third of the century gave a new impetus to the study of the practices of the political platform. (1) Labor historians had similarly placed practices of oratory and the "mass platform" at the centre of their accounts of nineteenth-century radical movements. (2) In general, however, there has been little attention to the practice of public speech itself. There are one or two general surveys of rhetoric, such as Robert T. Oliver's Public Speaking in the reshaping of Great Britain, and some material in studies of rational recreation by Mabel Tylecote and J.F.C. Harrison; (3) but until the recent appearance of Joseph Meisel's Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the Age of Gladstone, the only comprehensive study of the nineteenth century platform remained Henry Jephson's The Platform, Its Rise and Progress (1892), a revealing but essentially whiggish account that concentrates almost exclusively on the political platform, and the public meeting as its most common variant, and there is no British equivalent to the book length studies of the American lecture platform of Carl Bode and David Mead, or the more recent work of Donald M. Scott. (4) Only within the relatively narrow confines of the history of science has the public lecture been subjected to sustained attention. (5)

Meisel's study demonstrates the dangers of neglecting this aspect of nineteenth-century culture. This neglect is of especial significance once we begin to recognize the central place public speaking had within nineteenth-century modes of intellectual production. Perhaps because of the dominance of the histories of science, education, and politics in the historiography of public speech, at least in Britain, the culture of the platform has tended to be interpreted through notions of "popularization," "dissemination," or "mobilization," as a derivative or imitative process designed to transfer ideas, probably in a diluted form, from arenas in which they are produced to arenas in which they can obtain wider consumption. Yet to consider the platform purely from this perspective is to ignore its productive role. It is twenty-five years since Raymond Williams pointed out the extent to which "much of the important social thought of the [nineteenth] century was in lecture form." (6) Even cursory reflection suggests that a good deal of the important social criticism of the period was framed in the form of lectures and addresses, from Carlyle's Heroes and Hero-Worship through Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies to much of Morris' thought. …