Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Richard L. Stein, Victoria's Year: English Literature and Culture, 1837-1838

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Richard L. Stein, Victoria's Year: English Literature and Culture, 1837-1838

Article excerpt

Richard L. Stein, Victoria's Year: English Literature and Culture, 1837-1838. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

F. Michael L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1988.

Reading these two books together generates instructive contrasts that extend well beyond the predictable differences between Thompson's seventy-year history of changes in social and material conditions versus Stein's investigation of cultural and intellectual manifestations of "the spirit of the age" at the beginning of Victoria's reign. Thompson's revisionary and critical historical approach depends upon quantitative and comparative analysis while it avoids narrative and survey; it is untheorized, not sufficiently documented, lacks critical self-awareness, and gives inadequate accounts of the context of historical research under review. Stein's cultural-critical approach, incorporating post-structuralist theory without aggressively mystifying rhetoric, constantly observes itself looking at and thematizing culture; it suggests, with unobtrusive and impeccable documentation, an intellectual network of connections while it presents the epistemological problems of observation and mapmaking and the indeterminacy of meanings interpreted from texts, pictures, and reports of events. Thompson offers conclusions, based on quantitative analysis of economic and demographic data, about the internalization and diversification of respectability across class groups. Stein avoids conclusions, and suggests that we always face further mysteries requiring observations, hypotheses, revisions, and images to produce and mediate understanding, that "everything in our world, including ourselves, must become subject to this heroic epistemological task" (235). Neither approach constitutes original research, and there are many more disappointments and problems with Thompson than with Stein; however, both books present enlightening reviews and interpretations of other scholars' work that make them notable and useful additions to the study of nineteenth-century culture.

Unlike Carl Dawson's Victorian Noon: English Literature in 1850 (1979), Victoria's Year does not provide a comprehensive cross-section of one year's literary culture. Instead, Stein, who is Professor of English and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon, attempts to define "the interconnections--and discontinuities--with a larger world that give the writing of this time its special flavor" (6). He finds evidence for his epistemological theme in a longer "moment" centered upon the year of Victoria's coronation but extending from the middle 1830s to the early 1840s. Without adopting the reductive political fixations characteristic of New Historical analysts of British Renaissance texts, Stein reads early Victorian culture for symptoms and contraindications that bear on the problems of representing otherness, of knowing and mapping, which, as he notes, are themselves exercises in power and are therefore political acts. He selects telling examples of "a common project of self-portraiture, a collective effort to understand the present as part of history" (6). The method serves him very well about 95% of the time; he writes the informative, interesting prose of a skilled lecturer who knows how to build intellectual suspense towards complications and reversals. Only occasionally does he excessively demonstrate the indeterminacies of meaning.

Stein's introduction admirably combines a profession of post-modern methodology and a description of the limitations of his own discourse with an illustrative cultural anecdote: Noting that modern critical practice has sought to recuperate events, ideas, and experiences once marginalized and forgotten, he unearths the ordinary story of the apparent suicide attempt of one Michael Minch, as reported in the London Times just one month after the coronation of Victoria. …

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