Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Introduction: Critiquing the Victorian Critics

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Introduction: Critiquing the Victorian Critics

Article excerpt

This Special Issue of Nineteenth-Century Prose has been assembled to add to the growing body of critical commentary on Victorian critical theory and practice. The study of Victorian critics has been a time-honored tradition among academics. Until recently, however, Victorian criticism was more honored by passing nods to its importance for understanding the Victorians' views on canonical works of poetry and fiction rather than valued as a way to understand the cultural milieu in which those works were produced. To provide some context for this issue, a history lesson of sorts seems in order.

For my generation the principal source for studying Victorian literature was the massive The Victorian Age: Prose, Poetry, and Drama, edited by John Wilson Bowyer and John Lee Brooks, published in 1938 by Appleton-Century-Crofts for a student population that did not mind lugging around a 1,200-page hardbound textbook. Intended to "represent the Victorian literature in its magnitude and variety against the social, historical, and intellectual background of the period," this tome contained generous samplings of creative and critical work by nearly six dozen figures--mostly men--from Thomas Babington Macaulay to William Butler Yeats. Sandwiched in among the poems and excerpts from novels, a meager handful of essays gave a hint of what the Victorians thought (or were supposed to think) about literature and other matters of art--and morals. Students learned about Victorian literary criticism by reading Arnold's "The Study of Poetry," Ruskin's "Pathetic Fallacy," a snippet from the Conclusion to Pater's The Renaissance, and a longer selection from his essay "Romanticism," and scattered comments in the editors' introductions and commentaries.

During the 1960s, other books became available. Daniel Hoffman and Samuel Hynes's English Literary' Criticism: Romantic and Victorian, first published in 1963 by Appleton Century Crofts in its Goldentree Books series, offered much longer selections from the works of writers already established as canonical: John Stuart Mill, Ruskin, George Eliot, Arnold (who was given greatest space and attention), George Meredith, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pater, and Henry James. Works by a number of Victorian critics--again, almost all of them male--were addressed by John Gross in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), a study that explained some of the reasons for the transformation of literary criticism from the province of the educated and interested amateur to the professional working in academe or for high-brow periodicals.

Of course, forty years ago one could always go to brittle Victorian periodicals stored in major research libraries to expand one's knowledge of the practice of literary criticism a century earlier, but the task was not easy. The job of researching these old periodicals occupied Peter Morgan for some time. His Literary Critics and Reviewers in Early 19th-Century Britain, published in 1983, provided an assessment of literary criticism by Francis Jeffrey, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey, John Wilson Crocker, and John Gibson Lockhart, with briefer comments on Thomas Carlyle and Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Published a year after Morgan's study, Harold Orel's Victorian Literary Critics became one of the most important sources for study of Victorian literary critics and their work. Orel's book covered the careers of seven men (and no women) considered by Orel and his contemporaries the most important and influential literary critics after Matthew Arnold. Orel's purpose in writing such a study was twofold. First, he believed that, at the time he was writing, "only the most dedicated student of Victorian literature" would have been familiar with the work of George Henry Lewes, Walter Bagehot, Richard Holt Hutton, Leslie Stephen, Andrew Lang, George Saintsbury, and Edmund Gosse (2). Second, he wanted to "refute the casually disseminated notion that British literary criticism before the Great War was undisciplined, slack in its definition of key terms, irresponsibly impressionistic, and unworthy of serious attention in our time" (3). …

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