Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

David Masson, Pedagogical Reform, and the Victorian Novel

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

David Masson, Pedagogical Reform, and the Victorian Novel

Article excerpt

David Masson, best remembered by subsequent generations for his work on Milton, was a pioneer on two fronts in the advancement of letters in Victorian England. Masson's reviews and his influential book British Novelists and their Styles lent gravitas to the novel as an art form. Masson's survey of the English novel lays heavy stress on the relationship between authors' biographies and their fiction, and privileges summary and appreciation over evaluation; in it Masson offers advice to novelists wishing to write works that will be of lasting value. While these approaches may be conventional, British Novelists is notable for its serious attention to the works of contemporary authors. Masson carried that progressive approach into his teaching at University College, London, and at the University of Edinburgh, where his courses included analysis of contemporary fiction. That progressive spirit is also evident in Masson's championing higher education for women; he was the first to offer an undergraduate course on literature exclusively for women, and its popularity--and the high marks women received on course examinations--were influential in convincing the University to admit women in later years.


David Masson's literary eminence can scarcely be overstated: he was the first editor, from 1859, of Macmillan's Magazine, a position he held for nearly a decade; a professor for over forty years, first at University College London, and then the University of Edinburgh; and throughout this he remained a public intellectual via his prolific output as a critic and biographer. His long list of publications suggests a capricious and broad intellectual range, with book-length studies on topics including Milton, Thomas De Quincey, Romantic poetry, and contemporary novelists. This open-minded approach to subject and genre will form part of the focus of this essay, which highlights two key aspects of Masson's career. First, I will examine Masson's critical writing on the novel and the position afforded to this genre on his university syllabuses; and second, I will focus on Masson's pioneering work in promoting higher education for women.

When Masson, a graduate of the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, moved to London in the 1840s, he was introduced to the foremost literary figures of the day by influential fellow Scotsman Thomas Carlyle. The reviews and articles Masson was subsequently commissioned to write for leading publications such as the Athenaeum and the British Quarterly Review marked him out as a highly astute literary critic--a reputation that secured his appointment, in 1852, as Professor of English Language and Literature at University College London, replacing the poet Arthur Hugh Clough. In 1859, while still at University College, Masson was appointed editor of a new publication, Macmillan's Magazine, the first of the mid-century monthly shilling periodicals, launched just ahead of the Cornhill and Temple Bar. Masson remained there as editor until 1868, but moved to the University of Edinburgh in 1865 to take up the position of Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature.

Masson's posthumous reputation largely stands on his Milton scholarship. His multivolume study of the poet, the first volume of which was published in 1859, was a landmark piece of literary scholarship that confirmed Masson as one of the most important historians and critics of the Victorian age. Masson's work on Milton was part biography, part history. The hallmark of his style was to examine writers as products of their social environment; therefore, readers of each of his biographies were offered as much (if not more) in terms of historical context as literary analysis. Recent Milton scholars, among them William Riley Parker, Christopher Hill, and A.N. Wilson, have suggested that Masson's Life of John Milton should still be regarded as an outstanding resource on the poet (Wilson 197).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this widespread admiration for his work on Milton, many of Masson's other books have tended to be overshadowed, yet his British Novelists and their Styles, which was also published in 1859 and which consisted of four lectures originally delivered to the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh the previous year, warrants further attention for several reasons. …

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