Magazine article The Spectator

Hacking a Path through the Jungle

Magazine article The Spectator

Hacking a Path through the Jungle

Article excerpt

THE VICTORIANS:

THE OXFORD ENGLISH LITERARY HISTORY, VOLUME 8,1830-1880

by Philip Davis

OUP, L30, pp. 648, ISBN 0198184476

Jonathan Bate, the general editor of this series, which replaces the Oxford History of English Literature, announces in a preface how exceptionally difficult it is to write literary history at all in modern times. As the slightly awkward new title of the series suggests, there is all that American, Scots, Welsh and Irish stuff now. They need more than the odd chapter, so away with them. Hundreds of dead women writers are now actually in print who were formerly unheard of. Distinctions between high and low culture have collapsed. Competing theoretical approaches raise terrible anxieties. Evaluation itself is under threat. So the task of writing the history of Eng. Lit., which once involved kicking authors into a neat queue lined up behind Chaucer, dealing firmly with the mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease and other old friends, now can't even be attempted without irony and self-doubt.

The Victorians, one of the first volumes to appear in the new series, is a brilliant book. It would be a pity if contemporary scepticism about literary history meant that Philip Davis doesn't get the credit he deserves for dealing in such a masterly way with the vast quantity of material he tackles. How much less laborious it would have been for him to concoct a monograph on colonial gender or some such. How much more entertaining for the rest of us that he chose selflessly to hack paths through the jungle of Victorian writing instead. Rather than lining up the big names in succession he organises his unwieldy material partly thematically and partly generically -- Nature, Religion, Psychology but also Drama, Novel, Poetry. This throws up many unexpected and fascinating connections, though it requires more of the reader's concentration than an author -by-author arrangement would do. There are discussions of famous writers, of course - a superb account of Dickens - but he is also singularly successful in linking different writers: tracing connections between Harriet Martineau and George Eliot, for instance, and between William Morris and Browning.

One of the endearing things about the book is that Davis is so broad-minded and generous in his sympathies. There are lots of Victorian writers who are routinely ridiculed by critics and historians - others who seem only to exist in order to illustrate clicked accounts of Victorian life. …

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