I thought I’d use my first blog post to introduce some of the ideas that have lately preoccupied my thoughts about Victorian culture. These ideas hover around their attitudes towards change. To my mind, Victorian Britain was the first community to endure what Walter Benjamin called “the crisis of experience,” that state of shock brought about by the interruptive time-consciousness of modernity. There is no doubt that the industrial, scientific, economic, and philosophical revolutions precipitated profound changes in human geography, radically altered social relationships, and opened up new paths for imagining selfhood. At the same time, Britain largely escaped the uprisings and revolutions taking place in other European countries. Without those direct interventions, Victorian writers developed complex and often ambivalent responses to the prospect of imminent social change. While most would accept Benjamin Disraeli’s assertion that “in a progressive country, change is constant,” there is little evidence of any consensus among them as to how that change might be effected.
This ground has been trodden before — Raymond Williams’s pioneering work remains unsurpassed — but I’m not sure we’ve fully accounted for the faith expressed by many Victorians that artistic productions could make direct and powerful interventions in the ongoing and apparently inevitable social changes. To approach this matter, I propose a blend of social theory and affect theory. That sounds both vague and unwieldy, so let rephrase more directly and specifically: I’m interested in hope, hope understood as a topos in Victorian culture where social reform energies and personal desires intermingled. Future posts will try to elaborate the benefits of this approach, with attention to specific texts. But additionally I want to explore the connections between my ideas and other currents of Victorianist scholarship.
I’m optimistic — hopeful, even — that this blog will serve as a laboratory for these experiments. But whether this happens or not, I’m irrepressibly excited about using this forum to reflect on things Victorian.