19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 2 (2006)

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Introduction: The Long Nineteenth Century

David Feldman

Abstract


Welcome to the second number of the first online journal of nineteenth-century studies!

Some broadly drawn but well-known and well-established paths mark the field of Victorian studies: the novel from Dickens through Eliot to Hardy, poetry from Tennyson to Swinburne, political history from the 1832 Reform Act to the Boer War, and, following the interdisciplinary impulse that has so often animated the field, studies of the Victorian city, from the Manchester of Kay and Engels to the London of Morrison and Booth. Yet these conventions of periodization have never been settled. In the field of history there has long been a powerful alternative narrative – one that can be traced back to Toynbee and the Hammonds – that emphasises the long-term transformations wrought by the industrial revolution and so traces Victorian reform and urbanism to more fundamental processes inaugurated in the last decades of the eighteenth century. In literary studies, the phenomenal growth of interest in the fin de siecle has had a disruptive effect on the established contours of Victorianism. The attraction of the moment in part lies in the way that it is Victorian yet in important ways anticipates modernism.

More recently, the field of Victorian studies has encountered diverse disruptive influences. The revolt from grand narrative and the increasing interest in the particularities of moments have brought into question the very practice of periodization. Where an interest in periodization persists the decades unproblematically available to Victorianists has come under question. The voracious appetite of scholars committed to a long eighteenth century means that that field now encompasses a large part of the nineteenth century as well as the eighteenth and chunks of the seventeenth centuries. The impact of diligent studies of literary modernism and of twentieth-century histories that sensibly trace their origins to the late nineteenth century has had a similar effect. Moreover, it is interesting to speculate on the impact of the twenty-first century on the field. The interposition of another century between the nineteenth century and the present means that the casual claims that the Victorians disclose the origins of the present are less immediately plausible than once they were. More important, perhaps, is that scholars have asked questions and pursued issues that clearly extend beyond the boundaries of the Victorian period. Most obviously, the growing interest in representations of race and difference, in national identities, and in histories of empire, bring into focus a field of research that has vast implications for Victorianists but that also bursts the boundaries of conventional periodization.

It is in this context, in which the idea of the Victorian is in question, that in November 2005 the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies at Birkbeck organised a conference on the idea of the long nineteenth century. The papers gathered here, with the exception of Ella Dzelzainis's, were among those presented at the conference. Our starting point was not one of partisanship but a desire to interrogate this alternative periodization. The papers approach the idea of the long nineteenth century in two different ways. Margot Finn and Iwan Morus assess the value of the concept from particular disciplinary perspectives: history and history of science respectively. The papers by Adriana Craciun, Ella Dzelzainis and Elizabeth Prettejohn, open to question the boundaries of the Victorian by connecting that period to the legacy of the 1790s (Craciun and Dzelzainis) and to the early twentieth-century. (Prettejohn) Read together, the papers appear to offer a qualified confirmation of the heuristic value of the long nineteenth century. At the same time, the papers are self-consciously provisional. They are not meant to a represent a coherent line, least of all are they a bid to create a new orthodoxy, rather we hope that they will stimulate further reflection and debate, not least within the (virtual) pages of 19.




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