This joint meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar (MIVSS) and the Midlands Romantic Seminar (MRS) focused on the idea of borders and periodisation in the long nineteenth century, particularly thinking about the Romantic-Victorian border: where do we draw the line between Romantics and Victorians in teaching and research, what purposes do they serve, and what about the grey areas in between?
I only attended the afternoon sessions, which began with Julian North speaking about “teaching and researching across the Romantic/Victorian border“, and it’s this paper which I want to focus on here. Julian started by discussing the plurality of Rom/Vic borders, suggesting the possible dates that might be chosen – the beginning of Victoria’s reign in 1837, the deaths of the Romantic poets in the 1820s, the Reform Bill of 1832 – the possibilities are endless and always problematic in their attempt to neatly define the end/ beginning of an era. From my perspective, I’d suggest the coming of the railway in the 1830s as the decisive moment separating the Romantics and Victorians: Thackeray’s comment that “we who have lived before the railways were made, belong to another world … It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then!” encapsulates the sense of the railway creating the world anew, but even with this we can’t neatly date “the coming of the railway” (the Stockton-Darlington railway in 1825? the first passenger line between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830? or the spread of the railways in the “mania” of the 1840s?). Or from a global perspective,we might take 1815, the re-opening of continental borders at the end of the Napoleonic wars, as signalling the first moves into a new era of global modernity.
Julian North also thought about the motives for imposing and crossing borders – something, it emerged later in the discussion, that is particularly a product of literary studies (and perhaps history of art), rather than history where the borders tend to depend on the specific research project. Periodisation was posed as a product itself of the Victorian period: the impulse in Victorian biography to impose a sharp distinction between the Romantic and Victorian periods- a generational conflict, in which the Victorians assert themselves as the responsible grown-ups to the young, immature Romantics.
The borders for teaching purposes were also raised: how do we define a module, what kind of borders do we construct within and around it, and what does this say to students about the period they’re studying? How do we teach the nuances of different parts of the periods in question, and how much does it matter? I wondered here too about generic differences: are the Rom/Vic borders more clearly defined or more easily imposed, perhaps, with regards to poetry (neatly divided here between term 1 on the Romantics, term 2 on the Victorians) than with the novel? The 19th century novel course on which I teach moves back and forth within the period 1800-1899 at various points as it’s structured thematically rather than chronologically; and as a result, we rather quietly cross – or rather, leap – over the problematic Rom/Vic area: there’s a noticeable gap in our chronology of texts from Austen in 1814 to Emily Bronte in 1848. Arguably when teaching the novel it’s the mid-century period where things begin to get really interesting (I’m biased, yes) but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of interesting work going on around the Rom/Vic borderlines and it is of course indicative to think about the kinds of negotiations in literary form going on around that period, and how that leads the way for what feels more firmly established by the later decades.
The question of the end-point of the century was also discussed – are the 1890s the start of a new period completly defined from what comes before? – and I’ll be thinking about these questions more over the next few weeks as we move into the later nineteenth-century and start to think about what kind of meaningful connections are to be made (or not) both with the mid-century and across the period as a whole.
The MIVSS/ MRS event also raised some interesting questions around collecting objects, with Kate Hill’s paper on Romantic and Victorian collections, which was pertinent in light of this cfp for a conference on “Transforming Objects” which was recently announced – I’m considering revisiting a short section of the thesis on foreign objects in the Victorian novel, which will provide a nice change of direction to all the Dickensian mobility of late.