Thanks to Professor Poston for sharing this review, which first appeared in Modern Philology 87.1 (1989): 98-101.
s someone who is himself at work on a study of the eighteen-thirties, I confess that I approached the task of reviewing this book with a mixture of eagerness, curiosity, and not altogether benign anticipation. But with duly mixed emotions, I am compelled to describe the result as an important book-subtle, wide-ranging, perceptive-and a reader's delight. While employing a single year as its point of reference, it avoids many of the difficulties that such studies usually encounter: insufficient focus, arbitrary linkages of works that have little other connection than the fact that they were published in the same year, crude historical generalizations, or a disconcerting severance of the material under review from the years preceding or following. For Stein, Victoria's year, extending from her accession in the summer of 1837 to the coronation of June 1838, is not a self-contained entity but a kind of vantage point from which we look now forward, now backward, to understand the genesis of early Victorianism.
In his introduction, Stein acknowledges the difficulty of bringing even a short span of time into proper view, and the danger of pressing his subject matter into too coherent a thesis; he avoids the opposite danger, randomness or the appearance of randomness, with equal skill. Victoria's Year is primarily an essay in reading, but reading in many different forms: not just books, quarterlies, and popular journalism, but maps, sketches (both verbal and visual), posters, and events that take on the character of a kind of public iconography. Stein's goal is to study more properly "literature in culture . . . not so much to present a comprehensive survey as . . . to define the interconnections and discontinuities-with a larger world that gives the writing of this time its special flavor" (p. 6; emphasis added). To that end he sets about in his first chapter to discuss "signs, scenes, and sketches" mostly dating from 1836 — Victoria's sketches of gypsies, Dickens's Boz, the account in the Penny Magazine (with accompanying illustrations) of the opening of the London and Greenwich Railway, Pugin's Contrasts, and a watercolor by John Orlando Parry which is itself a picture of London posters as well as street types. The second chapter, taking its title from Tennyson, turns to "the Golden Year,"beginning with the Queen's accession and the public reaction to it, continuing with Tennyson's poem as an exploration of the problem of writing poetry itself and the extension of that topic in such works as "Godiva" and "The Epic." The shift throughout the decade from the heroic to the domestic in prose pastoral, the paintings of Maclise and Landseer, and Elizabeth Barrett's 1838 collection, The Seraphim, and Other Poems, is particularly pronounced as the decade draws to an end. Disraeli's Venetia, Mary Shelley's Falkner, and Harriet Martineau's Deerbrook are treated as explorations in various keys of domesticity as well as examinations of the limits of heroism (Byronic or otherwise) and the boundaries of women's action. The productions of the contemporary theater —notably Browning's Strafford, Thomas Noon Talfourd's The Athenian Captive, Bulwer's Lady of Lyons, and the plays of James Sheridan Knowles — are seen as reflecting the impingement of social change on private lives.
In chapter 3, "Under the Volcano," Stein locates the tremors of the period in the findings of the geologists, Darwin's reading of Malthus in 1838, and the anti-Malthusianism of Oliver Twist, which "dramatizesthe power of subterraneanforces to burst their bounds and expose the fragility, the impermanence of the solid surface separating a known from an unknown world" (p. 105). "Locksley Hall" suggests a resignation "associated with a modern, postscientific view of a world governed by impersonal forces" (p. 112), and Tennyson's In Memoriam, Darwin's Beagle journal, and Carlyle's The French Revolution all show traces of the aftershock felt by contemporary observers of the scientific and political scene. It is perhaps in this chapter that I feel most keenly the limitations of Stein's decision to focus on cultural and intellectual, to the relative exclusion of political and social, issues; surely the great volcano of the decade, the Reform Bill, or the reviving social discontents represented by the People's Charter and the emergence of more radical Chartist spokesmen like Richard Oastler, J. R. Stephens, and Bronterre O'Brien in this year must be factored in as sources of early Victorian unease.
Less assimilated into the structure of the book as a whole, though entirely rewarding as interlinked essays, are the chapters (4 and 6) tracing respectively the preoccupation with the idea of the stolen child in the fiction of the period, and the events associated with J. M. W. Turner's painting of 1838, The Fighting 'Temeraire' tugged to her last berth to be broken up. This last subject elicits a remarkably sustained and illuminating discussion which demonstrates that Stein is as much at home in art as in literary criticism. (In this connection I would also single out his readings of the Parry poster, the Cruikshank illustrations for Oliver Twist, and the depiction of the railway by Gerald F. Bragg and The Penny Magazine.) In the actual towing of Nelson's celebrated fighting ship up the Thames that September, Turner's response to it, and the sketches by various hands for a proposed Nelson monument, Stein reads an emerging mythos of death and renewal which simultaneously venerates the past and sets the stage for a future as yet only dimly grasped, one that reverberates with both public and private meaning. Stein has found here an appropriate symbol for the beginning of Victoria's reign, but in the recessional motifs of the painting the reader may also hear resonances of that reign's ending.
In chapter 5, Stein discusses Harriet Martineau's writings of 1837 and 1838 on America in conjunction with Ruskin's very early The Poetry of Architecture, published during the same year in Loudon's Architectural Magazine, and Darwin's journals from the Beagle expedition; the chapter is linked, perhaps a trifle self-consciously, with the preceding analysis of Oliver Twist as yet more evidence for how one finds one's way through a confusing new world and how one interprets it. And in the conclusion, Stein traces a postlude in the "Sun Pictures" produced in 1839 as the earliest examples of photographic art, using them to identify what he calls "a more general transformation in contemporary self-consciousness from varied and tentative responses to an unknown world to a new, more fixed mythology, including a new mythology of the Queen herself" (p. 8). Thus, as he himself summarizes it, the movement from 1836 to 1839 (with a glimpse of the 1840s) is a movement from perceiving to remembering, with the recurring issue being "the problems of representation posed by new forms of experience-or those regarded as new" (p. 8).
I have said enough here to convey my admiration of Stein's project and its execution. Yet on the whole, that execution is most convincing in the clustering of supporting details around his major themes, less so on those occasions when he tries to pull back from the evidence and provide a synoptic view or justify the structure he has arrived at. His avoidance of a straitjacketing thesis is wholly admirable, but the provisional generalizations about his material are sometimes troubling, beginning with his remark that
the necessity for intellectual legerdemain is confirmed by the shifting categories of explanation that emerge so conspicuously in the late 1830s. Nothing seems more certain about the time than its uncertainties. . . . Nothing seems so discontinuous as the pattern of discontinuity. . . . There are fewer resolutions than failures to resolve, or failures that try to conceal them- selves beneath unconvincing gestures at success. [pp. 16-17]
Not only is this a remark that might be made about virtually any decade in the history of industrial and postindustrial society, but it also points to the fact that Victoria's Year is a study of emergences; that is, it is centered on the dilemmas of early Victorianism and thus tends to couch everything in the language of change and crisis. But one is in danger of missing thereby the evidence of stability, of at least a degree of continuity with earlier years. To locate the instruments of perception in those contemporaries like Dickens, Darwin, Tennyson, and Martineau who were sensitive to the new tremors of the age is inevitably to slight the consciousness of those who, for all practical purposes, were still living in a Georgian aftermath: the autumn of the great Whig houses, the breakfasts of Samuel Rogers, or the poetry of Yarrow Revisited. Those who saw the Reform Bill as a happy settlement, once and for all, of heretofore intractable social problems were not entirely wrong, since if not a once-and-for-all solution it provided precedent for a mechanism by which to deal with such problems again; those who saw the French Revolution of 1830 as an encouraging sign that change need not be accompanied by violence were, again, not entirely wrong in their premise even if they might be adjudged momentarily overoptimistic in their prediction. Stein seems to accommodate these possibilities when, in looking at the shift in the tone and stance of Dickens's writings from Boz to Oliver, he suggests that in 1836 it was "still possible to contemplate a rapidly changing world with equanimity" (p. 36) and later when he points to "a crisis that would become increasingly apparent in the late 1830s, as various people attempted to understand, or simply represent, the rapidly changing contemporary world"(p. 55).
On the other hand, if 1837-38 does mark a pivotal series of events, a turning toward change and a heightened sense of crisis (in large part for those same political reasons that are excluded from the purview of Victoria's Year),many of its distinctly "Victorian" symptoms were evident a decade or more before. The movement toward a greater emphasis on domesticity was already present in literature and the arts in the 1820s, fueled by the Evangelical revival; the reaction against the Regency had found expression by then, and the narrative experiments of Disraeli's Vivian Grey or Bulwer's Pelham at the end of the twenties test the limits of both Byronic skepticism and Byronic melancholy. But finally, such strictures do not detract from Stein's achievement; they are necessary only to set that achievement in the larger context that is part of the ongoing task of scholarship, collaboratively understood. Review of Richard L. Stein's “Victoria's Year: English Literature and Culture, 1837-1838“
It must be said, however, that the Oxford University Press has not quite risen to the occasion. Not only is there an excessively large number of typographical errors (up to what is surely the most visible and embarrassing, though by its nature also the most transitory, the misspelling of George Landow's name on the dust jacket), but the reproductions are generally inferior in quality, and as a result the reader may find it difficult to detect in the accompanying illustrations those very details that are so important to Stein's argument. As a profession we have a stake in finding the resources to do this sort of thing better than was apparently possible here.
Stein, Richard L. Victoria's Year: English Literature and Culture, 1837-1838. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Pp. xiii+ 314.
Last modified 16 November 2014