[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — Katherine Miller Weber]


Illuminated initial T his collection of 15 short essays describes "Victorian patterns of engagement with concepts of difference' and conflict'" (1). Its pleasing eclecticism reflects the almost unlimited range of its subjects, which—under various monikers—have been regularly probed at recent conferences, including the 2010 Northeast Victorian Studies Association meeting, "Fighting Victorians." As Dinah Birch and Mark Llewellyn write, conflict and difference were "part of a Victorian system of understanding and interpreting the world, and [are therefore] crucial to our analysis of the period" (5). But perhaps "conflict and difference" seem ubiquitous in Victorian writing because they are also implicit in the protocols of Victorianism—because they underwrite our scholarly orientation to the Victorian period. The best chapters of this book address that possibility and remark on the historicity of difference as an episteme rather than merely recounting the histories of particular disagreements and distinctions.

Victorian versions of "difference" converge with modern concepts of it under the fashionable rubric of liberalism. Yet Helen Small cautions against claiming as much for John Stuart Mill's brand of rationalism and liberal universalism as some recent scholarship has. Contesting Amanda Anderson's The Way We Argue Now (2006), "part of a clearly identifiable return to universalism" (18), Small treats conflict as "something more and other than disagreement," something with "'embedded' interests and ways of life" (15) that cannot be settled with rational, philosophical argument. In a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, Small productively critiques Anderson for describing an ostensible conflict (between the ideals of "generous pluralism" and Habermas's "proceduralism" and "normativity") as a "productive tension" (20). With such a phrase, Small argues, Anderson risks "precisely the mystification or 'aggrandizement' of ethos (the ethos of argument) that she has, rightly and robustly, criticized" (23). Literary-critical debates, however rational, rarely solve real conflicts. To illustrate this, Small exactingly reads Trollope's Phineas Finn (1869) as "a novel in need of John Stuart Mill ... a novel about the desirability of taking conflicts of principle more seriously, and with less complacency, than Victorian Britain characteristically does" (29). Yet for all her critique of Anderson's book, Small's admiration for it and for Mill's concept of rational debate shines through her style and suggests how tactful assertions of difference can be collegial and productive.

Herbert Tucker knows how to manage conflict even while savoring its pleasures. Poised between his "non-violent liberal politics" and his taste for an "aesthetics of stressful conflict," he shows with elegance and verve how Robert Browning's dramatic monologues unsettle the productivity of conflict that was implicitly inscribed in the dialectic form of Romantic lyric. "The skitter, careen, and lurch of [Browning's] muscle-bound metric," writes Tucker, cultivates in readers a "habitual condition of truculent arousal"; Browning's style unremittingly fights against the "intellectually insidious ... slumber of the Hegelian dialectic set on autopilot: the belief, in other words, that in being spoken for by the century's new master narrative, which subsumed the struggle for existence into a civilizing history, one was ipso facto a fighter already" (37-8). According to Tucker, Browning favored argumentative negotiation to settlement: "Tensed, aslant, patiently anomalous, [he] practices peace by rehearsing conflict" (46-7). Here Tucker risks rewriting conflict as productive debate. But, with signature wit (as in the Bishop of St. Praxed's "not altogether rote piety" [39]) and playful prose (as in "Making her way in the lyrical dark by the whisper of ideological radar" [42]), Tucker soundly answers the "evil" of "a pervasive cultural malaise" that he identifies as Browning's unshakeable antagonist. While deftly ranging across Browning's oeuvre, he most closely analyzes "A Woman's Last Word" (1855). Throughout he highlights the "dual recognition" that Browning's poetry consistently provokes in the modern reader: that the "ghost" of bygone ideology haunts the present and that contemporary ideologies share vexing inadequacies with Victorian ideologies (39).

Kate Flint brings to the study of conflict and difference the learning displayed in her beautiful book, The Transatlantic Indian, 1776-1930 (Princeton 2009). Incisively describing the myth of "Off-White Indians," she parses difference in anthropological, racial, and generic terms. More importantly, she lucidly identifies the historicity of difference itself by showing how similar thematizations of racial and gender differences signified different things in 1855 and in 1904. In two novels, Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! (1855) [outside the Victorian Web] and William Henry Hudson's Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904), familiar characterizations of Native Americans as "touchstone[s] of savagery" are complicated by "White Indian" female characters who turn out not to be Indians at all (68, 77). But as Flint explains, these female characters evoke two different conceptions of "savagery" and the authority to define it. By slavishly submitting to her muscular-Christian British lover, Amyas, Kingsley's Ayacanora, the orphaned daughter of a British adventurer and his Spanish mistress, enacts what Flint calls "an anti-feminist revision" of Jane Eyre (72). For Flint, then, Kingsley's novel suggests that, "however attractive in its sensationalism, the trope of the White Indian needs to be a fiction, in order that a foundational myth of the origins of imperial manliness may have its plausibility underscored" (73). Hudson's Rima clearly differs from Kingsley's Anglo-Spanish heroine. Apparently "independent of all known races," Rima falls from a tree like a "great white bird" when the Venezuelan natives kill her (75). In Flint's account of her, Rima's "narrative trajectory" is a 20th-century revision of "the Dying Indian trope: one more occasion for nostalgia, for mourning a lost race, and for lamenting the loss of pastoral innocence, signaled through the death of a woman with no apparent living relatives" (75). But while Kingsley's hero simply accepts the supplications of his slavish lover, Rima's lover Abel takes revenge and by doing so becomes something savage, implying that savagery might be "innate within all of us" (77). A further difference between Rima and Kingsley's heroine springs from Rima's otherness: "an otherness so extreme that regression cannot take one there ... a dream of origins, an original state of being so pure that it can never be recaptured—indeed, is doomed to extinction" in the modern world of "territorial disagreements, ecological depredation, and the apparent inevitability of human degeneration" (78).

Holly Furneaux also thinks differently about Victorian portrayals of gender difference. Countermanding the orthodox correlation of masculinity and aggression, she rethinks "masculine social worth in the 1850s and '60s" in terms of "gentle tactility" and "male tenderness" (111, 110). Extending the insights of her exquisite Queer Dickens (Oxford, 2009), Furneaux explains how in Great Expectations (1860) the odd, class-motivated fisticuffs between Pip and Herbert Pocket swiftly give way to Pocket's "restorative touching," which recurs at the end of the novel when he soothes away from Pip the effects of Orlick's violence. Likewise, Joe's way of nursing Pip out of a fever strictly conforms to the prescripts of Florence Nightingale's Notes on Nursing (1859) but not to her rigid ideals of gender and class (113). Between Herbert and Joe and in the recovery room Dickens forges what Furneaux calls a "parity of tenderness," a "fantasy of equality and class harmony" wrought by masculine "egalitarian acts of healing" (114, 115). To be sure, Dickens is rather heavily and obviously conflicted—to put it generously—about class differentiation, but Furneaux justly qualifies her thesis: Dickens "tentatively prescribes a model of masculine gentleness that, in redefining social value according to individual worth, can avert class antagonism" (115). Turning then to Dinah Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman (1856), Furneaux qualifies the "somewhat overdetermined" readings of its "muscular Christianity." Stressing how the lack of an adequate critical vocabulary obscures the differences between categories like tenderness and effeminacy, she notes the dearth of words for masculine tenderness. Finding "queer creativity" in Craik's novel, she detects an "alternative configuration of family ... in various male nursing narratives" (117-118). Finally, she writes, Charlotte Yonge's Heir of Redclyffe (1853) "proffers a highly popular non-aggressive new chivalrous ideal, in which the sword is exchanged for the soothing swab" (120). Previewing a promising book on the history of the tender gentleman and the figure of the male nurse, this essay corrects a habitual misidentification of masculinity with muscle and violence. In place of that, Furneaux shows that at least some Victorian writers conceived of masculinity as active and chivalric but also compassionate.

Melissa Raines offers a taste of another promising project. She compares Herbert Spencer's description of "vibrations" (units of consciousness) to the reverberations and flutters of Eliot's syntax in Felix Holt, the Radical. Eliot, Raines argues, encourages readers "to feel the grammatical blows or shocks in the syntax of her novels, to find themselves in difficult places where both they and the characters are challenged by nerve-like thoughts that are caught somewhere between painful conscious recognition and instinctive subconscious sensitivity" (187). Furthermore, Raines notes, "syntactical conflicts between manuscript and published text" (189) suggest that Eliot wrote "in favour of the creation of a more marked vibratory pattern to the overall narrative" (191). Raines is not fully convincing. In passages like the one just quoted, she ascribes more intention to Eliot than I would credit, and elsewhere she could have identified more clearly the precise properties of the syntactic features she examines. But Raines's chapter stands out for intelligently correlating the epistemic implications of Spencer's Principles of Psychology with the nuances of Eliot's style. Without reducing works of fiction to themes and images, Raines models a beautiful, timely mode of studying science and literature.

Juliet John, whose Dickens and Mass Culture (Oxford, 2011) has just appeared, views the paradoxes of the heritage industry, which "promotes an idea of culture and of Dickens which represses commercialism" (157) even as it and Dickens both keenly capitalize(d) on the way "fame and posthumousness could transform even the most vulgar of objects into artefacts [sic] and into money" (158). With pleasing excerpts from the Dickens Museum guestbook, John demonstrates how "Heritage tourism feeds both the need to see the past as different or 'Other,' and the need to experience a sense of organic and emotional connection to our ancestors"; and yet, she notes, "in heritage tourism, the commodity is not seen as representing a link to the Victorian past but as symbolising the difference or conflict between past and present" (160). John catalogs a set of "heritage techniques" in Dickens's prose, including his commoditizing anthropomorphism. Though the specific techniques won't surprise any scholarly reader of Dickens, John insightfully marshals them to explain a "dialectical 'structure of feeling' underpinning the heritage industry" and Dickens's prose, a paradigm of conflicts that also function "as continuities and connections" (168). For instance, Dickens exuberantly mythologized the "usualness" of home-life, but like the heritage industry, he guiltlessly capitalized on this saleable comfort.

Janice Allan inspects the saleable discomforts of sensation fiction. Comparing Marian Halcombe of The Woman in White with the hirsute-faced Miss Julia Pastrana ("the baboon lady" or "Nondescript"), and Miserrimus Dexter of Law and the Lady [outside Victorian Web] with P. T. Barnum's fraudulent "Wild Man of the Prairies" (or "What Is It?"), Allan explains how such characters, "a type of abomination," staged conflicts about literary genres (141-3). Early reviewers recognized such "anomalous bodies" as peculiar hallmarks of Collins's fiction, but Allan stresses that they are also "particularly insistent signifier[s] of Collins's work as anomalous" (143; emphasis original). Evolutionary discourse inflected the reception of sensation fiction. The adjudication of sensationalism and realism in the reviews, writes Allan, "echoed, in generic terms, Darwin's disturbing assertion about the impossibility of demarcating the boundaries between species" (146). For reviewers, Collins's sensation fiction threatened the comforting distinctions between human and ape, civilization and primitive savagery, the refined parlor and the working-class kitchen. And yet at times, such fiction also functioned handily as the racialized or "nondescript" "other" against which critics like Alexander Smith asserted the superiority of a canon of domestic realist fiction.

The periodicals nurtured debates about the value of different genres because such debates generated a lot of print. Laurel Brake sharpens the lines of this history. In "an attempt to displace the periodical review' by the literary essay'" (204), she explains, Matthew Arnold "began to prise apart" the "symbiotic relationship" between literature and journalism (201). Nimbly stepping about well-trodden ground, Blake sets "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" against W. T. Stead's "The Future of Journalism" to show how the gap between literature and journalism was more rhetorical than practical. Most writers and editors involved—even Walter Pater—cultivated the distinction in writing only to ignore it in practice, for the periodicals enlarged their audiences and offered a medium to test their work.

Victorians dissented even over daydreaming. Or more precisely, in the words of Natalie Mera Ford, over the conflict between "generative and degenerative brands of intense reverie" (83). Focusing on Walter Cooper Dendy's intriguing The Philosophy of Mystery (1841), Ford shows how writers from Erasmus Darwin to Freud treated reverie "as a feature of the lowest and highest capacities of the human mind" (83): as poetic, insightful abstraction and as insalubrious lack of control—inattentive, solipsistic, apathetic insanity. Ford nicely examines the intersection of different disciplinary styles of writing. For example, she underscores how the positive portrayal of reverie in Dendy's frequent literary allusions and epigraphs contradicts the scientific pathologizing of reverie in which they are embedded. "Taxonomists in the professionalising discipline of British psychiatry," Ford says, "struggled to reconcile the powerful Romantic, Rousseauvian heritage that lingered around the term [reverie] with their medical analyses of trancelike interiority" (88). Ford concludes with intriguing correlations to Breuer and Freud's "double perspective" on Anna O. in Studies in Hysteria (1895) and recent psychoanalytic conceptions of reverie as therapeutic.

Difference, therefore, seems always to be as therapeutic and productive as it is damning. Fertilizing the field of disability studies with many insights about the aesthetics of illness, Alexandra Tankard reminds us that Aubrey Beardsley celebrated "difference" even as the new science of eugenics bred "hostility towards consumptives as physical and mental degenerates.'" Beardsley, Tankard suggests, personifies "a gleeful manipulation of earlier Romantic consumptive stereotypes, and rejects their characteristic passivity and tragic incompleteness" (93). For Tankard, Beardsley's most representative rebuttal of the Romantic consumptive typology is the 1897 Book of Fifty Drawings [outside the Victorian Web], for it self-assuredly "emphasises the artist's status as an unsentimental, mercenary and successful professional" (104). Turning from the aesthetics of illness to the First Afghan War of 1838-42, Muireann O'Cinneide confronts the historical questions raised by five multiply conflicting accounts of it, including those of the Earl of Auckland, author of the "Simla Manifesto," and the military historian Sir John Kaye, who wrote the 1851 History of the War in Afghanistan. Exposing horrifying but intriguing illusions, delusions, and discrepancies between different accounts of the war, O'Cinneide shows how "gathering information builds up its own momentum towards conflict." As she explains, "Kaye constructs a narrative whereby accumulating information about Afghanistan creates an impetus towards war—despite the fact that much of the information received was actually counseling against this step" (61). According to Matthew Bradley, the "fin de siècle" displaces theological debates about eternal punishment. By the end of the century, he claims, the Hegelian historicism of liberal theology seemed to extinguish controversies about "eternal punishment and damnatory eschatology in general" (238). But instead of being settled, Bradley contends, the controversies were translated into the idiom of "fin de siècle" culture, "a secular eschatology that stressed sin, damnation and ultimate collapse when such ideas were rapidly losing purchase" in religious discourse (229-30). While Bradley traces this displacement in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and other fin-de-siècle books and essays, he observes that the poet Lionel Johnson, who introduced Wilde to Alfred Douglas, exemplifies fin-de-siècle experimentation with the "deeply unfashionable theological tropes" of "eternal punishment and damnatory eschatology" (238). This account of decadence neatly returns the book to the "malaise" that Tucker describes as Browning's antagonist: the lazy conviction that an inherited dialectic—salvation and damnation—provided enough conflict to live by.

This collection is not consistently strong. While every one of its essays describes provocative Victorian conflicts and differences, not all of them enrich the history of conflict and difference. In some chapters, familiar modes of analysis yield equally familiar observations about race and gender conflicts. Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, for example, addresses Anna Leonowens's The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1873) as sources for Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I (1951). Though Weltman ably shows how The King and I turns the radical potential of its originals (as well as Uncle Tom's Cabin [1852]) into something complacent enough for 1950s America, the manifold differences between the musical and its sources yield predictable conclusions about race and gender difference. Likewise unsurprising are the conclusions reached by Malcolm Chase. Cataloging differences between the "two nations" (rich and poor), between parents and children, and between working-class husbands and working wives who threatened "the ideal of the male bread-winner" (130), Chase shows how many children of Chartist parents embraced and acted on their own political principles. Yet even though he commends the fascinating, only known Chartist sampler (embroidered by Ann Dawson in 1847 at the age of 5) for its "subversive," "atypical" inclusion of "overt political sentiment" and "secular verse" (136), readers will find the content of this subversion altogether typical. Finally, the conflicts examined by Galia Ofek also turn out to be unsurprising. According to Ofek, the fictional brothers and sisters in Sarah Grand's The Beth Book (1897) and Mary Cholmondeley's Red Pottage (1899) express competing "claims to authorship and possession" in conflicting interpretations of the Bible. But the conflicts are altogether predictable. They might be more educative if differentiated from the role of Biblical text and interpretation in the late 18th-century revolutionary controversy, which initially conjoined British assertions of women's rights to critiques of primogeniture and undoubtedly influenced Grand and Cholmondeley. In sum, these three contributors all identify important differences and conflicts, but as compared with the other contributors, they are less attuned to the history of conflict and difference as conceptual categories and therefore do not share innovative (different) perspectives on the forms of difference that motivate their analyses.

At its best, however, this volume shows how thoroughly conflict and difference underwrite the Victorian culture that it describes as well as the subjects, stylistic features, and perspectives scholars employ to describe it. While criticism here capitalizes most explicitly on thematic differences and conflicts (like the contested categories of race, class, gender, nationality, and religion), it relies equally on conflict and difference in its formal, generic, and methodological turns (to paradoxes, anxieties, internal contradictions, and metaphors; to competing contexts, interpretations, and ambiguities; to implicit assumptions and ideologies that contest explicit content; and to generic deviation). Conflict and difference underwrite the critical production of knowledge. This isn't news. Though Derrida (a notable absence in this book) most notably posited difference as the root of Western language and thought, plenty of Victorians beat him to the punch. In The Emotions and the Will (1859), for instance, Alexander Bain suggests that difference or "discrimination" underwrites all mental operations. So, while most readers will consult this book for the chapters that treat their particular subfields, the collection as a whole considerably enhances what we know about cognition, feeling, and knowledge production in the Victorian era and how—through what forms of conflict and difference—we know it.


Dinah Birch and Mark Llewellyn, eds. Conflict and Difference in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. x + 257 pp.

Victorian Web Overview

Last modified 18 July 2014