According to J. Mordaunt Crook, "architecture is two things: it is service and art. Hence the tension between structure and appearance, function and form. Hence too the discord built into that eternal triangle: commodity, firmness and delight" (98) — the qualities that Vitrivius, the ancient writer on the subject, assigned to architecture. From this eternal triangle derives a fundamental dilemma faced by all architects. "But during the nineteenth century," Crook argues, "that dilemma was compounded first by changing demands, secondly by advancing technology, and thirdly by the whole phenomenon of historicism: the multiplication of stylistic choice. The result was a crisis in confidence. In religion, literature and philosophy the mid-Victorian period was an age of doubt. So too with architecture: even the greatest Victorian architecture was shot through with uncertainty. That uncertainty was the dilemma of style" (98).

To be sure, some major Victorian literature was, as Crook claims, "shot through with uncertainty." Both Alfred Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam and The Idylls of the King famously center on religious doubt and its devastating effects on self and society, as did novels of religious crisis from John Henry Newman's Loss and Gain to Mary Augusta Ward's Robert Elsmere. But the poems of Christina Rossetti, John Keble, John Henry Newman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Coventry Patmore, and Victorian England's many religious poets show certainty, rather than the opposite, while the atheists, such James Thomson and A. C. Swinburne, also have firm convictions. Even Matthew Arnold, who is often described as embodying Victorian religious crisis, finds the crisis in what to do after one has lost belief rather than in any uncertainty about belief itself. As E. D. H. Johnson pointed out in his classic Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry (1952),

Orthodox Christianity was intellectually inadmissible to Arnold. Very little of his early poetry exhibits any serious preoccupation with the Christian revelation. Perhaps the nostalgic undertone of "Dover Beach" is as close as the poet comes to an admission of the consolations offered by religion. But with the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the Sea of Faith sounding in his ears, he faces a world bereft of any spiritual motive, a world which offers: "Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain." [154]

Moreover, like most Victorian architecture, some Victorian novels — most obviously the historical novels of Richard Blackmore, Charles Kingsley, Newman, and Charles Reade — show the effect of historicism. Even some of the most famous works of Victorian fiction, such as Pickwick Papers, Middlemarch, and Vanity Fair are set in the past. Nonetheless, most such works use the past in the same way that Browning, Tennyson, and Swinburne use the dramatic monologue — either as literary laboratories with which to explore controversial ideas or as polemic to advance a firmly held view of religious, politics, or society. Setting a narrative in the past and including details that distinguish it from the present does not in any way seem a matter of uncertainty; usually the opposite. What does this fact tell us about the relation between historicism in literature and historicism in architecture?

Some points for discussion


Crook, J. Mordaunt. The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Last modified 15 June 2006