‘The Victorian’

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Abstract

Scepticism about the term ‘Victorian’ is part of a more general scepticism about literary history and criticism. An account is given of the doubts and risks involved, specifically, in writing the volume The Victorians 1830–1880 for the Oxford English Literary History series. The problems in establishing a framework for the Victorian age are themselves a version of the problems confronted by many Victorians. These problems are historical (in particular to do with secularization and the loss of home); they are also part of a continuous conversation amongst the Victorians that has a self-conscious ongoing history. A defence is offered of what constitutes a literary history – in particular of the Victorians, with whom literature often functions as an agnostic holding-ground for exploration, testing the area between the particular and the general in specific human terms. Literary history requires not only knowledge but also imagination; it is not an end in itself but a means to an end, particularly in relation to Victorian questioning.

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