From Illustrated London News, September 16, 1845

Interdisciplinary research has to be the answer when it comes to understanding the Victorians, writes Professor Simon Goldhill, one of the researchers involved in a £1.2 million project on Victorian Britain that is reaching the end of its five-year programme.

The project has left a mark in the field of Victorian studies. It has raised the profile of hitherto neglected bodies of knowledge which the Victorians took for granted but which we do not.

Professor Simon Goldhill

It was the age of industrialisation and political revolution, compulsory education and the dominance of the novel, the start of the postal service and the invention of the train, the excitement of evangelical Christianity and the critical challenge to the authorities of the past. Above all, it was an era that knew it was a time like no other, a time of radical progress and visionary reform. As the Victorians were forging remarkable economic and technological innovations, they were also obsessed with understanding their own history. In archaeology, geology, history, theology and evolutionary biology, how the past was understood was revolutionising the present – and shaping the future in which we now live.

For the past five years, a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust has taken a fresh look at the development and impact of the competing views of the past in 19th-century Britain. ‘Past versus Present: Abandoning the Past in an Age of Progress’, a project carried out by the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group, has broken new ground in transcending the disciplinary boundaries that are themselves an intellectual legacy of the Victorians.

It has proved to be a wonderful experience for all concerned, and a model of how productive and exciting a long-term interdisciplinary project can be. Each member of the project has found their work developing and expanding its horizons, and the group has provided a remarkably supportive space for exploring the richness of Victorian culture. Historians of modern Britain (Professor Peter Mandler) have been brought together with historians of science (Professor Jim Secord), and classicists (Professors Mary Beard and Simon Goldhill) with experts in literary criticism (Professor Clare Pettitt), along with eight postdoctoral fellows and three graduate students, to explore the full range of the Victorian experience, representation and comprehension of the past.

Central to the group’s activities was the weekly meeting where we read and discussed Victorian material, secondary sources and our own research in progress. These were generous but heated debates, where each member had something different to bring to the table. The varied ranges of knowledge and approaches were thrashed out, sometimes painfully. These led to regular workshops with invited guests from around the world, which in turn produced editions of journals and other publications (see below for the two most recent books).

Our projects looked at major defining questions of Victorian culture that can be properly treated only by a multidisciplinary team: from what the Victorians learned in school and university, to the poetry or novels they wrote; from how the new technologies of archaeology transformed biblical scholarship, to how imperial administrators changed policies from conquering and looting to ruling and maintenance of national cultural heritage; and from explorations of contemporary political violence to explorations of the influence of the ancient world on contemporary political idealism.

The project has left a mark in the field of Victorian studies. It has raised the profile of hitherto neglected bodies of knowledge which the Victorians took for granted but which we do not, largely because of our different disciplinary map. We have gained a new appreciation of the paramount significance for the Victorian imagination of classical languages and archaeology, of Egypt and the Far East, of geology and the Biblical texts.

Although the project inevitably calls itself by the buzzword ‘interdisciplinary’, we were actually studying a period when the disciplines were just beginning to be formed and professionalised. In effect, much of the work was not so much interdisciplinary, as learning to reach back behind the disciplines to different regimes and organisations of knowledge. In exploring the Victorian attitudes to the past, we were exploring how the current scholarly map was formed. In investigating a Victorian sense of heritage, we were discovering the intellectual heritage that all modern academics share.

Victorian appetites

A fascination for imported Zulus and the living curiosities of the modern world, an obsession with the beauty and perfection of ancient Greece and Rome – two very different sides of Victorian appetites, and the subject of recently published books by members of the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group.

In 1853, 13 Zulus were brought and displayed as “the savages at Hyde Park Corner” (where Dickens saw them), to perform dances, rituals and songs for a public of gazing English men and women. At first, such shows tended to be small-scale entrepreneurial speculations of just a single person or a small group. By the end of the century, performers were being imported by the hundreds and housed in purpose-built “native” villages for months at a time, delighting the crowds and allowing scientists and journalists the opportunity to reflect on racial differences, foreign policy, slavery, missionary work and the empire.

In the recently published Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Dr Sadiah Qureshi provides the first substantial overview of the Victorian penchant for exhibiting live human beings, especially those from exotic foreign climes.

The book is full of startling stories and stunning images, but what makes it so interesting and important is its revelation of how science and popular culture developed hand in hand where race, anthropology and geography are concerned. We are still inheriting the impact of the Victorian fascination with race, and this book reveals that history with vibrant and incisive insight.

If Dr Sadiah Qureshi explores how the Victorians looked at the exotic, disturbing and denigrated ‘others’ of Victorian thinking – the natives, the savages, the racially inferior – Professor Simon Goldhill looks at the Victorians’ projection of an ideal, glorious origin for Western culture in classical antiquity. Just as the Victorians stared with horrified distance at “the savages”, so they wondered at the perfection of Greek bodies, the order of the Roman Empire, the beauty and profundity of classical poetry.

Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity demonstrates how classics made up the furniture of the mind for Victorians, educated, as they were, in Greek and Latin and surrounded by classical imagery.

But, more significantly, this book also shows how classics became the way of enacting the most pressing cultural anxieties of the period. Whether it was Oscar Wilde and his chums looking back to Greece for sexual liberation, or painters turning to classical nudity to ground their aesthetic vision, or historians and novelists arguing the politics of democracy or the role of the early church, it was always a detour through the ideal of classical antiquity that framed their thinking.

The Victorians prided themselves, anxiously, on being an age of progress, but progress was often judged and understood according to the ideal model of the ancient past – the Greece, as Nietzsche paradigmatically put it, which is the only place where we are truly at home.

These newly published books show how complex a business Victorian self-definition and self-understanding is: between public shows and grand opera, anthropology and history, religion and novels, science and painting, an image of what Western culture is, and should be, was being forged – and we are all still the heirs of this work of historical self-consciousness. Both books are the product of many years of research – and both have been fundamentally affected by their gestation within the interdisciplinary milieu of the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group.

Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2011) by Dr Sadiah Qureshi is published by University of Chicago Press

Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity (2011) by Professor Simon Goldhill is published by Princeton University Press

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