Victoriographies, 1.1 (2011): 36–50
The contested values associated with the term ‘Victorian’ call for fresh and informed consideration in the light of far-reaching changes brought about by the global economic downturn. Victorian writers engaged with public questions that were often associated with the issues we must now address, and their vigorously contentious responses reflect a drive to influence a wide audience with their ideas. Fiction of the period, including the sensation novels of the 1860s, provide telling examples of these developments in mid-Victorian writing; but non- fictional texts, including those of the philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill and the critic John Ruskin, also question the foundations of social thought. As they challenged traditional genre boundaries through the innovative forms that emerged across a range of diverse works, many Victorian authors argued for closer links between the discourses of emotion and those of logic. These are difficult times for researchers and critics, but the stringencies we find ourselves confronting can provide opportunities to create connections of the kind that the Victorians chose to make, bringing together different genres of writing and disciplines of thought, and arguing for a more generous understanding of our responsibilities towards each other.
The term ‘Victorian’ has a complicated history. The tendency to self-examination which characterises the period is famously defined by John Stuart Mill in his 1831 essay on ‘The Spirit of the Age: ‘The idea of comparing one’s own age with former ages, or with our notion of those which are yet to come, had occurred to philosophers; but never before was itself the dominant idea of any age’ (Mill xxii.228). Nevertheless, Victorians were not much inclined to use the word ‘Victorian’ of themselves, and its currency emerged rather slowly in the second half of the nineteenth century. Since its first appearance as a category in literary history in the American critic Edmund Clarence Stedman’s pioneering Victorian poets (1875), scholars have disputed its range of reference, and some doubt whether it retains any real value at all.