Why the Victorians may understand us better than anyone in history

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

This week, Western hosts the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) annual conference, bringing in nearly 350 scholars from around the world together under the theme Victorian Classes and Classifications.

Established in 2002, NAVSA provides a continental forum for a discussion of the Victorian period, encourages a wide variety of theoretical and disciplinary approaches to the field and furthers the interests of scholars of the period. Its goal is to provide a more visible forum for Victorianists in the profession.

In celebration of this event, Western News sat down with English and Writing Studies professor Christopher Keep to discuss the continued fascination with the Victorians and why they may understand what we are going through better than anyone else in history.

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Why are we seemingly re-connecting with the Victorians again? What exactly happened?

Keep: People are coming back to the period now, more so than they had previously, because there is a sense the Victorians experienced the same kind of wonder and excitement, also the same sense of terror, when confronted by a substantial change in the ways by which they communicated and the amount of information that was being channeled through these modes of communications.

The steam-powered train. The telegraph. The telephone. The cinematograph. These were all new ways for people to communicate with one another.

Take the telegraph – this was a kind of Victorian Internet. It was a way for people, who weren’t physically before each other, to communicate in ‘real time.’ That introduced a whole new way of thinking about how communication could occur. The sense one could communicate mind-to-mind, rather than body-to-body or face-to-face, changed people’s attitudes toward one another.

And this was concrete change?

Keep: Yes. One of the distinctive things about the Victorian period – that perhaps differentiates it from our current period – is these new modes of technology did not dematerialize the world. Even something like a telegraph was still delivered to your door.

And when you think about the new modes of transportation, things like the steam-powered train, those things were physically imposing. They had a certain sense of magnitude that was impressive in its own right. One of the things appealing to people today, in an information-oriented world, is the physical substrate of activities seem to be disappearing, getting smaller and smaller as our iPhones are on the verge of disappearing into their thinness.

The Victorians, by contrast, experienced a world that was substantial, that was physical, that engaged them emotionally and physically in these new modes of communications.

You see this play out somewhat in things like the steam punk movement, correct? It’s a real longing for stuff.

Keep: Steam punk is fascinating because it is a way of imagining a technologically oriented world, driven by computer technology, yet it is also a world that has a ‘thinginess’ to it. There is physicality, a certain kind of substantiality that forces us to rethink the world outside of this immateriality we experience today.

It forces us to think outside ‘The Cloud,’ so to speak.

Keep: Exactly. The Cloud is a perfect instance where all of our books, all our records, all our DVDs are on the verge of disappearing into that Cloud. Our technologies are encouraging us to offload the thinginess of our lives so we can live in these perfectly unburdened existences of pure mind.

The Victorians experienced something that is almost the full reverse. Their lives became increasing crowded – with paper, with machines, with technological apparatuses that they acquired and begin to clump up in the world.

And this longing for ‘thinginess’ is playing out today?

Keep: One of the obvious ways is the fascination people have now with typewriters. People are going back to their typewriters, playing with them again, even developing applications to turn their tablets into proto-typewriters.

Why is that? The typewriter gave you instantaneous biofeedback – you hit the keys, it made a sound and then a physical impression on the paper. You had this sense of connection between your thinking and the act of communication. There was a loop. We have lost that now. Our technologies see our thoughts disappearing into that Cloud, and people are trying to compensate for that, for example, through apps on iPads that introduce a click each time you press a key. It gives that satisfying sense of a body relation to our expressions.

Perhaps more than anywhere, the Victorians seem to be dominating popular culture currently.

Keep: Look at all the Sherlock Holmes franchises. Right now, there are three versions – one in feature films, one on the BBC and one on American television. That’s an awful lot of Holmes out there in the world. So what’s the appeal?

The Holmesian world offers the figure of the detective as a version of the new forensic scientists, somebody who can read the thinginess of the world and still, somehow, disinter from it some kind of order and meaning that escapes us. Because there are the Holmeses of the world, who can somehow see things we cannot, there is a comfort to us to know there are people who can make sense of this world which seems increasingly opaque and complex.

The pop culture side seems healthy, but what is the state of the academic side of the discipline?

Keep: Our association (NAVSA) has added 200 members each year since it began. We’re now up to 1,200 members. And that’s a lot, a lot of academics pursuing a single field of study. And the fact it is growing, particularly while other fields in the arts and humanities are experiencing certain types of pressures, whereas the Victorians seem to multiply in numbers, it speaks to the way people are drawn to the field and to the vitality of the field in the university. These courses are getting taught; the books are getting read. And people want to read these books, otherwise, I don’t think you would see the same sense of vibrancy around the field.

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JOIN THE CONFERENCE. The public is invited to attend keynote lectures from two internationally known Victorianists. Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art and Director of Graduate Studies at Yale University, will present In Search of An English Folk: Art and Music c. 1900 at 4:30 p.m. today at The London Hilton, 300 King Street. Dame Gillian Beer, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature Emeritus at the University of Cambridge, will present Are you animal – or vegetable – or mineral?’ Alice and Others at 5 p.m. Saturday.