The Art and Science of Victorian History

Rosemary Jann



pp. 6x9

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The historical, Rosemary Jann reminds us, was the common coin of the nineteenth century, the currency of its most characteristic art, and the security for its most significant intellectual transactions. Defenders of absolutes, whether rational or religious, learned to use history as an asset and not a liability; and uneasy relativists found some compensation in its didactic value. Rival ideologies competed for its sanctions. Poets and scientists looked to it for inspiration.

The Victorians plundered the past for the raw stuff of imagination, and shaped what they found to their own political, social, and aesthetic ends. The explanatory value of the biological, the developmental, and the narrative made the historical method the preeminent paradigm of their age. It asserted its authority over both science and social science, and became the “philosophical” way of understanding national as well as personal identity. For Victorians, learning to harness what Wilfred Ward characterized as the “Time-spirit of the Nineteenth Century” was the best way to escape being driven by it. Professor Jann argues that works of history illuminate most fully the strategies essential to the nineteenth century’s conquest of time. They are documents central to both the philosophical and literary dimensions of the Victorian mind. Standing at the intersection of its two ways of knowing, the rational and the imaginative, they perfectly reflect both that conflation of the scientific, the historical, and the philosophical so characteristic of Victorian thought, and that didactic use of the imagined real that was central to its art.

In examining the ways in which Victorian historiography fulfilled specific needs for its society, Dr. Jann consults the work of six historians: Thomas Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Babington Macaulay, James Anthony Froude, John Richard Green, and Edward Augustus Freeman. Each of them, she finds, built his public role on a private, essentially Romantic, attachment to the past. But though they recognized the importance of imagination to historical reconstruction, all understood and accepted the new standard of thoroughness and critical analysis demanded of the historian who would establish his facts on a “scientific” basis.

Ultimately, however, the responsibility of the “literary” historian to shape, to judge, and to justify was incompatible with the kind of detachment and induction mandated by professional history; for his primary obligation was, after all, not to his facts, but to his function and purpose as a teacher. The object of the “literary” historian was not history for its own sake, but for the sake of a wider society in increasing the even desperate need of guidance and reassurance. When, therefore, emerging professional began to shift their allegiance from the needs of the general audience to the demands of their peers, they seemed to be repudiating a vital cultural function. It is to measuring fully the dimensions of that function that this remarkable book is addressed.

Rosemary Jann is Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University.