Beginnings and Endings

When does the time period that includes “Victorian Literature” begin? I like the idea of 1837-1901 because it’s sufficiently arbitrary in terms of historical grounding. Saying that a certain type of literature can begin or end with any sort of definition violates, amongst other things, the terms set out at the end of the Grundrisse. Marx asks to think about not what makes a certain type of literature possible or not, rather why literature from another time still gives us a pleasure. Borrow that formulation from Marx, and ask what is pleasurable (to me and others) about using Victoria’s life as a way to mark out the contours of the period. I think Lukacs’ claim that the form of the novel is the biography is really telling–it’s the way we give order to an otherwise anarchic ensemble of phenomena. So we have something like David Copperfield, becoming himself in some sort of Aristotlean entelchy or something like that.

But how do we square this with the fact that so many of the poets and essayist saw themselves living in a period that, far from being holistic or bound by a single life, is defined precisely by transition. We can obviously look to Mill, Carlyle and other for various terms: the dynamic and the mechanic, the natural and the transitional, the subject and the objective, etc… And we’re thinking in these non-fictional, non-biogrpahical registers, I’d say that we have to go with Hobsbawm: 1789-1914. That’s a huge range, but i think it is what EBB is refering to when she says “the full-veined, double-breasted Age” that demolishes all boundaries…these boundaries include the life of Victoria.

 

When does Modernism begin? One needs to decide between finding a particular historical event, a rupture, a break AND finding the moment when people become conscious of that break. So someone like Roger Shattuck argues that the twentieth-century starts 15 year too early with the death of Victor Hugo…or we can take Virginia Woolf’s assertion in Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Brown:

And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that in or about December, 1910, human character changed.

I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.

What date is more important: 1924 or 1910? She concludes her essay by saying that “we are on the verge of great moment in English Literature.” Which is the more important verge? I’m inclined to say the latter, but I think 1922 might be a more appropriate date (and August 4, 1914 might be more appropriate than December 1910 as well…but Woolf is aware that is earlier date is arbitrary- “Let us agree,” she writes)…for obvious reasons. As for endings, well, I agree with Jameson: modernism is always already post-modernism, so….

 

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