Victorian, But Make it New

Emily Steinlight, Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English, is part of a scholarly collective for the 21st century.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

By Lauren Rebecca Thacker 

Emily Steinlight, Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English

What does it mean to study the Victorian era now? For Emily Steinlight, it’s considering how 21st-century challenges, interests, and perspectives influence and inform how scholars examine the 19th century.

“Take, for example, escalating social inequity or ecological damage,” she says. “What are the links to the Victorian era? It was the era of the Industrial Revolution and what we understand as industrial capitalism, and an era of massive imperial extraction of resources and labor on a global scale. Some of the essential economic, geopolitical, and environmental problems of the 21st century have roots in the 19th century, so that century’s forms of cultural expression have a lot to tell us in the present—and vice versa, I think.”

There’s a group of Victorianists interested in this “presentist” view of the 19th century: the V21 Collective. Steinlight, Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English, has been part of the group since it formed in early 2015.

“It started as a small group of scholars chatting at the 2014 Modern Language Association Convention and realizing we were interested in the same questions,” she explains. Some of the group distilled that conversation into a manifesto released online. “At a sort of inaugural symposium in 2015, organized by Anna Kornbluh (of UIC) and Benjamin Morgan (University of Chicago), we came together more formally. Since then, V21 has put together conference panels and roundtables, published special issues of journals, created online venues for collaboration and critical reflection on new work in the field, and pooled resources for teaching. But I think V21’s most successful effort, and my favorite thing we do, is the summer reading group.”

The summer reading group puts together a list of texts, organized around a relevant theme. Within each theme, Victorian texts are paired with contemporary works. So, for example, participants might read Matthew Arnold, who held the very Victorian title of Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools, alongside Kandice Chuh, a contemporary scholar of American Studies, aesthetics, and globalization, with the goal of talking about how the two define equality within the humanities and the contrasting ways they explain what aesthetics has to do with power.

The reading group is more than a list of suggested texts. Each month of the summer, participants meet for live discussions.

Steinlight hosts the Philadelphia-area meetups. “The summer is a great time for these events,” she says. “Often, it’s a time when people are really isolated in their own research, and the reading group brings us together into a community.”

The more flexible schedules that summer allows also creates the possibility for cross-institutional, cross-level conversations. The Philadelphia group, which meets in Fisher-Bennet Hall, includes students and faculty from Penn, Rutgers, Princeton, Villanova, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and University of Delaware.

Steinlight says the group chooses themes that let the 19th and 21st centuries speak to one another. For summer 2019, V21 chose readings around the themes of equality, the state, and the planet.

“Studying the Victorian era obliges us to contend with the state of the planet,” she says. “The 19th century, particularly when we’re talking about the British Isles, saw the invention of the steam engine, a boom in manufacturing, and new transportation technologies likewise powered by coal. That shift to fossil fuels with the rise of heavy industry in this era is one of the crucial turning points in climate history. Steam power meant a fundamental transformation of ecosystems and of the earth’s atmosphere along with drastic social transformation in work and lifeways. We’re still living in the world created by that transformation.

“From the vantage point of a literary scholar,” she goes on, “the very material we study is entwined with the Industrial Revolution. The volume of literary production increased rapidly. Pulp paper was mass produced, there were high-capacity printing presses, and books were distributed to sellers via coal-powered trains and steamships. In those very basic ways, Victorian literature is a product of the fossil fuel economy.

Meanwhile, Steinlight explains, literary texts are more than artifacts of that era of acceleration; they can also be illuminating as imaginative experiments in thinking on the scale of the planet. Reading with an eye toward climate change can mean, for instance, paying fresh attention to what Victorian novels are registering when they describe London fog. It can also mean reading with a different interest in all the ways a text makes or unmakes habitable worlds through narrative, and in the questions it provokes in doing so.

“For instance, one text we read for our session on the planet is the British Caribbean writer M. P. Shiel’s extremely weird late-Victorian novel, The Purple Cloud, a sort of last-man story about a toxic atmospheric event that causes global mass extinction,” Steinlight says. “It seems pretty topical now for obvious reasons, but reading it alongside Ben Morgan’s essay on decadent aesthetics as a form of ecological thought, and together with Kathyrn Yusoff’s recent work on race and the limits of the Anthropocene, also brings out larger questions that this novel raises for readers today.”

Steinlight lists some if the questions considered in light of V21 session on the plant: From what vantage point is it possible to imagine the end of the world—and whose or what world do we imagine as ending? What does it mean to have agency for planetary change on a longer timescale or wider spatial scale than one can perceive? What good and bad kinds of universalism do threats to global life call forth: does an emphasis on planetary crisis reveal common needs, or does it mask difference behind the illusion that everyone on earth is equally responsible for climate change and equally endangered by it? Are stories of sudden, cataclysmic events useful in making climate crisis more palpable, or do disaster plots distort what are really slower and more unevenly distributed forms of ecological harm that are already destroying lives in less obviously eventful or conventionally narratable ways?

She says, “Reading across periods frames questions about planetary scale that we’d be less ready to ask about these texts in isolation.”

V21 encourages dialogue, whether that’s through the in-person reading group meetings or online conversations. Online, scholars can participate in responsive book review forums and share syllabi to incorporate new ideas and reach students in different ways.

“We’re in a moment where people in literary studies can feel pressure to justify what we do,” Steinlight comments. “Without giving in to that pressure to instrumentalize the discipline, V21 is a space for developing a deeper understanding of why we study and teach the Victorian era today. It’s allowed for conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and I see it drawing new people to the field while also reaching outside it.”