James R. Kincaid, professor of English at USC and author of Annoying the Victorians (Routledge, 1995), and Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (Routledge, 1992).
"The most rattling new books for students of Victorian studies are not in Victorian studies (obedient, competent, confirmatory), but sneak in from a lawless territory outside. Two studies not content with being one more muffin in the cook-off: Hide and Seek: The Child Between Psychoanalysis and Fiction, by Virginia Blum (Illinois, 1995), and Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient in Nineteenth-Century British Culture, by Barry Milligan (Virginia, 1995). Blum brilliantly exposes the way that Victorian/modern fantasy, 'the child,' has been made to serve so many needs and stand for so many 'truths.' And Milligan has a wonderful time smoking up social values, power, sexuality, and historiography in his analysis of opium trading, taking, and talking."
Gertrude Himmelfarb, author of The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (Knopf, 1995), and many newspaper editorials on the pertinence of Victorian culture to contemporary politics.
"In the welter of Victoriana this season, two books are likely to receive less attention than they deserve. Bernard Semmel's George Eliot and the Politics of National Inheritance (Oxford, 1994) is a subtle and persuasive study of the idea of inheritance in Eliot's novels--inheritance in the literal sense of property and in the metaphoric one of tradition. In establishing the link between the two, Semmel makes an important statement about the enduring power of national sentiment that is as relevant to our own culture as it is to that of Victorian England. Claudia Nelson's Invisible Men: Fatherhood in Victorian Periodicals, 18501910 (Georgia, 1995) is a refreshing corrective to the stereotypical view of the oppressive Victorian paterfamilias and his submissive wife. Neither stereotype corresponded to the reality. The book is especially interesting (although the author scrupulously avoids any present-day references) in view of our own concerns about sexual differentiation and the fatherless family today."
Carol Mavor, professor of art history at the University of North Carolina and author of Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs (Duke, 1995).
Mavor savors books "that actually perform desire--rather than just talking about it in that bloodless, hairless, bodiless, fatless, smell-less voice of Ivory soap academ-ease. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture, by James R. Kincaid (Routledge, 1992) hits its readers right in the gut (among other places) by beating out how we empty the image of the child--only apparently innocent and asexual--in order to concoct little, beautiful, angelic androgynes for today's diet of morality-conspicuous consumption. He also compares the Victorian child to our own simultaneously pure and perverse pedes: the Coppertone girl, Shirley Temple, Ricky Schroeder, and Brooke Shields."
Peter Stansky, professor of history at Stanford; author of Redesigning the World: William Morris, the 1880s, and the Arts and Crafts (Princeton, 1985), and "On or About December 1910": Early Bloomsbury and Its Intimate World (Harvard, 1996).
Stansky admits that business history might not seem the most intriguing subject in the world. But he's fascinated by William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain, by Charles Harvey and Jon Press (Manchester University Press, 1991), which "succeeds with a minimum of charts and a maximum of human insight in showing how Morris could be both a socialist and a shrewd businessman. He tried to change the look of the world, as well as destroy capitalism, using the money he earned from the system to do so. Morris, it turns out, hated Queen Victoria (whom he called the Widow Guelph), not only for her politics but because she was a business rival, with her own tapestry works."
Sally Mitchell, professor of English and women's studies at Temple, editor of Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia (Garland, 1988) and author of The New Girl: Girls' Culture in England, 18801915 (Columbia, 1995).
"Judith Walkowitz's City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago, 1992) provocatively argues that it was journalists in the 1880s who first distilled what we think we know today about strangers, dark streets, and urban danger. The book is a model analysis of the way narrative convention shapes historical fact. In Kate Flint's The Woman Reader, 18371914 (Clarendon, 1993), with more than 500 entries in its bibliography, the meat is in the specifics: details on the reading of servants and suffragettes; why French novels were forbidden; the border between high culture and women's culture. And then a stunning breakthrough to the next generation of research is the easily searchable CD-ROM Palmer's Index to the Times, 17901905 (Chadwyck-Healey, 1994-1995)--I just wish Temple's library had the money to buy it."
Timothy Alborn, assistant professor of history and social studies at Harvard and author of Conceiving Companies: Joint-Stock Politics in Victorian England (forthcoming).
It's a best-of-times-worst-of-times kind of thing for Victorian studies these days, claims Alborn. The plus side: "Scholars are really moving beyond their fields' respective canons to forge fascinating new inquiries about class, language, and power," says Alborn. The minus side: "Paradoxically, by and large these interdisciplinary scholars don't seem to be talking to people outside their discipline. I'm always trying to get historians to read literary critic Christopher Herbert's Culture and Anomie: Ethnographic Imagination in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, 1991), which talks about how the various theories of 'culture' that emerged in the nineteenth century were as much about the theorists' frail sense of self as anything else. And too few literary critics seem to know about historian Patrick Joyce's Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1848-1914 (Cambridge, 1991), which is a difficult but ultimately very rewarding book about the importance of dialect and collective memory in tracing the limits of 'class' in nineteenth-century Britain."
Martha Vicinus, chair of the English department at the University of Michigan, is co-editor of Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (Meridian, 1990) and author of Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 18501920 (Chicago, 1985).
Vicinus has been reading up on nineteenth-century gay and lesbian life for a study she is just now finishing. She especially likes The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture, by Terry Castle (Columbia, 1993): "I think it's a wonderful combination of superb research and an inventive mind. Castle's main argument is that rather than there being a scarcity of lesbians in this period, there is in fact a plenitude of them. What happens is that they're 'ghosted' out of narratives. I also like Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism, by Richard Dellamora (North Carolina, 1990). It's largely about the Greek tradition and how it functioned as a code among the literary and university elite of England; both men and women could talk about homosexuality by saying, 'Have you read this? Do you like that?'"
Patrick Brantlinger, professor of English at Indiana University, former editor of Victorian Studies, and author of Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 18301914 (Cornell, 1988).
Brantlinger says that to understand nineteenth-century England, you have to include its former colonies. And Edward W. Said wrote the book. His Culture and Imperialism (Knopf, 1993) sets the standard for arguing "how even 'domestic,' seemingly apolitical writers like Jane Austen were influenced by empire." Just as striking, says Brantlinger, is the argument of Gauri Viswanathan, in Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (Columbia, 1989): that "the study of English literature itself was first institutionalized in India as a means of ideological control (the standard fare in British schools remained the Latin and Greek classics for half a century longer)."
Michael Mason, professor of history at University College London; and author of The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes (Oxford, 1995).
"Books on nineteenth-century sexuality tend to be either studies of what was said about sex, or studies of what was done sexually. There is a regrettable gulf between the two. Françoise Barret-Ducrocq's Love in the Time of Victoria (Verso, 1991) is immensely valuable as an endeavor to set comment and practice side by side. She reviews the contemporary cliches about working-class sex, illegitimacy, etc., and then asks how far they are borne out by the archives of the London Foundling Hospital. The answer is: Not very far." Mason also admires The Predicaments of Love (Pluto Press, 1992), by J. Miriam Benn. This book, Mason says, brilliantly reconstructs the neglected life of one George Drysdale, whose 1855 underground best-seller, Elements of Social Science, "was a massively bolstered argument on behalf of unrestrained sexual activity by all individuals, male and female, from puberty onwards."
Nina Auerbach, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Our Vampires, Ourselves (Chicago, 1995).
We reached Auerbach at Mohonk Mountain House, a Victorian-style resort in New Paltz, New York. "There's a book that I just finished last night that I'd just love to plug: Rosemarie Bodenheimer's The Real Life Of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction (Cornell, 1994). It's a critical book in which Eliot's letters and novels become one unit. Bodenheimer reads the letters as semi-public statements, and the novels as private, autobiographical statements. And she talks about very unusual topics: for example, Eliot's stepsons and her rather cruel use of them. It's a very cynical book, but I like it. It's really well written, and there's no jargon. Now I have to go. I want to go swimming in the lake."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.